SOUNDS ABOUT WHITE
Review of Matthew Gabriele & David M. Perry’s “The Bright Ages” (Harper Collins, 2021)
An intro note for readers. Before even submitting this review, I went through drafts as one does and had much more to say but decided not to go too hard. My intent was to make this review as balanced as possible from a scholarly point of view. I shared it with 8 additional scholars who offered feedback to ensure I was careful and accurate.
The review was torpedoed by the editor who commissioned this for the LARB, after we could not agree on where to make edits. The initial feedback was primarily around word length, but the editor suggested particular places to cut (primarily discussions on anti-Blackness, Professor Otele’s book, the section explaining what whiteness is, and much of the more ‘negative’ parts of the review). These cuts seemed pointed. If this was truly about word length I cut other areas as a compromise. That did not work. I was advised to be “more generous” to one of the authors. The editor then argued that my section on ‘Christocentrism” made them uncomfortable because one of the authors is Jewish. My offer to acknowledge the author’s Jewishness (as though people outside of Christianity can’t still write Christocentric narratives) was met with silence and shortly after we parted ways. I‘m disappointed that the editor seemed to weaponize the author’s marginalized status as leverage for a softer review.
To be clear, I did complete drafts for the editors but we entered a stalemate when the primary editor wanted more generosity towards the authors. My review is generous. The claim was that this “wasn’t the best venue for the review” and the editor pointed to how this needed to be for a broad audience. We didn’t have the “same coordinated vision of how a review should be presented and argued.” Ma’am I have done this many times.
I’m presenting you this review as the editors at the LARB received it with only 4 minor edits (made clear at the bottom) to show that this review was hardly as scathing as it could have been. I would have happily condensed it but refused to whitewash it. Academia continues to stagger along giving the façade of progress while actively sabotaging serious attempts for change.
Books that begin with the words ‘our story’ demand that we ask who is included among ‘us’? In my own pedagogy as a medievalist and public-facing scholar, I often ask myself and others to interrogate who ‘we’ and ‘our’ refer to in written discourse and conversations. This is often a good way to identify a core audience. The Bright Ages, written by historians of the European Middle Ages, Matthew Gabriele and David Perry takes readers on a journey through most of what is considered the medieval period over a span of a millennium, starting with the 5th-century fall of Rome and ending with the 14th-century Italian poet Dante Alighieri. Gabriele and Perry invite readers into their work with “our story begins[,]” which is an interesting opening for a medievalist* like myself. I wondered whether the authors were taking readers on a dramatized first-person historical tour of the Middle Ages, whether they were talking about “us” as readers, or whether it was them as scholars.
Writing for a general audience, and possibly a global one, is a difficult task. I applaud Gabriele and Perry for attempting to assemble a collection that aims to challenge misrepresentations of the European Middle Ages and offer a messier, more intricate, and (in some ways) more diverse image of the period. But intentions are one thing and outcome is often another. Some of the book’s successes include the writing style. It’s accessible; as the book’s prose is conversational and straightforward, devoid of dense academic jargon, which saves readers from spending as much time in the dictionary as in The Bright Ages. Historical figures abound in The Bright Ages, so it is useful to have most people described in some detail. For readers with no previous knowledge of some of the historical figures or stories, it might be confusing to keep track of names and dates, especially given the speed with which Gabriele and Perry move through events. They waste no time lingering on individual places, people, or events. Still, the book weaves through time and areas across Europe in a straightforward way. The chapters are colloquially ‘short and sweet.’
The visual theme underscored throughout is one of “light”: the authors play on sensory images with elaborate descriptions of colorful stained-glass windows, towering architecture, the warmth of a flame here or the feeling of sunlight there. This is further emphasized in the color pictures located near the middle of the book, which include manuscript images, mosaics, stone carvings, a piece of the Bayeux Tapestry, monuments, coins, and a Mongol safe-conduct pass. Although the imagery may seem excessive at times, it certainly works to capture a reader’s imagination, and the pictures bring that imagery to life. All of these things make the structure and story-telling accessible.
