The Bright Ages: A Conversation with David M. Perry

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. 

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Sutton Hoo shoulder clasp. British Museum, CC BY-SA 2.5 https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/2.5, via Wikimedia Commons

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.

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Raban Maur (left), supported by Alcuin (middle), dedicates his work to Archbishop Otgar of Mainz 
Fulda, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

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.

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Sainte-Chapelle.
Stockholm, CC BY-SA 4.0 https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/4.0, via Wikimedia Commons

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.

Sex and Sexuality in Ancient Rome, by L J Trafford: A Review

Many long years ago, I took courses from a Scottish Studies professor who, hands down, was the most entertaining lecturer I ever had. He combined serious scholarship with stories – sometimes scurrilous – that made us howl with laughter. L J Trafford’s Sex and Sexuality in Ancient Rome fits that model: solid research told in an accessible manner, and it too had me howling with laughter in places.

Divided into sixteen chapters covering everything from ideals of beauty, the sex lives of Emperors, and what constitutes good sex (from the point of view of a Roman male), this is all presented in a fairly light-handed manner. While Trafford does acknowledge that Roman morals and behaviour cannot always be judged by 21st century standards, she also does not shy away from pointing out the inequalities and lack of choice for many Romans, especially those who were enslaved.

I was pleased to see that women’s sexuality was not ignored, as it often is in books on this subject. The information (opinion) still comes from men, who were doing most of the writing at the time, and much of it is as eyebrow-raising as men’s thoughts on women’s sexuality often are…but then we have Ovid, who wrote that mutual pleasure was the goal of sex, and that women’s orgasms were important and desirable. I learned more about women’s sexuality in ancient Rome than any other topic, and for that alone the book was worth reading.

Trafford also shows how some things never change. The sex lives of prominent people, including (maybe particularly) the emperors and their wives, were topics of discussion, and the reputation of many an emperor was dragged in the dirt by the poets, satirists and orators of the day. What we would now view as homophobic slurs were common insults, but this isn’t how the Romans saw it. The gender of your sexual partner was (almost) irrelevant; what position you took – the active or passive partner – was. The passive role was unmanly, and Roman men could not be unmanly. Some of the insults remain the same to this day.

I read Sex and Sexuality in Ancient Rome as a novelist, judging it for its usefulness in world-building. It is full of tidbits that, judiciously adapted, would certainly add to the verisimilitude of historical fiction set in ancient Rome. That along the way I was entertained, educated, but also made to think reflects Trafford’s grasp of her subject as well as her skill as a writer. Highly recommended.

Striking Fear

A Random Research Note

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Slingers portrayed on Trajan’s Column.
Public Domain via Wikimedia Commons

Smooth stones shot with a sling…are more dangerous than any arrows, since while leaving the limb intact they inflict a wound that is still lethal, and the enemy dies from the blow of the stone without loss of blood…This weapon should be learned by all recruits with frequent exercise, because it is no effort to carry a sling. It often happens too that warfare is carried on in stony places, that some mountain or hill has to be defended…

Vegetius: De Re Militari

Druisius, one of the main characters in my work-in-progress, Empress & Soldier, is a new recruit facing his first battle, defending a mountain pass. In the vanguard of the troops facing the enemy are the slingers. (No, this isn’t historically correct: what I write isn’t. It’s a created world that looks a lot like ours, but I’m not bound by absolute accuracy.)

Slings are an ancient weapon, most likely in use long before any written record. The first written record in the western world is the story of David and Goliath in the Old Testament of the Bible (1st Samuel), thought to have been written about the 6th century BCE. Used across the world, the oldest-known slings are from coastal Peru, radio-carbon dated to c. 2500 BCE.

Roman slingers, which I am using as my model, used lead sling-bullets: the density of lead means that the mass of a sling-bullet made from the metal is much greater than one of stone. Lead sling-bullets could therefore be small, able to travel further than a stone of the same mass due to less resistance in the air, and difficult to see in flight. A painful projectile, with larger ones capable of speeds up to 160 kph.  As archaeologist John Reid of the Trimontium Trust told Scientific American, it could take the top of a head off. Romans (and Greeks) literally added insult to injury: bullets were sometimes inscribed with images of snakes or scorpions, or inscriptions such as ‘catch!’.

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Peter van der Sluijs, CC BY-SA 3.0 via Wikimedia Commons

Perhaps the most interesting of all the sling bullets found from the Roman period are those from Burnswark, or Birrenswark, Hill in southwestern Scotland. In the second century CE, troops under the command of Quintus Lollius Urbicus, the Roman governor of Britannia (himself following orders from Antonius Pius, the Roman Emperor) attacked the hillfort of the Caledonian people here. Archaeological investigations at the site discovered about twenty percent of the sling bullets were smaller than average, and had holes drilled into them. These bullets whistle as they fly. Their assumed purpose is to terrify the enemy: small, stinging, whistling projectiles, almost like a swarm of biting insects.

Druisius isn’t a slinger; he’s infantry, a foot soldier using shield and sword. But he sees the value of the sling in his first battle.  Will he ever use it?  You may have to read Empress & Soldier to find out!

