The Bright Ages
eBook - ePub

The Bright Ages

A New History of Medieval Europe

Matthew Gabriele,David M. Perry

  1. 320 páginas
  2. English
  3. ePUB (apto para móviles)
  4. Disponible en iOS y Android
eBook - ePub

The Bright Ages

A New History of Medieval Europe

Matthew Gabriele,David M. Perry

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"The beauty and levity that Perry and Gabriele have captured in this book are what I think will help it to become a standard text for general audiences for years to come…. The Bright Ages is a rare thing—a nuanced historical work that almost anyone can enjoy reading."— Slate

"Incandescent and ultimately intoxicating." — The Boston Globe

A lively and magisterial popular history that refutes common misperceptions of the European Middle Ages, showing the beauty and communion that flourished alongside the dark brutality—a brilliant reflection of humanity itself.

The word "medieval" conjures images of the "Dark Ages"—centuries of ignorance, superstition, stasis, savagery, and poor hygiene. But the myth of darkness obscures the truth; this was a remarkable period in human history. The Bright Ages recasts the European Middle Ages for what it was, capturing this 1, 000-year era in all its complexity and fundamental humanity, bringing to light both its beauty and its horrors.

The Bright Ages takes us through ten centuries and crisscrosses Europe and the Mediterranean, Asia and Africa, revisiting familiar people and events with new light cast upon them. We look with fresh eyes on the Fall of Rome, Charlemagne, the Vikings, the Crusades, and the Black Death, but also to the multi-religious experience of Iberia, the rise of Byzantium, and the genius of Hildegard and the power of queens. We begin under a blanket of golden stars constructed by an empress with Germanic, Roman, Spanish, Byzantine, and Christian bloodlines and end nearly 1, 000 years later with the poet Dante—inspired by that same twinkling celestial canopy—writing an epic saga of heaven and hell that endures as a masterpiece of literature today.

The Bright Ages reminds us just how permeable our manmade borders have always been and of what possible worlds the past has always made available to us. The Middle Ages may have been a world "lit only by fire" but it was one whose torches illuminated the magnificent rose windows of cathedrals, even as they stoked the pyres of accused heretics.

The Bright Ages contains an 8-page color insert.