However, the language and core themes of the book don’t reveal brightness so much as ‘whiteness.’ What unfolded as I read through each chapter was not necessarily a revelation of a more complex European history but an understanding of who was at the heart of “our” story. Gabriele and Perry describe how “scholars in medieval studies themselves [historically] sought a history for their new world order to justify and explain why whiteness [my emphasis here]— a modern idea, albeit with medieval roots — justified their domination of the world” (xiv). In The Bright Ages’ attempt to help undo the ‘whiteness’ of European history, it repackages ‘whiteness’ with new terms and slightly different re-tellings of conventional historical narratives and traditional canonical works. I was struck by many of the terms used in this book geared towards a specific type of reader. The writing style and packaging seems to be at odds with the reader. What is ‘whiteness’ to them?
The analysis and study of ‘whiteness’ is anchored in the work of French West-Indian psychologist and philosopher Frantz Fanon, who described ‘whiteness’ as at the apex of a white supremacist paradigm. In the West, ‘whiteness’ is constructed “as the symbol par excellence;” thus, ‘whiteness’ is not simply the pinnacle of superiority but the default, and something to which all ‘otherness’ is compared.[i] Post-colonialist and critical race theorist Sara Ahmed adds to this definition of ‘whiteness’ by explaining how it is “an ongoing and unfinished history, which orientates bodies in specific directions, affecting how they ‘take up’ space, and what they ‘can do’.”[ii] So what does this all mean for The Bright Ages?
The Bright Ages begins and ends in Ravenna, Italy, making thematic treks across lands and time. The central focus is on the Holy Roman Empire with special attention to episodes in Britain, France, Scandinavia, Iceland, the Iberian Peninsula, Germany, Jerusalem, Egypt, and a brief detour to central Asia and China. The book is peppered with passing references to other places, particularly North America, with brief mentions of Inuit and other Indigenous cultures. While the book recognizes the existence of Indigenous peoples, it also reinforces the idea that they exist on the periphery of European history. It seemed odd not to mention Ireland, particularly with so much exciting evidence of its interaction with Africa and African voices. The core theme that runs through The Bright Ages is a Christocentric (that which is focused on Jesus and Christian narratives) one that recycles the usual stories of emperors, bishops, kings, military leaders. Gabriele and Perry try to retell narratives about these convention figures by discussing outside influence and “otherness” that played into these central figures’ successes and failures.
Chapter 4, in part, focuses on the late 6th — and early 7th century Pope, Gregory the Great (p. 48) and explores how Christianity wasn’t (or isn’t) a monolith (50–53). The chapter then turns attention to Gregory’s Lombard queen ally, Theodelinda (c. 570–628). Theodelinda, like women in subsequent chapters, is mentioned to exemplify how “queens were often the tip of the spear in Christian conversion efforts in this period” (53). Women who operated as Christian imperialists aren’t the progressive symbols that this book suggests.** Gabriele and Perry exclaim that, although she meets an unhappy demise, “Theodelinda matters” (54). This, I hope, is not a play on Black Lives Matters, but this does show how I, as a Black reader and scholar, might read a particular phrase (especially now) that feels trivializing or appropriative.
Gabriele and Perry reveal their core audience through specific words and phrases that most likely would not raise the collective eyebrow of a predominantly white audience. We can’t change our positionality, but the book would have benefited from an acknowledgement that the author’ readings and interpretations came from their position as white males. Writing a book that aims to feature women and/or other marginalized figures demands a stepping outside of oneself that is not accomplished throughout this work. Simply naming women who remained subsidiaries in a patriarchal society, or referring to auxiliary figures who were Muslim, Jewish, Mongols, or pagans (never mind the near erasure of trans or queer folk)*** in order to demonstrate how Christianity developed is nothing less than Christian apologia.
