So as I started Matthew Gabriele and David M. Perry’s The Bright Ages, it seemed to be a kind of “mythbusting” book—you know, all “hey, these aren’t the so-called Dark Ages you’re picturing, actually they were super-awesome times!”
And so when the book started out talking about the fall of Rome by basically denying that there was any such thing at all, real “you know, things are always changing all the time, but the Empire continued on in the East, and really it’s just more of an evolution than a fall” energy, I got a bad taste in my mouth. Because the authors of course know that there are elements of both continuity and catastrophe there, and to ignore one half of that (“What about Phocaean Red Slip ware and the decline in industrialized pottery production!” I shouted) to push hard on the other half feels like I’m getting a deliberately one-sided argument rather than an attempt to paint a different, but still fair picture.
So I went into the rest of the book with a kind of suspicious mindset, expecting it to be full of more Pollyanna-ish takes that would take a reasonable point and extend it too far in order to seem contrarian. But, as far as I can tell, it mostly wasn’t. After that initial annoying bit, it seemed to be playing fair.
Yes, it’s always living up to its title, looking on the bright side of things and working to combat the “time of darkness and ignorance and superstition” myth (which tbh has been so consistently and thoroughly combated that I legitimately wonder if anyone who would read this book actually believes it); but mostly it’s just doing a breezy tour of the greatest hits of the medieval period—Justinian! Charlemagne! Vikings! Crusades! Al-Andalus! Mongols! Plague!—and talking about them in a way that emphasizes the shared humanity and sophistication of the people involved.
As you’d expect from a survey that broad in a book this short (barely over 300 pages in print), these treatments are generally pretty basic. With pretty much any of the subjects here, if you’ve read so much as a single book on the topic, you’re not going to learn much, if anything, new. But if you haven’t, they’re quick, accessible little nuggets that’ll give you some solid context. Despite my initial reservations, this ends up being a lightly recommended book for anyone interesed in reading a breezy first book about the medieval period.