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Chapter 1

Shimmering Stars on the Adriatic
Let’s head back to the chapel of the empress Galla Placidia in Ravenna, built in the fifth century, and remembered today as a mausoleum even though she was never buried there. Though this is now changing, the empress doesn’t always figure in histories told about this period except sometimes regarding when she held power as regent for her son, with the focus often revolving instead around the men, blood, and battles. But if we reframe our view around this woman and this space, we see a very different “beginning” to the European Middle Ages—one in which Rome doesn’t fall.
The small enclosed space of the mausoleum embodies the continuation of Roman sacred, artistic, political, and technical culture as the empire transitioned into a new—and indeed different—Christian age. The mausoleum’s dedicatee moved across the Mediterranean world: was born in Constantinople, then moved to Italy as a young girl, and from there to France and Spain, back to Italy, to Constantinople, and finally again to Italy. In the city of Ravenna, she took command of the whole of the Western Roman Empire in 423 CE, ruling in the name of her young son. In doing so, she was as much a ruler of Rome as any person from the past five centuries, man or woman (women had, of course, always played in the Roman games of factions, power, and thrones). When she died in 450, she did so in an empire in peril and in transition, but a peril not necessarily different in kind or degree from what had befallen the empire before. In Rome, there had always been factional strife. There had always been external threats. There had always been a permeable world that spanned thousands of miles, one that engendered beauty, that revealed tenderness, and that at the same time demonstrated an almost limitless capacity for violence.
Why do the stars of Galla Placidia’s mausoleum shine so brightly in this quiet, gentle space in Ravenna? The answer reflects the genius of fifth-century artists. A field of golden, tightly packed stars graces the highest part of the ceiling (the vault), but below, a second field of flower-like stars float in another celestial array of lapis blue glass. For the viewer, the brilliantly red, gold, and white patterns play on the eye like a kaleidoscope. Bands of darker colors trick the eye into seeing movement in the static glass. Walls of brilliant alabaster intensify the light, whether from the sun or flickering candles, making the gold itself seem like the source of the radiating light. The floor is artificially raised, drawing the viewer closer to the ceiling, intensifying the magical effect. Ancient sacred spaces across the Mediterranean world—both polytheistic and Jewish—had long relied on the manipulation of light and depictions of the sky to bring earth and heaven together in the gaze and mind of the viewer. This continued into Galla’s Christian centuries. For the devout, this juxtaposition could become conjunction, bringing heaven and earth together, making the two feel both real and immediate to the viewer.
But what of Rome and the empire? Since at least the fourteenth century, but arguably since Galla Placidia’s lifetime itself, the political, social, and religious turmoil of the 400s has enabled arguments about the fall of Rome. It’s true that in 410, a large group of soldiers under the command of the Gothic general and tribal chief Alaric, many of whom traced their lineage to Germanic peoples who had recently crossed into Roman territory, sacked Rome. It’s also true that in 476, the military leader Odoacer would depose Romulus Augustulus, the Western Roman emperor at the time, and not bother to take the title for himself. It would seem that the empire in the West ended then.
Taken together, these two moments have often been presented as the end of one thing and the beginning of another. The famous bishop Augustine of Hippo, an earlier contemporary of Galla Placidia, had dedicated the entire first book of his mammoth City of God to explaining the violence visited against the city of Rome in 410. He was sure of two things: that it was absolutely not the Christians’ fault, and that something had changed definitively. In modernity, that narrative was picked up again most famously in Edward Gibbon’s eighteenth-century The History of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire and finds itself repeated (with, of course, some nuance) to this day. These are foundational moments of the so-called Fall of Rome and beginning of the Dark Ages.
But it’s more complicated than that.
In 476, Odoacer did indeed depose one Roman emperor, but when he did so, he presented himself as a client to the other Roman emperor, in Constantinople, thus in a sense reuniting the Eastern and Western Roman empires once more under a single ruler in Asia Minor. And that precedent was followed. For centuries thereafter, leaders in Western Europe found ways to assert political legitimacy through ties to the still very much alive Roman Empire in the eastern Mediterranean. There was never a moment in the next thousand years in which at least one European or Mediterranean ruler didn’t claim political legitimacy through a credible connection to the empire of the Romans, all the way back to Augustus. Usually, more than one ruler made equally credible assertions of “Romanness” (Romanitas), even as the precise nature of the connections might vary widely. What’s more, even medieval peoples who might not have thought of themselves as governed in any meaningful way by a Roman emperor still found themselves entangled in cultural and social norms (especially via Christianity) that depended for their shape on a Roman imperial legacy.
Moreover, Rome itself as a city remained important for elites in the region even though power centers had by then moved to Ravenna and Constantinople. In part, we’re talking about an ideological connection, one enhanced by nostalgia and the need for political legitimacy, drawing lines all the way back to the legendary founders of Rome, Romulus and Remus. But it was more temporal as well, the city still being a location of social and cultural production throughout this period, and one in which elite Roman women, in particular, played critical roles in the city’s governance and power structures. This brings us back to Galla Placidia and her canopy of brilliant stars.