The book’s diction and phrasing signal its ‘white-centricism’ throughout. Not all audiences would associate “coconuts, ginger, and parrots” (xii) with “otherness” to begin with. Gabriele and Perry explain that “we mark the brown skin on the faces of the North Africans who always lived in Britain” (xii) juxtaposed with the “French Mediterranean peasants telling dirty stories about horny priests, raunchy women, and easily fooled husbands” (xii). They never mark white skin. Why is this so? In another place, the Abrahamic religions are described as ‘Asian’ while Christ himself is described as a “Jewish refugee from the eastern Mediterranean who once crossed into Africa, who had now come to this island where He sat comfortably” (p. 74). While it is true that Western religions have origins outside of Europe, descriptions like this try to de-Christianize Christianity, making it seem ‘hip,’ international and inclusive, while erasing its present role in western imperialism. At times, The Bright Ages goes to lengths to over-emphasize “otherness” in an attempt to normalize it, as though somehow describing Jesus in a way that medieval Christians would never have described him serves to appeal to a more liberal sensibility. The fact that Jesus’ pronoun “He” is capitalized suggests that the authors are playing to both a traditional audience and a seemingly progressive one.
As Crusader scholars, Gabriele and Perry are well equipped and informed about how white supremacists misappropriate medieval events, themes, and imagery. In several chapters, and in the epilogue, they reference how fascists and neo-Nazis have weaponized the Middle Ages. The Bright Ages challenges some racist and fascist notions (for example chapters pointing to a less white Europe 5, 7, 8, 10 and the epilogue); however, Europe, Christianity, and whiteness remain central themes of the book. Further to this, there is nothing new about rehashing core texts that are beloved by white supremacists (particularly in chapters 4, 5 and 7). Focusing on beloved canonical texts seems somewhat counter-productive to any aims to deflate white supremacists.
Recycling the same stories that white supremacists revere and recasting them in another white light does not disrupt white supremacy. There have been a number of scholars over the last decade who have breathed new life into the Old English poem Beowulf by re-shifting focus away from traditional readings. The Bright Ages focuses exclusively on the two main females in Beowulf and offers a white feminist reading about power and powerlessness. There is a consistent pandering to a white feminist audience in this book. The Bright Ages could have explored new critical readings where the monsters, Grendel and his mother, traditionally viewed as antagonists, are analyzed as protecting their land from settler invasion.**** Scholars within and outside the field have and continue to offer new insights into how Beowulf and other texts are read, and I agree with the authors that this work is necessary but it can’t be done hastily nor slapdash.
That isn’t to say this book is under-researched, but it does play on a white male authority, especially in attempts to highlight difference and otherness. Gabriele and Perry are exceptional Crusader scholars but they rely on their whiteness for authority, as illustrated by the way a 250-page book has no footnotes or endnotes. Certainly, explanatory notes are not expected as they would for a strictly academic book (and perhaps the publisher wanted them kept to a minimum), but white, male privilege is evident throughout this book as readers are expected to take historical anecdotes and episodes as truth without any supporting evidence. This is not to say these stories aren’t true or valuable, but in an exercise that purports to challenge traditional white-washed (that is historical stories that erase or set to the periphery others in order to exemplify white supremacy) narratives, it’s crucial to verify claims no matter who the author is. What Gabriele and Perry demonstrate here as white, male historians is repeated in academia on a large scale. It’s an unspoken white entitlement and authority that masquerades as progressive, in which history is only validated through the lens and voices of white men.
This lack of substantial evidence is reinforced by a comparison to a book that achieves exactly what The Bright Ages does not. Historian Olivette Otele’s African Europeans: An Untold Story explores continued African presence throughout European history over millennia. Otele accomplishes here what Gabriele and Perry attempt, but the difference is she gives way to experts, engages with their work and effortlessly borrows from and weaves other experts’ scholarship into her own story-telling. Her work is grounded in evidence to reveal a history of Europe that is not white-washed. She makes her work accessible and readable, balancing her own voice with others as she shifts between being both an authority and a collaborator, quoting other experts when necessary to strengthen her arguments and demonstrating her own strengths as a scholar in her own right. Even after winning numerous awards, and having extensive footnotes in a book for general readers, Otele continues to be critiqued for not having been rigorous enough. Certainly, there is often a difference between a general and academic audience, and balancing both can be a challenge, but The Bright Ages weaponizes ‘whiteness’ as an unquestionable authority wholly lacking in meticulousness and attention to detail demanded from marginalized scholars and/or women.