References:

Translated Texts for Historians Volume 16: Vegetius: Epitome of Military Science. N.P. Milner, Translator. Liverpool University Press, 1996. pp 16-17  

Whistling Sling Bullets Were Roman Troops’ Secret Weapon. Tom Metcalfe, LiveScience on June 14, 2016: https://www.scientificamerican.com/article/whistling-sling-bullets-were-roman-troops-secret-weapon/

Burnswark Hill: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Burnswark_Hill#Battle_details

You Scratch My Back, I’ll Scratch Yours.

A Random Research Note

“We ourselves have seen Manius Manilius walking across the forum; a signal that he who did so, gave all the citizens liberty to consult him upon any subject; and to such persons, when thus walking or sitting at home upon their seats of ceremony, all people had free access, not only to consult them upon points of civil law, but even upon the settlement of a daughter in marriage, the purchase of an estate, or the cultivation of a farm, and indeed upon any employment or business whatsoever.” Cicero, De Oratores, Book III:XXXIII 

https://pages.pomona.edu/~cmc24747/sources/cic_web/de_or_3.htm
aeneid
DEA / G. Dagli Orti / De Agostini / Getty

Manius Manilius, whoever he was*, is represented in this passage by Cicero as a patron: an important position and concept in the hierarchical structure of the Roman social contract.

In the Roman world, a patron-client relationship was a form of noblesse oblige, although with the loyalty and support of the client expected. Based on the Roman ideal of ‘fides’, loyalty, the patron – (the word derives from ‘father’) – the head of a high-status family, dispensed advice, loans, and influence to his clients – men of lower status, in exchange for political support, respect, and sometimes the physical presence of their clients for protection.

In Empress & Soldier, we see this in action when Salvius, Druisius’s father, goes to ask his patron for help in acquiring certain licenses he needs as a merchant. He takes his oldest son (Druisius) with him, as part of his education. They go early in the morning, are admitted to a waiting room, where they and the others waiting are seen in order of their social status. I based this on the salutatio, the morning greeting of clients to their patrons, and also the opportunity to ask the patron for a favour.

By the late Roman Empire, the patron-client relationship had changed quite a bit, to a more self-serving relationship between the two. But one of the advantages of writing a fictional world is I can pick and choose what aspects of history I want to use and adapt – and so I’ve kept patronage in my city of Casil to reflect patronage in the Roman Republic.

(The identity of Druisius’s father’s patron is important to the story, by the way, but I’m not about to reveal that yet!)

* an orator and jurist of the Roman Republic, c 150 BCE, actually.

Lucius Primus’s Unauthorized War

A Random Research Note

Look back over the past, at the empires that rose and fell, and predict the future.  Marcus Aurelius (or Catilius, in my fictional semi-parallel world.)

There are – as there are in almost all multigenerational sagas – two areas of focus in my books: the personal arcs of my characters, and the political/social background against which those character arcs unfold, and by which they are challenged and tested and developed. In Empress & Soldier, the work-in-progress, the political plot will (perhaps) be foremost, and, as I currently envision the book, it will take place over about a 15-year period. A different challenge for me, the writer, in part because my knowledge of Roman political history outside the major events in Roman Britain and a few highlights elsewhere is fairly limited.

This entails a lot of research…which I’ll be sharing in random bits as I learn something that will feed the plot of the book. I’m doing this as much for me as anyone – this way it’s written down somewhere I can find it again 😊 – but perhaps it will entertain or enlighten someone, or provide me with feedback that will be useful! 

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The Odrysian Kingdom, which existed from the early 5th century BC at least until the mid-3rd century BC, was one of the most powerful of its time. Throughout much of its early history it remained an ally of Athens; eventually, Philip of Macedon, Alexander the Great’s father, would conquer it. But in the early part of the common era it was under Roman control, and in one jurisdiction, there was a proconsul governor named Lucius Primus.

According to Dio (54:3:2) Lucius Primus (or he might have been Marcus Primus) stood trial in 22 CE for starting a war against the Odrysae. The Odrysae were Thracian, and Thrace had been an important ally of Rome, especially in the Battle of Actium. Why Lucius Primus started this war I haven’t yet been able to find out, but apparently it was ‘unauthorized’ by Augustus. (Starting a war against allies doesn’t appear at first glance to be a good move on a governor’s part.)  He swore he had Augustus’s approval; Augustus said he didn’t…and Lucius Primus was eventually executed.

The event is mentioned by Dio because it’s important in Augustus’s gradual expansion of power: the jurisdiction Lucius Primus governed was a senatorial province, and it should have been the senate that decided the governor’s fate without Augustus’s interference. That’s not what caught my attention. In furthering the history of my fictional world, I need a reason for my antagonists (a family) to have a grievance against the Emperors. So I think this little bit of history will serve as a template. A governor who starts a war he shouldn’t have, a trial and execution….and then imagination can create a son who, exonerated because he was either too young or serving in another province (haven’t worked out the timelines yet) nurses his grievance and plans a long, multi-generational game of revenge – a game he trains his nephew in as well.