Galla ruled the Western Roman Empire for her young son Valentinian from 425 to 437, when he turned eighteen and became emperor in his own right. Her seat of power was Ravenna, a city that had become capital of the Western Roman Empire only in 402, when Galla’s half brother, Emperor Honorius (who reigned from 393 to 423), moved it there from Milan. The idea behind the move was that the easy access to the eastern Mediterranean from the Adriatic coast would enable more cohesion among the rulers of the empire, while the marshy ground surrounding the city would protect it from invasion. When Galla ruled there, she seems to have built a magnificent sacred complex of which only the small cross-shaped chapel remains, and which tradition rather than evidence has labeled her mausoleum. Still, even as she ran an empire from that city on the east coast of Italy, she never lost her belief in Rome’s primacy, in its continuity.
Toward the end of her life, around 450, Galla wrote letters to her niece and nephew in Constantinople, Emperor Theodosius II (reigned 416–450), and his sister Pulcheria. Galla acted like a stern aunt, chastising them on how they had neglected their religion, telling them to get their acts together, because (she felt) the Christian church in the eastern Mediterranean was in shambles. On the other hand, she said that she and her son Emperor Valentinian III (reigned 425–455), had been treated very nicely by the bishop of Rome, Pope Leo I (440–461). Leo had himself greeted Galla and her party “on our very arrival in the ancient city,” and informed her that church disputes in the eastern Mediterranean were threatening the empire’s support for Christianity that stretched back to Constantine. Something had to be done. So she wrote her letter—a letter that, at its core, asserted her status, referring to herself as “most pious and prosperous, perpetual Augusta and mother,” contrasting the order and antiquity of Rome with the more jumbled events of the newfangled Constantinople.
The solution was to listen to the bishop of Rome (i.e., Leo), since Saint Peter “first adorned the primacy [and] was deemed worthy to receive the keys of heaven.” She lightly chided her august relatives, “It becomes us in all things to maintain the respect due to this great city, which is the mistress of all the earth; and this too we must most carefully provide that what in former times our house guarded seem not in our day to be infringed.” In other words, even here in the middle of the fifth century, even decades after the city’s “sack” by the Goths, she easily asserted that Rome was the center of the Christian religion. Rome was the center of the empire. The East should be more deferential to its elders in the West.
GALLA PLACIDIA’S VISIT TO ROME NEAR 450 was not her first, as she’d been there many times during her six decades of life, including once around 410, at the moment when Visigoths besieged the city, sacked it, departed, returned, perhaps sacked it again, then took Galla herself as a prisoner of war.
Her fellow Christians were of two minds about the fate of Rome. The Church Father Jerome thought it was very, very bad. Writing to correspondents in Italy from around Jerusalem, in the Roman province of Palestine, he described the events of 410—from his vantage point of well over a thousand miles away—as a calamity, saying, “The capital of the Roman Empire is swallowed up in one tremendous fire; and there is no part of the earth where Romans are not in exile.”
But others were more sanguine. Augustine in his City of God pointed out that this wasn’t the first time Rome had been subjected to internal or external violence. Augustine had an agenda, of course. He wanted to exonerate Christianity because the religion was being blamed by polytheists for the violence of 410. So he noted that this sack was hardly an unusual calamity—and certainly not an empire-ending cataclysm—in the city’s long history. Augustine (and later his influential student Orosius) wrote that a whole “cloud of gods” had protected Rome during the pagan era, yet both fires and fighting had ravaged the city frequently. The city of man was one of discord and strife. Rome—neither city nor empire—wasn’t any different.
But historians are situated in their own context, and Jerome and Augustine were no different. In their cases, we need to see that context in order to understand what really may have happened—or perhaps better, what it meant. To contemporaries, Jerome positioned himself as a monk, someone who renounced the world to worry more about spiritual matters. His screed about the devastation of the attack on Rome came in the middle of a letter to a correspondent about whether or not a daughter should marry. His portrayal of Rome’s plight had to do with frightening his friend (the letter’s recipient) into letting his daughter become a nun in order to save her from sexual violence (and link up with Jerome’s ascetic ideals). Augustine was a bishop, a role in the Middle Ages that was just as much an administrative as a spiritual position. As such, he was taking a much longer view, placing one event within the grand sweep of sacred history that stretched out to eternity. But at the same time, he wanted to make sure his flock, his fellow Romans, didn’t panic. None of this, of course, means that we should summarily dismiss their work, but we must surely move beyond the writings of Church Fathers and their theological goals to assess the rise and falls of empires. We can consider other evidence.
So let’s start with the Goths. Who were these people who sacked Rome in 410? The story of massive “barbarian” invasions springing from nowhere, like so many other tales of collapse blamed on external forces, must be pushed gently into a more complex story of mass migration, accommodation, and change. Germans—a loose term indicating many different groups of people connected by language, religious, and cultural similarities—and other peoples from northern and eastern Europe, and from northwestern and central Asia, had been crossing Roman borders back and forth for centuries. Sometimes they came as raiders, sometimes they joined up as allied troops, often they came as trading partners, and, especially beginning in the later 300s, they came as refugees. A famine broke out in the 370s as a large group of Gothic peoples crossed into eastern Europe (mostly into the Roman province of Thracia, in the Balkans). The Roman officials who were supposed to help the refugees instead forced them into camps and starved them. In some cases, the Goths had to sell their children into slavery in exchange for dog meat just to survive (according to the historian Ammianus Marcellinus, at least). If these stories are true, it’s no wonder the Goths seized the first opportunity they had to fight back.