This book is invested in dispelling misconceptions of the term the ‘dark ages,’ but is that the myth that needs to be busted right now? Medievalists for decades have long disrupted the notion of the “dark ages.” See for instance: here, here, and here. In public discourse now, if the term appears, it is met with fervent opposition, often on a personal level from medievalists (myself included) as a reactionary impulse to want to prove that the period is misunderstood and/or inaccurately or dangerously romanticized. Although correctives are important, the field itself is struggling to grapple with problems of racism, sexism, homophobia, gatekeeping, and elitism, so one wonders why there would be an urgency to publish a book tackling the “dark ages” myth, since the authors reveal that “something significant has changed in how we think about the past just in the past few years” (pp. 257, 277–8).
A striking oversight in this book from start to finish is the erasure of scholars who brought this type of “rethinking the past” to light several generations ago. Scholars like Anna J. Cooper, W.E.B Du Bois, Gordon D. Houston, Jacqueline de Weever, Margo Hendricks, Ania Loomba, and Kim F. Hall have laid the foundation for those who have written more recently about premodern critical race studies (PMCRS). What we see here is repackaged ‘whiteness.’ Gabriele and Perry state that the multifaceted features of the medieval period that connect us to today have remained in the dark “until now [as] those lights have often been hidden under a bushel of bad history” (xv). This not only contradicts the statement in their acknowledgements (255–6) and suggested further readings (257–78) where they say this work has been done before, but ignores the work of mostly marginalized scholars who laid the foundation for this book. Repurposing and reimagining that the field itself has not contended with issues for decades signals to ‘whiteness’ and an obliviousness that comes with the privilege of a white lens.
There are a number of critical works missing, which falsely gives readers the impression that premodernists have only been discussing and benefiting from PMCRS for the last five years. This is an indictment of The Bright Ages for drawing on the scholarship of scholars (especially Black ones) who have been doing this work for generations, but have been all but erased in this monograph. Gabriele and Perry are right to mention works like Matthew X. Vernon’s The Black Middle Ages but they seem to collapse Vernon’s thorough transhistorical examination of 19th-century uses of medieval texts to construct racial identity (particularly around the ‘Anglo-Saxon’ myth). The clumsy and convoluted final sentences draw on two of the only Black scholars (Vernon and Cord Whitaker) in Medieval Studies to validate The Bright Ages as offering something new and fresh and to offset Gabriele’s and Perry’s identities as white men.
The Bright Ages not only erases how Britain’s entire global enterprise of violent imperialism was rooted in an “Anglo-Saxon myth,” it misrepresents Vernon’s thorough analysis of how African Americans utilized the Middle Ages not simply to say that “the Middle Ages” belongs to us Black scholars, but that the West or Global North has centered their entire identity on a false sense of European greatness. This book reinforces that European ‘greatness’ rather than disrupting and decentering it. References to, but no real engagement with, the work of Vernon reemphasizes how scholars of color are minimized at times and then brought out on display in order to bolster the work of supposedly progressive, white scholars. Name-dropping the most recognizable recent scholars of color in the field without engaging with scholars, particularly Black scholars, that have come before them in PMCRS further exemplifies a type of superficial value that scholars of color carry for white scholars. This, in turn, is reflected in cursory studies and analyses where names of ‘others’ are only useful in conjunction with how they support white-centered narratives. Relying on this type of work and benefiting from the scholarship of marginalized scholars without honoring those scholars does a disservice to the field, erases the labor of scholarly forebears, and perpetuates the same problems the field continues to struggle with.
