Book Review: The Bright Ages

(Note to readers: I haven't had much time for writing technical deep-dives lately, but I thought I'd publish some book reviews to keep the blog alive.)

The Bright Ages

The general gist behind The Bright Ages is something like: "Medieval Europe wasn't as bad as you think." Which begs the question: how bad do "you" (I guess "I" in this situation) think things were in the Middle Ages?

I've read a few books that cover medieval history (and watched the best documentary on the period, Game of Thrones), and my preconceptions of Medieval Europe before reading The Bright Ages were something like:

  • Life was generally unpleasant and dangerous for the vast majority of people, especially those who weren't part of the nobility (although I didn't have a great sense of whether things got better or worse for the "average Joe" after the fall of Rome or how much they improved after the Renaissance).
  • Western Europe (and specifically Western Europe, not the surrounding world) took a big step backwards in terms of math, philosophy, and engineering after the fall of the Roman Empire (but caught up during the Renaissance).
  • The Byzantine Empire was weird—it was a continuation of Roman society in a lot of ways, but it's hard to get a sense of how it compared to its neighbors in terms of technology or political power.
  • In general, Medieval Western Europe just wasn't a particularly relevant place in the grand scheme of things, at least compared to various Islamic and Asian empires of the time.

After reading The Bright Ages–well, I can't say any of my impressions have changed, mostly because the authors didn't seem all that interested in those topics. As with any revisionist history, the authors are arguing against something, but sometimes it's hard to know what unless you're immersed in specific academic squabbles (which I definitely am not in this case).

From my best inference, they're trying to debunk ideas like:

  • The Fall of Rome was a cataclysmic collapse where barbarians instantly overran "civilization".
  • There was very little worthwhile art created during the Middle Ages.
  • Women and religious minorities had less power and/or were treated worse than in other time periods.
  • Europeans of the time were insular and small-minded and didn't know anything about the outside world.

I didn't really have those preconceptions before reading the book, and most of their arguments either felt obvious or fell flat. Still, if you ignore the overall premise, The Bright Ages was an entertaining and informative (if somewhat lightweight) general history of the time period.

Digging into some specific themes:

Medieval Art—Was It All Worthless Junk?

Probably not! I never took an Art History class in college, so I think I've been spared some clichés about how the artists of the Italian Renaissance took a giant leap forward from the primitive scribblings of their medieval forebears. But from what I gather, variations on that theme are fairly commonly-held notions in the academic art world.

The authors clearly take issue with that view, extolling the virtues of medieval artworks in Ravenna, Norway, Paris, and Toledo, and they don't have to work hard to convince me! I'm in no way an Art History buff, but it seems strange that there's even a debate about how "good" medieval art is—I thought most people consider Notre-Dame to be one of Europe's greatest masterpieces? Reading between the lines, I'd guess the trashing of medieval art (which started in the Renaissance and has seemingly gone on ever since) was probably the biggest motivation behind The Bright Ages.

The defense of medieval art was the most successful aspect of the book for me, but maybe that's because I had few preconceptions on my way in (other than generally enjoying Gothic architecture as a tourist).

Did Rome Actually Fall?

On the seventeenth page of the introduction the authors drop this bombshell:

We're going to start by following the travels, wiles, victories, and tragedies of Galla Placidia to offer a simple reframing of the fifth century under one premise: Rome did not fall.

A spicy take! I thought maybe the book would end up "reframing the Middle Ages from the perspective of Byzantium/the Eastern Roman Empire" or something edgy like that. (I'd actually like to read that book!)

But alas, their actual arguments were pretty underwhelming: there was some communication between Byzantium and Rome; the Goths who sacked Rome wanted to call themselves "Roman"; the Pope was a source of continuity to the Western Roman Empire; Charlemagne ended up taking the title of Roman Emperor; etc. Summarized:

We have to remember that Rome as "empire" changed, but it had always been changing. Change was part of the story from the very beginning. Its centers of power moved. Its spheres of influence fragmented, coalesced, and fragmented again. The idea that Rome "fell," on the other hand, relies upon a conception of homogeneity—of historical stasis.

This is a bit like saying "The Beatles never really broke up because tribute bands still exist to this day." I'm no expert, but it seems obvious that the Roman Empire of Constantine had a lot more in common with the Roman Empire of Augustus then it did with the "Roman Empire" of Charlemagne (politically, at least). Even the basic form of the argument is bizarre—did the Incan Empire just "change and shift" when the Spanish conquered it?

(Brad DeLong has a much more thorough refutation of the "continuous Roman Empire" idea.)

Were Things Really That Bad for Women?

The book really goes off the rails when the trying to defend the status of women in the Middle Ages. The authors talk about how Vikings had relative parity between sexes because there were Viking warriors who were women—exactly one paragraph after saying that rape and sexual slavery were common, and ritualized murder of girls also happened from time to time!

Elsewhere the authors discuss Eleanor of Aquitaine and Hildegard von Bingen, who happen to be two of the only medieval women I'd heard of in advance. (I did learn more about Hildegard von Bingen; I thought of her primarily as a composer and didn't realize she had some political influence as well.) Pointing to two women with power over a thousand-year time span does not make a compelling case that things were great for women overall.

How About Everyone Else?

The authors barely even try to make the case that life wasn't generally terrible for most of the population, especially Jews and other religious minorities. To the extent that they do, it's often by pointing to relative tolerance under Islamic rule, which just strengthened my preconceptions that Medieval Europe was pretty backward compared to its neighbors.

Roads Not Taken

Reading The Bright Ages, I found myself craving more big picture comparisons of Medieval Europe to other time periods and societies. It's pretty obvious that life was terrible for women and religious minorities in the Middle Ages, but was it really worse than under the Roman Empire? Did things improve in the Renaissance? I honestly have no idea. The authors drop a few hints that maybe "the Renaissance was much worse than you think" (which might have been a more interesting book), but there's nothing like a coherent argument.

Which is to say nothing of economic output, mathematical knowledge, engineering capabilities, or basically anything involving a number—there's virtually no discussion of that in the entire book. I'd really like to know the story behind this, for instance:

Was Europe before the age of colonialism more economically dynamic than I thought? I guess I'll have to read a different book to find out.


If you're looking for a balanced big-picture history of the Middle Ages, this definitely isn't it! But it's a well-written exposition of some of the "nicer parts" of Medieval European history, along with semi-contrarian recountings of classics like the Crusades and the Age of the Vikings, so still worth a read overall.