The Bright Ages: A New History of Medieval Europe, by Matthew Gabriel and David M. Perry, (HarperCollins: 2021), 336 pages.
Around the year 849, a group of Byzantine monks paid a young woman to accuse the Patriarch of Constantinople, Methodius I, of seducing her. His defense ought to be studied by every law student on the planet. At his trial, Methodius lifted his robes, triumphantly exposing himself to the court. They gasped. The Primate’s manhood was shriveled almost beyond recognition.
Methodius explained that, as a young priest, he’d asked St. Peter to save him from lustful urges. St. Peter obliged, and the result was now plain for the whole Empire to see. The Primate was acquitted and eventually canonized. The monks were excommunicated.
No story, in my opinion, better captures the medieval “thing.” The Middle Ages are full of magical, mystical happenings. We all know the bit in the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle where dragons appear in England, a portent of the Viking invasion in which “heathen men made lamentable havoc in the church of God in Holy-island, by rapine and slaughter.” Still, Thronies may be disappointed by the dearth of dragons in medieval history. Withered genitalia is more usual.
That’s why we love the Middle Ages. That’s what makes John Julius Norwich’s facts more enchanting than George R. R. Martin’s fiction. It’s so plausible. Even the miracles are a little pedestrian. You hardly notice them at all. It’s as if they were commonplace in medieval Europe. And who knows? Maybe they were.
Whether you believe in miracles or not, one thing is clear. A history of the Middle Ages may be anything but boring. At least I thought so until I read Matthew Gabriele and David M. Perry’s new study The Bright Ages: A New History of Medieval Europe.
Most of what makes the book so tedious is the book’s political agenda. And to be fair, the authors are upfront about that agenda. They wrote The Bright Ages, they explain, because medievalism is bound up with ultraconservative politics. “Sometimes symbols of the Middle Ages are used approvingly by the far right,” they write, “emblazoned on shields in Virginia, fluttering on flags as the U.S. Capitol is stormed, or peppered across the screed of a mass murderer in New Zealand.”
The only way to cure these fifteen or twenty teenage boys of their delusion is to declare an all-out war on history. The authors state their opposition to “whiteness,” which they call “a modern idea with medieval roots.” The myth of whiteness is also used to prop up “the fiction of Europe and the invented concept of Western civilization.” In other words, white supremacism is wrong because white people haven’t done anything to be proud of. Actually, white people don’t even exist. Feel stupid yet, bigot?
Academics love to play these little word games. Meanwhile, the rest of us know that it’s okay to be proud of the achievements of one’s ancestors. Nobody really thinks I’m racist because I, Michael Warren Davis, have more of an affinity for the British Isles than I do for the Andean Mountains or the Great Steppe. But Gabriele and Perry make a truly heroic effort to defend their point. The authors say of these white supremacists, “They looked into both the medieval and classical European past and imagined they found white faces, like theirs, looking back at them. They were wrong about all of this.”
You’ll have to take my word for it, but there’s no context for this remark. The authors seem to be arguing that whiteness doesn’t exist because 10th century Europe was actually full of black people. If so, that would certainly take the wind out of the alt-right’s sails, though I’d really like to see their proof.
Over and over, this obsession with “debunking white nationalist myths” leads them to ridiculous, ahistorical conclusions. For instance, they recall how Pope Gregory the Great decided to launch his mission to England. According to the Venerable Bede, Gregory was strolling through the Roman slave markets when he saw a group of boys with fair skin and blonde hair being sold as chattel. He was shocked to learn that the boys were not Christians and immediately resolved to send missionaries to their homeland. Gabriele and Perry omit the part of the story where Gregory asks what their people are called: Angles. Gregory says the name is fitting since they’re as beautiful as angels. (You see what he did there.) Gregory sends a monk named Augustine to establish a new mission in England.
