I was extremely pleased (to put it mildly) to have a chance to talk to David M. Perry, one of the authors of the brilliant new book The Bright Ages: A New History of Medieval Europe. I’m focusing on just a tiny part of what the book covers – it would be impossible to discuss all its themes.
David, my first stop at the British Museum is always the Sutton Hoo treasure. As an amateur historian of the period previously known as the dark ages, it has, to me, always represented the conundrum of the times for a researcher. It presents us with evidence of the interconnectedness of the world: the Sri Lankan garnets, the Byzantine silver, the lyre now suggested to share features with those of steppe cultures far to the east. The burial itself appears to follow traditions outside Christian practice: the ship itself, the grave goods—but some of those grave goods are specifically Christian. And at the same time, we don’t know for certain whose burial this is, because of the lack of written records.
In reading The Bright Ages, I was struck by something I hadn’t been able to articulate before, although it is important in my own fictional, alternative early-medieval world: the conception of places like Rome and Byzantium as cities of more than political importance, but occupying a space best described as sacred, or at least revered, in the mental geography of people who had (perhaps) never been there. The Byzantine silver in the 7th century Sutton Hoo burial would then be not just an offering to whatever gods there were to receive the dead king, but a direct and purposeful link to Byzantium as a concept. A connection to the holy. So, after that long-winded preamble, my first question is simply: is that a valid interpretation? Can you explain a bit further why or why not?
So in my formal academic career, I began as a historian not only of medieval Venice, but of narratives about the movement of objects (first relics, then other things) into and out of Venice, and the ways that people found and created meaning in things that came from elsewhere. People connect themselves in their current moment to places that are in fact far away, but are always present in their imaginary geography, through things (and through images, but often images of things!). I do think that the use of garnets, of Byzantine silver, of silks, of beautiful things from ELSEWHERE, and elsewheres associated with important positions in imaginary sacred geographies, is not an accident.
And in the places I know best, like high medieval Venice, or as in 6th-century Byzantium as we discuss in the book, or in the creation of Ste. Chapelle, again and again, we see that this re-ordering of the imaginary geography isn’t just something that happens, but something people do with great intention.
What interests me always is when people try to reorder the imagination but fail, because failures leave few records.
My first introduction to the intellectual exchange of ideas during early-medieval times came from reading about Alcuin of York. For readers who may not know much about him, to summarize, Alcuin, who lived about 100 years after the king buried at Sutton Hoo, was an 8th century scholar and teacher, educated at the cathedral of York. Sent to Rome on a diplomatic mission, on his way home he encountered Charlemagne, who persuaded Alcuin to join his group of scholars at Aachen, leading to the reformation of the palace school into a centre of learning, with methods and traditions derived from the schools of Greece and Rome.
Charlemagne, of course, is a hugely important and powerful figure, crowned by the Pope as Roman Emperor in 800. He had betrothed a daughter to the Byzantine heir at one point. Rome and Byzantium were far more than concepts to him; they were real places, centres of power as well as holiness. Can you speculate – or more than speculate – on the effect Alcuin’s reformation of the palace school might have had on Charlemagne’s self-concept and ambition, and his efforts to create, at Aachen, a mirror of Byzantium’s sacred and secular power in both physical (the cathedral and palace) and intellectual/spiritual form?
For this question, I had to turn to my Carolingianist colleague and co-author, Matt. He said, “I think this is a bit backwards in that Alcuin didn’t really create the palace school, Charlemagne did. Alcuin didn’t transform it so much as accelerate the transformation, but it wasn’t to ape the East; instead it was to ape the late Roman West – Theodosius, Constantine, etc. In other words, Alcuin was not – by a longshot – the only exceptional intellectual in the late 8th-century palace school. people like Theodoulf of Orleans or Paul the Dean who floated around the court were movers and shakers as well.”
(John Julian Norwich said ‘Most British people know practically nothing at all about French history.’ and this is an excellent example of me relying on entirely British sources for my idea of Alcuin. I’m glad to have it corrected, and it’s a good reminder to me to broaden my reading.)
