When we think about the “Middle Ages,” we think about kings ruling with iron fists, about crusaders purifying with the blood of the unbelievers, or about Greco-Roman wisdom cast into darkness.
It wasn’t so.
According to The Bright Ages, by Matt Gabriele and David Perry, kings often worried about their legitimacy, the crusaders were pragmatists, and Greek and Roman learning and culture carried on, not because Muslim scholars preserved it, but because Rome never really fell.
Among a welter of revelations, the book offers this: democracy is not the product of the Renaissance or the Enlightenment. It was not revived after being forgotten. It has probably been practiced for as long as groups of people struggled with each other, and with themselves, over power and resources. Even some aristocrats voted!
After reading The Bright Ages, I got in touch with Matt Gabriele. So much of our politics, especially white supremacy, seeks to legitimize itself by calling forth visions of a noble white past. It’s just not so. Matt is a professor of medieval studies at Virginia Tech as well as a member of the Editorial Board. We started by talking about cities.
Near the end of your book, you talk about cities. Wherever they are cities, there’s some form of democracy. That not only rewrites our understanding of the “dark ages,” but also puts our current malaise in a more optimistic light.
One of the core arguments about the “fall of Rome” has been de-urbanization – that Europe moved from a primarily urban, Mediterranean civilization to a rural, agricultural one. There’s a kernel of truth there, but it tends to obscure that cities continued, especially where they had been, but also in new places.
In those cities, older forms of government persisted – ones in which people voted on things. Certainly, as we note, those who could vote were a very limited subset, but the idea that all government was autocracy is not true
I take your point that cities are and can be laboratories for democratic experimentation. Groups like to vote on things. Even the Crusades were often led by councils who voted. The First Crusade in 1095-1099, for example, had a group of nobles who collectively led the expedition. The Fourth Crusade of the early 13th century had a council that voted on almost everything, including who should be the new emperor of Constantinople!
Americans tend to think democracy began with us, or anyway with the Enlightenment. But your history shows it being much older. Your book notes that the earliest “national” democracy might have been Iceland.
Perhaps. Some “Viking” (Scandinavian) communities were organized around communal decision-making. Iceland (which wasn’t really a “nation” in the central Middle Ages, but more a collection of loosely-connected communities) was one of them. Part of the reason behind their collective governmental organization, though, was precisely because there was no one powerful enough to claim power over the rest of the groups.
In other words, collective decision-making in medieval Europe was often very practical. Even the Carolingians – an imperial family in the 9th century – were deeply reliant on the nobility as councilors and power-brokers. The age of absolute monarchy is an early-modern thing, not a medieval thing.