The authors declare: “This story is apocryphal, deeply unlikely to be true.” Well, no. It’s actually likely, even deeply likely, to be true. We know that English slaves were sold in Rome during Gregory’s reign. In fact, it’s unlikely that a pope would have encountered the Angles in any other way. As for the pun, Gregory probably wasn’t the first person to compare small children to angels and he certainly wasn’t the last.
Why, then, do the authors conclude that this story is deeply unlikely to be true? Why, because it may encourage racists, of course. According to the authors, the story of Gregory and the Angles is “a founding myth for white supremacist ideas about the past.” Well, let’s say this about that: First of all, you’re not going to find the Venerable Bede quoted in The Daily Stormer. Secondly, it isn’t a myth. It’s not even “apocryphal,” as Gabriele and Perry claim. Bede was a historian who was only one generation removed from Gregory I. He was surrounded by men who had known the missionary Augustine and perhaps even Gregory himself.
There’s no reason to doubt this story, unless you assume that Christians are pathological liars. And, indeed, Gabriele and Perry declare that in studying medieval history, “we must surely move beyond the writings of Church Fathers and their theological goals.” That’s not history. It’s sectarianism.
You’ll hardly be surprised to find that this bias doesn’t extend to Islam. Predictably, the authors are as mindlessly pro-Muslim as they are anti-Christian. But at least here the authors are subtle. For instance, they explain that “dhimmis (Arabic for non-Muslims living under Muslim rule) possessed specific rights, protections, and obligations.” That word “obligations” bears the brunt of the load.
Dhimmis were given the freedom to worship, but they had to do so virtually in secret. They were forced to pay an exorbitant tax rate—much higher than that paid by Muslims. They needed permission from Muslim authorities to repair their churches and synagogues, and were forbidden from building new ones. Their houses had to be smaller than Muslims’ houses, and they were forbidden from marrying Muslim women. They were forced to wear certain clothes, so as never to be confused with Muslims. They were forbidden from riding horses, camels, and sometimes even mules. Criticizing Islam or trying to convert Muslims was a capital offense. In court, the word of a dhimmi was worth less than that of a Muslim man.
It’s impossible that two men with PhDs in Medieval History could be ignorant of all this. Their decision to downplay dhimmitude is not only intentional but ideological. Seriously, imagine if a conservative historian said, “For black South Africans, apartheid brought specific rights, protections, and obligations.” We would call that dishonest and offensive. Yet, because Christians and Jews were the victims of dhimmitude, nobody really cares. Gabriele and Perry are free to twist the facts—and they know it.
Naturally, the authors also take up the thesis, which has now been embraced by most American educators, that Spain was lucky to be invaded by the Umayyad Caliphate in 711, and the only people who didn’t want to be colonized by Berbers and Arabs were racists. Unlike (say) the British settlements in North America, Muslims and people of color exploiting divisions among white Christians to colonize their lands is totally fine. In fact, it’s not even colonialism. According to Gabriele and Perry, the Umayyad are guilty of nothing more than “bringing closure to a civil war.” Really, they were doing the Spanish a favor! I wish I was making this up.
If that seems implausible to you, that’s because you’ve been brainwashed by Francisco Franco. According to the authors, support for the Reconquista—Spaniards fighting to reclaim Spain from their colonizers—was “mainstreamed” by “Spanish nationalism and contemporary Roman Catholic reactionism, and then embraced by Franco’s fascists just before World War II.” Gabriele and Perry continue: “According to Franco’s authoritarian nostalgia, just as medieval Christians fought against Islam, so he fought to retake the country once more, this time from republicans, anarchists, and Communists. Unsurprisingly, this framing remains prevalent to this day.”
Some may find it improbable that the U.S. education system has been unknowingly teaching Francoist propaganda. Did the Generalissimo send spies to infiltrate the history departments of American colleges? Did wealthy Spaniards with ties to Franco’s government quietly fund campus programs, the way China does today? Gabriele and Perry never say.
