Sunday, December 12, 2021

Matthew Gabriele and David Perry's "The Bright Ages"

Matthew Gabriele is a professor of medieval studies and chair of the department of religion and culture at Virginia Tech. He is the author of the book An Empire of Memory: The Legend of Charlemagne, the Franks, and Jerusalem before the First Crusade, many articles on medieval Europe and the memory of the Middle Ages, and has edited several academic volumes.

David Perry is a journalist, medieval historian, and senior academic advisor in the history department at the University of Minnesota. He was formerly a professor of history at Dominican University. Perry is the author of Sacred Plunder: Venice and the Aftermath of the Fourth Crusade, and his writing on history, disability, politics, parenting, and other topics has appeared in the New York Times, the Washington Post, the Nation, the Atlantic, and, among others.

They applied the “Page 99 Test” to their new book, The Bright Ages: A New History of Medieval Europe, and reported the following:
From page 99:
[The Vikings] traded with the Byzantines and Khazarars, but sometimes went into the region around the Caspian Sea, exchanging their ships for camels, and using those camels to bring their goods on the long journey to Baghdad, where enslaved eunuchs… interpreted for them. These camel-riding Vikings would pretend to be Christian, so as to pay a lesser tax than polytheists….

[But] one of the most disturbing elements of Ibn Fadlan’s encounter [with the Vikings] is his description of the ritual burial of a Rus leader, which focuses on an enslaved girl being drugged, serially raped by the elite men of the group, and then ritually murdered on a ship, next to her master.
In some ways, we couldn’t ask for a better encapsulation of the message of our book. The Bright Ages is about the messiness of history in the European Middle Ages, how people in the past were capable of both wonder and horror - and you see that here in our Chapter 7, with the Vikings.

As the first part of the above quotations shows, they were prodigious travelers who crossed the Atlantic, traded across the Mediterranean, and rode camels all the way into the Islamic Abbasid capital of Baghdad. We have ample sources, such as Ibn Fadlan’s account mentioned above, to explain how and why this all happened. The Vikings are, as we emphasize throughout our book, one example of how medieval Europe was fundamentally permeable - how the peoples within it moved and crossed what we consider today to be such rigid “borders.”

But then the second part of the quotation shows the other side of the coin. The Vikings were a slave society, one built upon violence and human trafficking. A large part of their travel was accompanied by (or predicated upon) raiding, upon suddenly appearing off the coast of settlements, attacking and killing, taking the wealth for their own, and enslaving the survivors (primarily women) to either keep or sell to enrich themselves. For centuries, these raids terrorized most of Europe.

The Bright Ages is about both sides of the coin, about burning back the myth of the “dark ages” with fire. But fire consumes even as it illuminates, destroys even as it protects. Our subjects lived in color and we aim to understand the full spectrum of their humanity - both good and bad.
Visit David M. Perry's website and Matthew Gabriele's website.

--Marshal Zeringue