Jumping forward nearly 500 years, to France in the 13th century, Chapter 14 of The Bright Ages tells us about Louis IX of France, and the role the Sainte-Chapelle chapel played in his centralization of both secular and sacred power. But an earlier church – Saint-Denis – also intentionally reimagined Paris – or at least this part of it – into a sacred space in which light is used with purpose and thought to shape and guide what is experienced: a ritual landscape where light represents the true light of Christianity.
The windows of Sainte-Chapelle tell the story of the Crown of Thorns’ travel from Jesus’s head to Constantinople to the king of France – a ‘translatio imperii’ – transfer of imperial power, as you explain. But this isn’t just a transfer of secular power, but of the implied approval and blessing of the Christian god. The Crown of Thorns creates a direct link between Jesus and Louis IX, giving him immense power beyond simply political.
This creation of a sacred, ritual landscape is nothing new: from the first cave paintings that move in flickering light, to the solstice-aligned bronze age monuments and the oculus in the Pantheon, people have consciously set about to create wonder and mystery linked to religious belief—and light. But it appears that in 12th and 13th century France, this was being done quite purposefully, in a way that to 21st century eyes looks almost clinical, like Disney designing an attraction to maximize gasps and awe (and pilgrims exiting through the gift shop?) Can you expand a little on this – is there a dichotomy here? And secondly, although this might need an entire book to answer, how did Abbot Suger know/learn to design such a ritualized, psychologically-influential landscape?)
This question ties directly in to your first, with Ste. Chappelle crafted as a way to try and create a new center of gravity for world (from the point of view of Louis IX and his supporters) by not just relocating the relics of the Passion, but installing them in grandeur, giving them a site from which to re-order the world. But you’re right, the place to understand how we reach here in 13th century France is to drop back a century and look at Abbot Suger.
The great historian of the topic is Erwin Panofsky, whose works not only contain the key translations of Suger, but also analysis of the Abbot. What’s amazing about Suger is not only that he built such glorious spaces, but that he articulated a theory of light and beauty, a viewer-response theory, that in gazing about the most glorious sights of earth, the viewer would be transported to the true glory of heaven. I read it – and of course I’m not alone – as neoplatonic in nature, or similar to how St. Augustine told medieval Christians to read scripture (starting at the words themselves, but using them to find one’s way to caritas, to love of God, reading for symbols as needed). Was it cynical? Well, Suger certainly had a political agenda in mind, but I’d be hard pressed to think of anyone working at the scale who didn’t. He wasn’t personally interested in luxury, as far as we know, but rather performatively lived in a simple bare monk’s cell, even as he covered the church in gold.
I grew up a lover of simplicity in sacred spaces. The bare white New England Church. The ruined monasteries in northern England. The writing of St. Francis. So it’s been important for me to immerse myself in the words of Suger in order to find the fully expressed counter theory as to why beauty matters as a pathway to the sacred.
For readers of this interview, I’d like to say there is much more to The Bright Ages than what I’ve focused on here: this was my choice of one small thread within the book to follow, because it’s of personal interest. David, is there anything else you’d like to highlight, either in the book’s content, or why you chose to write The Bright Ages at this particular point in history?
Every professional medievalist that we know sees the intense disconnect between the broad narrative of “the dark ages” and the actual period we study. We all push back against it in our classes, and hopefully most students who leave a medieval history class leave with more complex ideas. But sadly not everyone takes a medieval history class! And so we took the leap to not write the standard 700 page big pop history book, many of which are lovely and I’ve read, but rather to try and write a different kind of book that simultaneously provided a narrative mostly chronological framework, but centered not a succession of facts, popes, kings, men with sticks, queens, etc., but instead centered ideas. Centered humanity, in all its messiness. If it generates even the most miniscule push back against the dark ages, and provides a tiny bit of momentum to the huge community of scholars doing the work, we’ll be content.
David, thank you for taking the time to answer my questions. The Bright Ages is a book that’s going to stay on my bookshelves, and I expect readers will see its influence in my own books before long.