Then we have the Crusades. According to the authors, “we honestly don’t know—can never know—what was in Pope Urban II’s mind” when he called the First Crusade in 1096. The one thing we cannot say is that the Christians were “making a sober, militarily justified defensive action in response to an unprovoked attack.” Sorry to nitpick but, actually, that’s exactly what they were doing.
Gabriele and Perry note that when Caliph Omar took Jerusalem in 638, he issued a decree allowing toleration for non-Muslims. (At that point, the Holy City was full of Jews and Greek Christians.) True enough, but that still meant a life of dhimmitude for the locals in the best-case scenario. Rarely did the Muslim invaders comply with Omar’s orders. Christian villages were routinely sacked; their inhabitants slaughtered. On holy days like Easter, churches would be burned and worshippers killed. Whole convents full of nuns were raped and murdered. Few Westerners ever seem to wonder how Palestine, the Semitic homeland, came to be populated by Arabic Muslims. Well, that’s how.
And Jerusalem was only the beginning. In the 650s, the Rashidun Caliphate attacked the islands Cyprus, Cos, and Crete. In 653, a Rashidun general named Mu’awiya invaded Rhodes and destroyed the famed Colossus. Mu’awiya would soon become the first Umayyad caliph.
In 645, the Umayyads invaded Armenia. For a while, they allowed Armenian nobles to rule as their vassals. Then, in 705, the local Arab viceroy invited over a thousand of the country’s leading Christians to a meeting in Nakhichevan. The Armenians were locked inside and burned. The survivors were crucified. From then on, the Arabs ruled Armenia directly.
Six years after the massacre at Nakhichevan, the Umayyads invaded Spain.
In 827, the Aghlabid Emirate invaded Sicily. It took seventy years of fighting (and several massacres) to conquer the whole island.
In 840, the Aghlabid armies invaded mainland Italy. They took the cities of Taranto and Bari, sacked Capua, and occupied Benevento. They also raided Rome twice, once in 843 and again in 846.
In 870, the Aghlabids invaded Malta. The capital of Melite was besieged and its inhabitants slaughtered. The rest of the Maltese population was either killed or banished. For a hundred years, the island—now home to over 500,000 people—was deserted.
Then, beginning around the year 1070, Seljuk Turks massacred the populations of Jerusalem, Gaza, Tyre, and Jaffa. Within ten years, Muslims were officially barring Christians from entering Jerusalem. Bands of armed pilgrims would try to fight their way into the city, but those who weren’t killed by Muslim bandits along the way were butchered by Muslim soldiers.
We can be fairly confident that all of this “was in Pope Urban II’s mind” when he called the First Crusade. Those historians like Gabriele and Perry who act like Christians woke up one day and decided to commit genocide are lying, and they know it.
That’s not even the most egregious example of their irrational anti-Christian bias. One chapter of The Bright Ages is dedicated to praising the Vikings, presumably because the Vikings proper were not Christians. It’s true that past historians have wrongly characterized the Norse as bloodthirsty savages. But the grounds on which Gabriele and Perry choose to praise them are bizarre. After describing a Viking ritual in which slave girls were drugged, raped, and then set on fire, the authors declare: “Their society featured significant gender parity, at least in key parts of society. Their cities were vibrant hubs of mercantile exchange. Their men were extremely snazzy dressers.”
I wish it went without saying that nobody who drugs, rapes, and murders women believes in gender parity. Also, “mercantile exchange” is an odd euphemism for raiding and slave trading. But what really gets me is the line about Norsemen being snazzy dressers. This is one of the cardinal sins among modern historians like Gabriele and Perry. They absolutely refuse to take their subject seriously. The Vikings were history’s most ruthless warriors, and yet you’d think the authors were gossiping about characters in an HBO miniseries.