It’s easy and understandable to focus on the brutal war that followed, which included the famed battle of Adrianople in 378, which the Goths won, somewhat to everyone’s surprise, even killing the Roman emperor Valens. But the subsequent peace is just as significant. The Goths struck a deal with Valens’s successor, Emperor Theodosius I, and settled en masse throughout southeastern Europe, effectively becoming Roman themselves over the course of a generation or two, even serving in legions throughout the empire. But internal Roman power struggles once again intervened and led the Goths, now known as “Western” or “Visi”-goths under the leadership of Alaric, to take to the field of battle in Italy against the Roman empire in the west.
The military and diplomatic exploits, blunders, alliances, betrayals, last-minute rescues, and narrow-minded stubbornness that led to three sieges and ultimately the conquest and plundering of Rome in 410 are the stuff of legends. Alaric battled Stilicho, the general (a Germanic half-Vandal himself) who led other German forces that made up the bulk of the Roman army. Later, Alaric allied with Stilicho. After that, Emperor Honorius I (Galla Placidia’s brother) executed Stilicho, his son, and the families of many of his soldiers. The remaining Roman soldiers fled to Alaric, leaving him with an undefeatable army in the field. And even through all that, as the Visigothic general laid siege to Rome, he kept suing for peace.
The point wasn’t that Alaric didn’t think he would win if he were to march on the city of Rome; instead, he may have feared just the opposite—that he would win. He didn’t necessarily want to press the war to that particular conclusion. He, a Goth leading an army composed primarily of other Romanized German peoples, may well have thought himself as standing in the shadow of Roman generals from the past who faced the powerful taboo—even amid the many civil wars that plagued Roman history—against bringing troops into the sacred city. In other words, he thought of himself as a Roman. Rome continued, and so he wanted to restore his alliance—albeit with himself in a dominant position—with the great empire.
But the campaign did continue and he did sack Rome. There the Goths found Galla Placidia in residence, where she remained throughout the war, playing a central role in the defense of the city. She was the wedge that broke the alliance between her brother Emperor Honorius and his general Stilicho when Galla had Serena, Stilicho’s wife and Galla’s cousin, accused of conspiring with the Goths, probably falsely, then had Serena strangled to death. Galla throughout was an agent in her own story, a power to be reckoned with in her own right.
She survived the initial sack of the city in 410, but when Alaric died soon after of natural causes, the new Gothic leader, Athaulf (411–415), seems to have returned to Rome and taken Galla Placidia as a prisoner of war (our sources are a little fuzzy on how it all played out, but they are clear that Galla ended up with Athaulf). But Athaulf soon left Italy, heading into southern France and then across the Pyrenees to Iberia, and we know that in 414 Galla and Athaulf were married. She wore silk. He gave her spoils taken from Rome as a wedding gift.
It’s easy to get distracted by Galla Placidia’s relationship with powerful men and to see her as a mere object in the game of thrones. We can’t, for example, know whether she willingly married Athaulf, but diplomatic marriages were common for elite Romans of all genders, and given her role in subverting Stilicho’s position in the emperor’s war against the Goths, it wouldn’t be out of the question to suggest she worked with her brother to settle the Gothic war once and for all. Indeed, what we do know is that their marriage is not a sign of the destruction of the Roman Empire, but rather signals the desire of the Goths to be Roman and the willingness of Romans to marry Germanic “invaders,” to merge a regime legitimated by conquest with the legacy of Roman imperial rule.
Jordanes, a bureaucrat in Constantinople of Gothic origin (because again, Germanic peoples working in the Roman Empire was normal), writing a history of the Goths in 550, describes the marriage by writing, “Athaulf was attracted [to Galla Placidia] by her nobility, beauty, and chaste purity, and so he took her to wife in lawful marriage at Forum Julii, a city of Aemilia. When the barbarians learned of this alliance, they were the more terrified, since the Empire and the Goths now seemed to be made one.” Jordanes was perhaps overeager in declaring Gothic-Roman unity based on this one marriage, as the Italian peninsula would be the site of warfare for centuries to come, but just the fact of this statement demonstrates how clearly he and his fellow officials in the eastern Roman Mediterranean did not see the movement of Germanic peoples as evidence of collapse. Groups of people came and went in the Roman Empire, seeking office and status. Often, they preserved elements of their own identities without challenging their equal sense of being Roman.
In any event, Galla’s marriage was short-lived. She and her husband moved to Spain, began setting up a new Roman-aligned state, and had a son named Theodosius—thus giving a proper Roman imperial name to the son of a Gothic king. The child died within the year of natural causes, though, and was buried in a silver coffin in a church outside the walls of Barcelona. Then, the next year, Athaulf was murdered in the bathtub by an angry servant. Athaulf’s brother Sigeric, wanting to rid the area of rivals, ordered Galla to walk from Barcelona out of Spain, but before that could happen he, too, was murdered, by another Visigoth named Wallia. Wallia then negotiated a truce with Rome that included Galla’s return to Italy. She did return and by 417 had married the Western Empire’s leading general, Constantius. They very quickly had more children—a daughter, Honoria, and a son named Valentinian. By 421, Galla’s fortunes...


