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.

Bards, Monasteries, and Education

The concept of the Ti’acha – the elite schools of Linrathe – is introduced in Empire’s Hostage, when Lena, standing as hostage to a truce between Linrathe and her country, is sent to one. What is a Ti’ach, and where did the idea come from?

Ti’acha are boarding schools. Both boys and girls attend: depending on which Ti’ach, the focus may be history and politics, or mathematics and science, or the healing arts, but music and languages are always part of the learning. Children of landholders mix with children of the peasantry: while the wealthy pay for their children to attend, demonstrated intelligence or skill will always guarantee a place.  The schools are based—loosely—on the monastic and cathedral schools of Ireland, Scotland, and England.

Image by MAGIC BOIRO, SL BOIRO from Pixabay 

In the mid-500s, the Irish monastic movement began, possibly at the monastery of Clonard, and spread out across Ireland and into what is now Scotland. Most monasteries had a school attached, both for young men who had a religious vocation and for those who would take their place in government or the military: boys of the land-holding class, for the most part. Latin and Greek were part of their education, as was a study of classical authors such as Virgil and Socrates, as well as mathematics, astronomy, and music. These subjects are what are taught in my world too.  I changed the names of the Greek and Roman writers, but their thoughts remain the same.

At the Ti’ach Lena is sent to, the Comiádh, or head of school, is a man named Perras. In A Smaller Social History of Ancient Ireland (1906, and a rather romanticized view) Patrick Joyce writes of the Fer-leginn, the ‘man of learning’ who was responsible for the educational direction of the school, in concert with the abbot, who was responsible for the religious aspects of the monastery. Organized religion doesn’t exist in my invented world, so there is no one to direct a religious side. There is a ‘Lady’ of the Ti’ach, Dagney, who is also the scáeli (bard) attached to the house. Her authority is equal to that of Perras, but he teaches history and politics; she music and literature.

For Dagney’s expertise, I borrowed from the tradition of bardic schools, which may have existed in pre-Christian Ireland, taught (perhaps) by Druids and likely by bards. Their role was to pass on oral history and literature, continuing in some form into the 19th century.

I simply combined the bardic schools and the monastic ones. Is it accurate? No. Does it feel familiar? Yes, and that’s what I wanted.

Other types of formal education do occur. Younger children of landholders, or those not suited to the rigors of advanced study, may be taught by a travelling teacher. These men and women, themselves taught at the Ti’acha, may stay for a season or many years. Again, this is based on a long tradition throughout Europe of itinerant teachers, attached both to noble households and wealthier towns.

But women in the Ti’acha? In the real early-medieval world, women weren’t all as badly educated as popular culture would have us believe, but neither were they included in mixed schools. Daughters of the nobility were tutored in mathematics and sciences, languages and history; nuns in certain houses were taught Latin and Greek. I deviated quite a bit from real history, but I had my reasons: the exploration and challenging of gender roles is one of the themes of the series.

Diplomacy was one of the roles played by the English scholar Alcuin at the court of Charlemagne, in the mid-700s. Columba of Iona, two hundred years earlier, undertook diplomatic negotiations between the Kingdom of Dalriada and the Kingdom of Ireland. Diplomacy needs educated, agile minds: those who acted as envoys and negotiators must have been taught well, either at the monastic schools or by teachers who themselves had learned there.

The role of the Ti’acha in politics and diplomacy continues to be important in the books following Empire’s Hostage, including the book releasing in September, Empire’s Heir.

This article has been modified from one first published at https://rwranniewhitehead.blogspot.com/2020/06/guest-post-marian-l-thorpe.html

Featured Image: By Fulda – Manuscript: Wien, Österreichische Nationalbibliothek, cod.652, fol. 2v (Fulda, 2nd quarter of the 9th century), Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=380431

Hostage

In the modern mind, the term ‘hostage’ conjures up someone taken by force – the Iranian Embassy hostages; the person grabbed by a gunman in a robbery. But in Empire’s Hostage, Book II of the Empire’s Legacy series, ‘hostage’ is used in an older way.

“What does it mean, to be a hostage?” I asked. I saw something flicker in Turlo’s eyes. He grinned again.

