Last year in one of my Nonfiction November posts I featured a selection of books about the Middle Ages. One of which was Charles Warren Hollister’s Medieval Europe: A Short History. It’s been a favorite of mine for decades thanks to its straightforward approach and readable style. But my most lasting takeaway from this excellent book is the author’s firm denial a European-wide “Dark Ages” ruled the continent for a thousand years. The reality, Warren Hollister argued is a bit more complex. Over that long length of time some parts of Europe advanced economically and intellectually while others might have stagnated or even regressed. In the decade since I read Medieval Europe the more I’ve read about this period of history the more Warren Hollister’s claim rings true.
Looking for another decent book on the Middle Ages I recently borrowed a Kindle edition of Matthew Gabriele and David Perry’s late 2021 book The Bright Ages: A New History of Medieval Europe. They subscribe to a similar viewpoint. Europe did not spend a thousand years as some benighted peninsula at the extreme end of Eurasia, cut-off economically, culturally and intellectually from the rest of the world. Instead it was a vibrant, dynamic and well-connected continent, enriched mightily by even its most distant neighbors.
Traditionally, many felt the Dark Ages began with the Fall of Rome. As successive waves of barbarian hordes overran the Italian peninsula high culture came to an end. In reality, the Empire’s borders had been growing increasingly porous over the last several hundred years. Intermarriages involving Roman elites and their foreign counterparts were becoming commonplace. More and more foreign-born soldiers were rising up the ranks of an increasingly polyglot Roman army, with some even becoming generals. And when these invading groups did takeover, they adopted Roman customs and language and quickly converted to Christianity. (Or in the case of the Goths ditched Arianism for the era’s more orthodox Christianity.) Lastly, regardless of who happened to be running the show in Rome the Byzantines still saw themselves as Romans. Carrying on the legacy of Rome they soldiered on until their crushing defeat at the hands of the Turks in the mid 15th century.
Gabriele and Perry also challenge the notion of Europe’s distinctness vis-à-vis its Islamic neighbors. Both Christianity and Islam, along with Judaism aren’t just monotheistic religions. There are Abrahamic faiths, which comparatively speaking, share more similarities than differences. While Christian armies frequently fought Muslim armies during the Crusades and the Reconquista from time to time they fought as allies, both in the Middle East and Iberia. Intellectually, the writings of Islamic luminaries Ibn Sina (Avicenna) and Ibn Rushd, (Averroes) together with their Jewish counterpart Maimonides profoundly influenced European thought, especially the theology of Thomas Aquinas.
After the Mongols’ expansive conquests a well-maintained conduit was established across Eurasia, facilitating the transfer of goods and ideas between Europe and the Far East. Chinese silks flowed west, Catholic missionaries traveled east and a guy named Marco Polo captivated Europe with stories of his travels.
The Bright Ages, much like the above mentioned Medieval Europe is a straightforward, readable and fresh look at Europe’s Dark Ages which in reality, probably wasn’t all that dark.