The Bright Ages: A New History of Medieval Europe
Matthew Gabriele and David Perry
2021, Harper

To understand racism and misogyny — or any kind of thing-ness — and the violence entrained in these ideas, you must understand the history of the Middle Ages, what we pejoratively label the Dark Ages and what Matthew Gabriele and David Perry have renamed The Bright Ages. Gabriele and Perry have focused a light on this very long period that constitutes most of European history. In contrast to the traditional narrative of isolated barbarians, civilizational collapse and one dimensional world views, their history is one of continuity and complexity. Theirs is an inclusive tale, showing that, yes, in fact there were people other than a few white men in positions of power and influence. It is an engaging story, one that is a delight to read. But more importantly they have given us a version of history that finally feels like it might be relevant to the wide world of our sensory experience. This is a narrative of our roots that might truly show us something of ourselves, without the dimming veil of the beliefs of self-absorbed elites.

We can almost lay the creation of the “dark ages” out of the medieval period at the feet of Petrarch for his lionizing of the Classical past and demonizing all that came after. In one of the most successful propaganda campaigns of all times, he named his own current place and time the Renaissance, the “rebirth”. All that came between this rebirth and Classical times — the original “birth” of civilization in his mind — became a millennia of darkness, superstition and irrationality. His labels, created largely in the service of fourteenth century Florentine politics, consciously erased centuries of history in which there was continual engagement with classical art and ideas as well as ancient vernacular traditions — all of which he, himself, relied upon in order to make his claims. To authenticate a Florentine right to primacy, Petrarch created the idea that all that came before was inferior. To promote Florentine elites, he demoted everything else, invalidating any historical narratives that did not lead to those elites. He narrowed history to a thin line between two points, eliminating not only all the wide space that fell outside of his singular focus but also all that sprang from that outside space — which included, among other groups, all women. As Gabriele and Perry relate:

The historian Joan Kelly famously asked, thinking about the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries, “Did women have a renaissance?” She ultimately said no, because it mattered what criteria you were using to judge that supposed “rebirth”. If you actually paid attention to women, their lives notably worsened as we move toward 1500.

The problem with this idea of “a renaissance” is that, in focusing on a small segment of history, the rest of the period — the entire world outside of elite men and their doings — is relegated to a “dark age” oblivion. It renders history into discontinuous and isolated snapshots that have no context and thus make no logical sense. Within this narrowed gaze, we can learn very little about humanity or history. We can’t even know much of those elites when they are taken out of their contextual world. We can’t answer basic questions even about those in focus — how did they view their world? who was included? what did they value and what did they despise? — much less fill in all the the blurred portions. Petrarch and others who seek to shine a spotlight on those bits of history that further their own political aims essentially create darkness out of all the rest. A dark age is a deviously self-fulfilling label.

Petrarch and his Renaissance contemporaries might have put down the foundation for this idea that the middle age, the medieval, in-between period, was lost time; but Gabriele and Perry tell us that the Enlightenment of the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries “built the house in which we still live”. The Enlightenment was largely a project aimed at explaining how European elites came to be in power and why this ought to be so. Their explanations began with these assumptions of rightness, of fitness, of superiority — superiority over the contemporary world that they wished to rule, yes, but also over the past to show they had that right to power. To justify their position, they needed to be better than any alternative, and since there were plenty of people in their time who remembered prior alternatives and clearly didn’t feel that centralized power in the hands of a few white male property owners was an improvement, Enlightenment thinkers needed to radically change perceptions. They needed to categorically redefine all the ideas that did not fit their narrative as backward superstition. Those who did not agree with the Enlightenment distribution of power and wealth were labeled reactionary and irrational, enemies of progress. (Does this sound familiar?) Enlightenment thinkers made of history a vast, brooding dark age that was in want of the light of salvation, which, miraculously enough, came at the hands of those very people who held power. (Imagine…)

That framing — light over dark — was not abstract symbolism. It was embodied, intentionally chosen to privilege the white skin of the ruling class over people they wished to control and exploit. Lightness was a useful metaphor that papered over and made pretty the ugly inherent racism and misogyny in their world view. This value system made it easy to erase the contributions and stories from people who did not look or think like Enlightenment elites — all those of dark skin (which, conveniently for them, included most of the people in the world) and all those of dark mind (into which bin they sorted all women and those of any religion or culture that did not fit with their political and economic aims).