  1. Cover
  2. Title Page
  3. Dedication
  4. Contents
  5. Selected Key Locations
  6. Introduction: The Bright Ages
  7. Chapter 1: Shimmering Stars on the Adriatic
  8. Chapter 2: The Gleaming Tiles of the New Rome
  9. Chapter 3: Dawn in Jerusalem
  10. Chapter 4: A Golden Hen and the Walls of Rome
  11. Chapter 5: Sunlight on a Northern Field
  12. Chapter 6: A Towering Ivory Tusk
  13. Chapter 7: A Ship Aflame on the Volga
  14. Chapter 8: A Golden Girl in France
  15. Chapter 9: The Brilliant Jewels of the Heavenly Jerusalem
  16. Chapter 10: The Sun-Dappled Towers in a City of Three Religions
  17. Chapter 11: Divine Light Reflecting Off the Nile
  18. Chapter 12: A Radiant White Hind with the Antlers of a Stag
  19. Chapter 13: Cities on Fire
  20. Chapter 14: Stained Glass and the Smell of Burning Books
  21. Chapter 15: Glistening Snow on the Eastern Steppe
  22. Chapter 16: Quiet Candles and Falling Stars
  23. Chapter 17: Stars Above an Octagonal Dome
  24. Epilogue: The Dark Ages
  25. Acknowledgments
  26. Further Reading
  27. Index
  28. Photo Section
  29. About the Authors
  30. Copyright
  31. About the Publisher