The Bright Ages

A blue brocade fabric surrounds a parchment-looking rectangle that has title and author in a calligraphic typeface.

by Tony B.

The Bright Ages by Matthew Gabriele and David M. Perry tries to shed some metaphorical light into the historical era many have been taught to call “The Dark Ages.” Characterizing early medieval Europe as “Dark” is mostly a reference to the fall of Rome and the end of Pax Romana. The authors challenge that notion, as the Eastern Roman empire in Constantinople was still, at least to its inhabitants, Roman. This particular argument of The Bright Ages is its most well delivered, but from there, things get iffy.

So why Bright over Dark? It is really easy to consign the messier parts of European history – between Enlightenment highs and the idealized Classical – to a lesser status. Instead, by delving more intimately into Medieval lives, you can find the light of stained glass cathedrals, golden relics, and deep acts of charity, but also the hotter fires of politics, rebellion, and warfare. The goal should aim to examine both for a more nuanced, holistic view of an era.

However, The Bright Ages tends to be a bit cherry-picked for the particularly bright or positive aspects of Medieval society. While it is wonderful that examples delineate traditionally marginalized people showing agency and influence, they tend to be the exceptions that prove the rule and not indicative of a broader norm. The author’s favorite example, the remarkable life of Galla Placidia, was just that, remarkable, and not indicative of all medieval women’s sense of agency. This tendency for forced historiography pervades The Bright Ages, though the overall idea of challenging “The Dark Ages” is valid.

One of the book’s main positive points is that it challenges readers to rethink some of the knowledge we take for granted about Europe’s Medieval period. For instance, the early Medieval world was a lot more connected than many assume. As the authors point out, an elephant from the Congo Basin made its way to the court of Charlemagne in Aachen, Germany, as a gift from the Abbasid Caliph in Baghdad to the newly crowned Emperor of the Holy Roman Empire. However, the authors tend to skip over the bad that comes with the good, like the taking of war slaves or the horrors of the Crusades.

While it toes the line between academic and popular historical writing, the book did itself no favors by omitting notes and sources. Overall, The Bright Ages posits an interesting idea and is one of many voices challenging “The Dark Ages,” but it can be a bit incongruous and sparse on evidence.

Tony is a Customer Service Specialist at Elkridge Branch. He has a degree in history and a perpetual interest in Medieval Europe.

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