“Exchanging the children of high rank as hostages is an old and honoured tradition,” he answered, “although not one we have respected, in some generations, and in truth needed to be reminded of. We’ll treat Donnalch’s son, and the other boy they are sending—his brother’s son—with every courtesy. They will lodge in the White Fort for now, and then be sent south to the Eastern Fort when the weather improves, to learn with our senior cadets. Darel, you will basically live the life that Donnalch’s son would have, whatever the education, in arms and tactics and books, they deem appropriate. That is the gist of it: we exchange our heirs, in surety for each side’s good behaviour. You will not be mistreated, but, understand, neither will you be truly free.”

In Hostages in the Middle Ages[1], Adam Kosto points out that:

In medieval Europe, hostages were given, not taken. They were a means of guarantee used to secure transactions ranging from treaties to wartime commitments to financial transactions. In principle, the force of the guarantee lay in the threat to the life of the hostage if the agreement were broken. 

Who were these hostages?  In her review[2] of Kosto’s book, Shavana Haythornthwaite tells us the preference was for sons of the family, but ‘the question of exactly who a hostage was in the Middle Ages was in fact part and parcel of the question of what the structures of power were.’ And that’s who stands as hostage to the treaty in my book.

He grinned. Nothing, ever, seemed to keep Turlo’s spirits down. “But the treaty, my lad, and lassie,” he added, “requires hostages. Donnalch’s son and another to us, and two children of our leaders to them.”

But peace treaties weren’t the only reason for hostages, and the interpretation can be broad:

Hostages were taken and held as surety for various reasons: the holding of property, the promise of paying off debts, the securement of peace. Hostages could be taken for social reasons, if broadly read. The fostering of sons is a form of social contract involving the holding of a boy by another family to strengthen a network of alliances. Betrothals and marriages of daughters and sisters, especially in the cases of making treaties between warring factions, served much the same purpose as a hostage or a fostered son: a promise of peace held in the body of a person.[3]

In later books in the series, almost all these broad definitions of hostage are part of the story, just as they were part of life in the middle ages.


[1] Kosto, Adam J. Hostages in the Middle Ages, 2012, Oxford University Press: https://oxford.universitypressscholarship.com/view/10.1093/acprof:oso/9780199651702.001.0001/acprof-9780199651702

[2] Haythornthwaite, Shavana.  Review of Hostages in the Middle Ages, (review no. 1579)
https://reviews.history.ac.uk/review/1579

[3] Medieval Hostageship c.700-c.1500: Hostage, Captive, Prisoner of War, Guarantee, Peacemaker. Matthew Bennett & Katherine Weikert, eds., Routledge, 2019

The Lover: A Sufi Mystery, by Laury Silvers

Dust and cool water; ascetism and the bonds of love. In 10th century Baghdad, Zaytuna is torn between the mysticism of Sufi practice and her need for connection to the world – and the reality of survival day to day. When a child dies in a fall, she must try to understand why, bringing her into conflict with both powerful people and her own brother, and challenging, too, her own understanding of herself and her faith.

The setting is carefully and slowly built, with great skill: I could imagine myself there in the markets and courtyards, among the crowds on the streets and on the flat roofs of houses. Characters are drawn precisely, with a beautiful economy of words, giving the reader just enough.

Laury Silvers gives us a glimpse into a world unfamiliar to most of us, that of women of medieval Islam. Not women of privilege, but women whose lives are given up to labour, the women who wash rich families’ clothes, or sweep houses and cook meals. Lives that are limited by poverty, but sometimes joyous, sometimes transcendent, and sometimes cruel.

The need for relationships – with family, with friends, with God – is central to The Lover. (The title refers to one of the faces of God.) Zaytuna is driven to investigate the boy’s death for reasons that are interwoven with her own need for love, and the value she sees in each life.

The Lover is the first of a series. I hope to read the others soon; meanwhile, I recommend The Lover strongly both as an engaging mystery, and to anyone who wishes to learn more about medieval Islam and the lives of women in that time.


Discover more of the history behind Laury Silvers’ books on the author’s website.

Featured image: Girl Reciting the Qurān (Kuran Okuyan Kız), an 1880 painting by the Ottoman polymath Osman Hamdi Bey. Public Domain.