With the third year of the pandemic looming, David Moscrop went searching desperately for a hobby – a search that ended when he started looking at his bookshelves in a new way. This launches a new recurring column in which he pulls together reading lists built around specific themes and then drags them into the real world through food, drink, video games and film. For his first one, he decided to begin at the beginning (or at least, the middle).
The medieval world follows us like a tail. It’s always there. Behind us, sometimes forgotten, but a part of us. But what if we’ve misunderstood that time? What if we took the old, familiar, historically inaccurate conception of “the dark ages” and turned it on its head? What if, instead, we saw the light? In The Bright Ages: A New History of Medieval Europe (HarperCollins, 2021), Matthew Gabriele and David M. Perry do just that.
Beginning in the fifth century and making their way to the Black Death in the 14th century, the authors offer a reinterpretation of roughly 1,000 years of history as one of continuity, diversity and innovation. Alongside these frames ride religious heterodoxy; the movement of people and goods; extraordinary leaders, both men and women; the rise and fall of states; the waxing and waning of commercial fortunes; and, of course, the coming and going of war and peace. If these markers of the past seem reminiscent of our own ways of living, that’s because they are.
As Gabriele and Perry summarize the medieval world, “There were also, just as now, people who limited debate, prosecuted thought crimes, repressed freedom, and killed people who were different from them. The Bright Ages stand out as a pivotal place and time in history because they contain all the multitudes of possibility inherent in humanity. ” In that spirit, they also point out the risk of mobilizing the past for nefarious ends, such as white supremacists who look back at an oversimplified, torqued version of the past to frame their own crusade. Gabriele and Perry’s new look at an old time is welcome. Especially now.
For those who agree and are willing to look beyond abridged accounts of history, eager to push back against a reframing of the past for contemporary strategic ends, there are deep dives into the Middle Ages. For most readers, few if any will be better than Susan Wise Bauer’s The History of the Medieval World: From the Conversion of Constantine to the First Crusade (Norton, 2010). At more than 700 pages, notes and index included, the volume traces and connects a complex time period that is far more globally contiguous than you might think.
Broken into short chapters, punctuated by maps and timelines, and ecumenical in its treatment of places and faces, Bauer’s effort reads well alongside The Bright Ages. It echoes a more charitable yet uncompromising assessment of a time we all seem to think we know more about than we do. Of course, it’s easy to understand why we think we understand the medieval era, when we often do not. Our popular culture is filled with fictional recreations and reinterpretations of the time. We flock to the material: novels, televisions shows, films and video games. Some of the appeal is obvious and understandable: It’s the cultural equivalent of salt, fat and sugar. Cheap and easy. Violence. Intrigue. Mead. The stuff sells itself. But the success of some hits is trickier to understand.
In 1980, medievalist and semiotician Umberto Eco’s debut novel The Name of the Rose (Harcourt, 1983) became a smash hit. To date, the book has reportedly sold more than 50 million copies. It’s a history tome and text on medieval theology disguised as a murder mystery. Or vice versa. The premise is simple. Monks are meeting an untimely, gruesome end at a monastery in northern Italy. It’s 1327. Brother William of Baskerville, a sort of monkish Sherlock Holmes, and his amanuensis Adso of Melk, are on the case. At the same time, tensions between religious orders parallel a struggle between the pope and the emperor. The book toggles back and forth between the heart pounding pace of a potboiler and the plodding, pedantic exactness of a Socratic dialogue. Somehow, it really works. And it holds up, too.
For anyone interested in diving deeper into an era that’s become part of the cosmic background noise of our lives, The Bright Ages, The History of the Medieval World, and The Name of the Rose make for a compelling, if unexpected, trilogy. If you’re particularly keen to get into the theme, you may also wish to take up tapestry.
Food and drink: If you’re reading about the Middle Ages in the depths of winter or the early spring, stews are all but compulsory. I went with carbonnade flamande and stoemp, hefty Belgian dishes that can be adjusted to some dietary constraints and preferences, but not all. If you’re particularly ambitious, you can go for cassoulet. Let it simmer while you read. A Belgian ale (you can not go wrong with St. Bernardus Abt 12) or mead will serve as a welcome companion.
Film: The greatest medieval film ever is the 1968 drama The Lion in Winter. Starring Peter O’Toole, Katharine Hepburn, Anthony Hopkins (in his debut) and Timothy Dalton, the movie is an adaptation of James Goldman’s play of the same name. Every line is quotable. It pairs well with a Belgian ale or mead.
Gaming: With a 10th anniversary edition recently released, The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim Anniversary Edition is jam packed with content, giving an infinitely replayable game even more life. Plus, there’s a recent PlayStation 5 release. While set in a fantasy world, the game has clear medieval inspirations. For those who wish to go the extra mile, check out the The Elder Scrolls: The Official Cookbook (Insight Editions, 2019) by Chelsea Monroe-Cassel.
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