In effect, Enlightenment thinkers en-darkened the world, particularly the past. Their project occluded real history, hiding peoples, ideas, and large swaths of time and space from awareness, so that to even see what preceded the sixteenth century is a task of large scale re-visioning. The true history of the medieval period was not a few white men struggling through a morass of darkness — well, of course, not! Common sense should tell us that women, Asians, Africans, perhaps even Native Americans; people who followed the religions of Islam, Buddhism, Judaism, or, indeed, other Christianities, plus all the infinite spiritual systems that lay outside the imperial religions, both within and without Europe; people who spoke and thought in other languages, such as Arabic, Turkish, Hebrew, and the non-elite languages of Europe — all these peoples were part of medieval history, just as they are part of the contemporary world. And these were not merely bit players, supporting cast to the great white men of textbook history, but people who were and remain central to events and ideas. However, to justify power over others you must place those others beneath you, and so these people needed to be relegated to darkness, darkness of skin and darkness of soul.

So it seems that the Enlightenment was anything but that. Enlightenment thought was created specifically in support of an economic program of exploitation, theft, and extraction of wealth from a world of things. It was made to demarcate a line between right and wrong, with right defined solely as the wants of European elites. It was created to en-darken and occlude the real historical narrative — and with that most of the contemporary world.

Gabriele and Perry tell us that “in alliance with the ‘scientific’ study of the past, Enlightenment thinkers valorized racism, the international slave trade, and colonialism.” They used a new geopolitical label — the West — to invent and circumscribe “a common heritage that explained why white men ought to rule the world”. This newly minted Western civilization told a story of an unbroken bloodline of rectitude and virtue that stretched from Greece to Rome to the Germanic peoples to the Renaissance to the Reformation to the contemporary white world. The times and places outside this tidy linear view of the world were aberrations, fouled by superstition and wrong-thinking, but most of all by inferior people, non-human Others who did not even merit the name of human.

By around 1900, European leaders commonly buttressed their political designs by referring back to the Middle Ages very much in the manner that Petrarch intended with his ‘dark age’. The medieval past justified “contemporary colonial ambitions and political pretensions”. This usable past was and remains a “virulently racist usable past, often associated with acts of nationalistic aggression and the development of society-wide bias”. And nothing in this culture has been untouched by this false narrative. “Twentieth-century scholars often participated in this work, willingly constructing national narratives that engaged — and often supported — these colonial ideas.”

However, these “colonial ideas” were actually a narrow subset of those involved in the actual colonial project. These were the winning ideas, those espoused by the socio-economic group that came out on top of the sixteenth and seventeenth struggles for ascendancy — the capitalist class. This class was small relative even to the elites of their day. In fact, this group excluded many of those who wielded power going into the Enlightenment, because those who governed or represented a common realm, those who ruled diverse peoples and geographic regions, those who had some responsibility to pubic welfare (if for no other reason than to keep one’s head on one’s shoulders), have always been at odds with the intensely private aims of the capitalists.