One of the most confusing and unsettling subjects in The Bright Ages is its focus on slavery, particularly in the Viking Era (100). Literary historian Kathleen Davis’ Periodization and Sovereignty discusses the invention of the “Dark Ages” as a time marked by slavery and violence. Not only does The Bright Ages not challenge those notions, it cheapens discussions of chattel slavery and undermines discussion of the transatlantic slave trade. The book’s epilogue stresses how “although chattel slavery — the buying and selling of humans — was more common in urbanized Mediterranean than elsewhere, a factor of easier access to markets, the principle of buying and selling humans was known to medieval people, just as to ancients, just as to moderns” (247). The book says that the Middle Ages was the ‘real time’ of slavery, minimizing the horrors of the transatlantic slave trade where millions of Africans were dehumanized and enslaved. This book echoes an unsettling (presumably unintentional) anti-Blackness reflected in the field partly because slavery is discussed in such a brief and fragmentary manner. It does a disservice to historians working on slavery and to Black and Brown people who are descendants of enslaved people. Revealing that Europe was not all white is useful and important, but that does not mean that Europe needs to continue to be centered, and there needs to be more mindful analyses of anti-Black discourse that appears even in scholarly discourse around ‘diversity.’
The Bright Ages may not exclusively be for white readers, but it certainly is for neoliberal readers who want to believe they are progressive and demand superficial fixes to complex problems and issues. For what it’s worth, I don’t think there’s any illusion that the book aims to convert white supremacists with this material, nor would any book really be able to achieve that. Still, it’s a safe book for a receptive liberal audience. It’s not a radical book, but that must be accepted at this moment, because the field is not ready for anything particularly radical. The Bright Ages repackages the greatest hits of medieval literature and history, and it does so through highlighting otherness against the backdrop of Christianity in Europe. This is not to say the book isn’t of value, but it is worth reading with a critical eye and by acknowledging that white scholars are benefiting from leveraging “diversity” while still centering and anchoring this diversity in Europe, Christianity, and white authority. At its core, The Bright Ages is a carefully constructed narrative published at a time when predominantly white scholars and readers are eager to become more recognized as “antiracist” (meaning one who actively works against white supremacy). Where the book falls short is in its Christian-centered focus, lack of citations, and the language used to signal to otherness or foreignness in opposition to Christianity.
In this analysis, I discovered the “our” in “our story.” It gestures to a (mostly) white, neoliberal reader who will buy a book about “diversity” in the Middle Ages without questioning why two white male scholars are capitalizing on race and otherness for profit. To be ‘othered’ is to be subject to the shifting needs and desires of capitalism. This is what political scientist Cedric Robinson refers to as “racial capital.” Stories in The Bright Ages are commodified, and these Brown, Black, and other marginalized figures are repackaged to sell “diversity” to an eager audience who will overlook recycled whiteness. Rather than showing the brightness of the Middle Ages, The Bright Ages simply repackages whiteness.
[i] Frantz Fanon. Black Skin, White Masks. New York: Grove Press, 1958/2008: xii
[ii] Sara Ahmed. “A phenomenology of whiteness,” Feminist Theory, 8.2 (2007), 149–168, at 149.
*I removed the identifier “Black” from “Black medievalist” that was in the original review. I mention who I am later on, so this one was removed to lessen repetition.
** This is the sentence from the updated draft I sent the editors. The earlier draft said: “The thought of women also operating as Christian imperialists isn’t the progressive move that is emphasized in this book.”
***This bracket sentence was added to the 2nd round condensed draft I gave editors
****I (and other scholars) offered feedback to the authors before their book was published. My comments particularly on this chapter (an area of my expertise) were dismissed.
Some further notes:
The editor who commissioned this piece was informed (by me) that I had read a chapter of The Bright Ages before it was published in case that was a conflict of interest, but they were still happy for me to go ahead with a review after reading the book in its entirety. My feedback of the authors’ chapter offered suggestions on how to not whitewash their chapter. My critique was heavy so I suggested they take the time to do it carefully and offered to work with them. Within a month, they had tweeted that the book was almost read to go to press. My hope was that they had taken my critiques on board, but very little (if anything?) was changed. It’s disappointing to have heard and seen over the passed few days that other scholars had similar experiences. It appears that we were used near the final stages of their hasty project as shields so they could thank us in the acknowledgements of the book.
Interestingly, many scholars think that the general public is less intelligent than they are — certainly the authors did. I encourage those who have spoken up about this book to write reviews. Your voices matter just as much as the circle of curated voices who are doing a disservice by offering no critique and excessive praise for a mediocre book. The public and academia deserves better.