According to Gabriele and Perry, whereas the mass rapists of Scandinavia are proto-feminists, the Byzantines are woman-haters. Why? Because they subjected Empress Theodora (490–548) to “sexist and classist scorn.” Like her husband Justinian, Theodora was born a commoner. She worked as an actress, a trade associated with loose morals even in medieval Byzantium. Much of what contemporary critics wrote about her is vile—too vile to repeat here—and the reputation stuck. Despite being one of the most powerful women in Byzantine history (and a saint in the Orthodox Church), she’s still best remembered for her alleged wantonness. According to Gabriele and Perry, “the story of Theodora reminds us of the enduring power of patriarchal norms when it comes to depicting and attacking powerful women.”
I guess the obvious parallel in modern politics would be Melania Trump, a Slovenian ex-model who rose to prominence by securing an advantageous marriage. I searched the authors’ tweets to see if either of them had said anything about the former First Lady. Of course, they both had, and none of it was flattering. My favorite was Prof. Gabriele asking, “[Does] anyone else think Melania looks like Sherri Ann Cabot from Best in Show?” According to Wikipedia, “Sherri Ann Cabot is the plump, buxom, overly-made-up trophy wife of the elderly Leslie Ward Cabot, her sugar daddy.”
Now, I really don’t care about the tweet, and neither should you. But it goes to show how disingenuous Gabriele and Perry are.
Granted, just because Mrs. Trump’s critics often resort to sexist and classist insults, that doesn’t exempt her from serious criticism. But the same may be said of Theodora, who happened to live in an age when it was common for actresses to perform sex acts on stage and to moonlight as escorts. Not to speak ill of the dead, but one could easily believe the worst about her.
What’s more, virtually every historian agrees that she and her husband were poor rulers. Yes, the Code of Justinian is a triumph, and their reign saw Byzantine culture flourish. But just five years after taking the throne, a huge revolt broke out in Constantinople. The principal causes were the crushing taxes that Justinian and Theodora levied, especially on the poor, and systemic corruption in the royal bureaucracy. Known today as the Nika riots, it broke out during a sporting event, and ended with government mercenaries blocking the entrances to the stadium and butchering 30,000 civilians. Justinian wished to show mercy to the riots’ leaders, but Theodora insisted he make an example of them. The leaders were promptly executed; their bodies dumped in the sea.
To dismiss all of Theodora’s critics as classists and sexists is like saying the Syrian people only revolted against Assad because they didn’t like his mustache.
I could go on (and on and on) about all the strange, needless errors in this strange, needless book. But I’d rather not. Actually, I try to avoid writing negative book reviews. I only made an exception this time because, at some level, the authors must know this is a bad book.
The Bright Ages is the product of the modern university system, which prioritizes making money above everything else. Academics aren’t promoted for their ability to teach; it’s all based on their publication history. Professors like Gabriele and Perry pad their resumes by writing these “accessible” histories for big-name publishers like HarperCollins.
To stand out in a crowded field, they give their books ludicrous theses like There were no white people in medieval Europe, or high school history teachers are all secret Francoists. The theses can’t be supported by facts. But that doesn’t matter. The point of the book isn’t to inform. The point is to show that the author’s values are those of an 18-year-old middle-class white girl: the key demographic for college admissions departments. And what do white girls like? Sexy feminist Vikings.
Still, I don’t think Gabriele and Perry spent all those years working on their PhDs just so they could spread lies and slander about medieval Europeans. I wonder, when did they first fall in love with the Middle Ages? Maybe it was reading The Canterbury Tales in high school. Maybe it was a visit to Notre-Dame de Paris. Or maybe they played too much Age of Empires growing up, like me. Deep down they must be tired of burying their passion under mountains of politically correct nonsense. Part of them must want to share that love, not suffocate it.
There are thousands of talented scholars all over the country who are forced to adulterate their scholarship by pandering to braindead teenagers, so administrators can give themselves fat bonuses. Yes, that should make us angry. But we should feel pity more than anything else.
We deserve a better history of medieval Europe than The Bright Ages. We deserve better historians than Gabriele and Perry. And so do they.