Notably, property-owning ideals are not in accord with any group that favors humanitarianism and general welfare, which, of course, includes nearly all religious bodies. This is ironic since Enlightenment ideas are often presented in opposition to the presumed oppressive bigotry of religious dogma. As the story goes, the Enlightenment was the liberating light of truth vanquishing the moralizing superstition of, in particular, the Roman Catholic Church. And yes, the history of the Church is riddled with Othering, though as Gabriele and Perry are at pains to point out, it is not as exclusive an impulse as the Dark Age narrative would have us believe. There has been acceptance and understanding as much as there has been discord and enmity. (This, too, is common sense. An isolated Church that spent history fulminating against the entire world would not have survived for millennia, no matter divine favor. But this is not a lesson that the Enlightenment thinkers and their latter day descendants have ever learned…)

However, the actual story might be the exact inverse. As we’ve seen, Enlightenment ideas were created specifically to privilege one tiny group and subjugate the rest of the world, indeed to denature the rest of the world, to make things of living beings. To be sure, the Catholic Church has inflicted its share of misery on the world — but religion has nothing on capitalism for oppression and bigotry. These are the pillars of the land-owning project. On this, Gabriele and Perry relate an illuminating story.

In the year 1550 in the kingdom of Castile, the crown held a debate to determine the nature of the native inhabitants of the Americas. On the one side was the landowner view that the Spanish conquerors had almost unlimited scope in the New World because, following Aristotle, the natives were “barbarians” and as such had no rights. Indeed, conquest, pacification and forced conversion to European civilization and religion were not merely justified but were necessary. On the other hand, arguments put forth by Dominican friar Bartolomé de las Casas, claimed that American Natives — like Muslims and Jews living in Europe — were entitled to live peacefully in their own life-ways. As humans they had the native right to unmolested personhood, regardless of their religion or blood. Moreover, forced conversion would do nothing to bring salvation to the Indians and would very likely damn the souls of Spanish enforcers into the bargain.

This debate was left unsettled. Though nominally de las Casas won better treatment for Native Americans in his day, in the long term the landowners’ ideas rolled over any humanitarian impulse toward those they sought to displace in the New World. More importantly, moving deeper into the sixteenth century and the colonial project, Aristotle’s ideas of “barbarism” saturated European thought, justifying horrific violence of all kinds, both abroad and on European soil, turning any common sense notion of natural right completely upside-down.

This was, Gabriele and Perry say, in essence a debate about medieval vs. modern, about religion vs. secularism. And notice that the secularists — the self-proclaimed rationalists who used the language of Aristotle and natural law — were those who advocated colonization and domination, oppression and extreme violence; whereas the voice of peace and tolerance came from the medieval religious world view, the supposedly “dark age” cast of mind. In other words, those we typically name humanists were busily stripping humanity from all who were not white men, while those we normally associate with patriarchal repression were arguing for liberalism. The authors show that this debate represents the triumph of modernity, a Bright Ages now in perennial eclipse — all the complexity and possibility of the medieval world collapsed into this singular narrative of capitalist “progress” and the primacy of whiteness.

We have inverted darkness and light, and today we live with the legacy of this inversion in our own dark age. White supremacists still turn to this imagined medieval European narrative to find the roots of their twisted ideas of race, to find stories of a “lost” masculinity, and to validate the need to shed blood. Gabriele and Perry warn us that “Wherever you find white supremacists, you’ll find medievalism, and you’ll almost always find murder.”

But, they say, this problem is not merely one of a-historicity. It’s more that we have created a complete void at our roots.

The particular darkness of the Dark Ages suggests emptiness, a blank, almost limitless space into which we can place our modern preoccupations, whether positive or negative. The Dark Ages are, depending on the audience, both backward and progressive, both a period to abhor and one emulate. It is used as whatever one wants, as a “justification” and “explanation” for those ideas and actions because they supposedly go back so far in time. … Simplistic comparisons to the past do violence not just to their time but to ours. … we excuse ourselves from trying to really understand…

So filling this void, solidifying this nebulous darkness, shining light on what has been hidden — this is what we must do to understand where we come from and who we are now. This is also what we must do to see potential futures.

The past, if anything, shows us possible worlds, the roads not taken as well as those that were. We hope a better-illuminated, if not always happier, narrative of the medieval past, one that makes both the realities and the possibilities more visible, will also reveal more pathways before us in our own modern world.

Teaser photo credit: By Petar Milošević – Own work, CC BY-SA 4.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=97313612