The dark ages

It’s thrilling to learn that the rebellious Urien actually existed

Once, when we shared the same history teacher in our teens, my older brother Dominic handed in an essay about the Dark Ages that deliberately parodied a sub-Tolkien mysticism of tone. ‘Little is known,’ his opening sentence ran, ‘about those shadowy twilit years twixt 400 and 600 AD.’ Our teacher was particularly enraged by the word ‘twixt’. In Dom’s defence, he was just reacting to a challenge that still confronts medievalists today. When there’s barely any evidence, what is there to say? The response of this intriguing book by Thomas Williams is to lean into the problem. In Lost Realms, he makes a beeline for the very darkest part of

Gazing heavenwards: the medieval monks who mapped the planetary motions

We can probably blame George and Ira Gershwin. It was that brilliant duo who, in 1937, penned the memorable lyric ‘They all laughed at Christopher Columbus when he said the world was round’. The song has been recorded by at least 15 artists over the years, from Fred Astaire to Lady Gaga, and is embedded in the consciousness of the West. But its headline message — medieval people are stupid — is total nonsense. No one, as Professor Seb Falk points out in this brilliant study of medieval astronomy and learning, ever disbelieved the world was round, and medieval people were far cleverer than they get credit for. Half the

City of dazzling mosaics: the golden age of Ravenna

When we refer to someone as ‘Byzantine’ we usually mean guileful or too complicated and labyrinthine in manner or speech. Perhaps the term is ill-applied: Byzantium, the medieval Greek city on the Bosporus which the Roman Emperor Constantine I renamed Constantinople, was not in essence an unfathomable, over-hierarchical or manipulative sort of place. It flourished for more than 1,000 years, until the Ottoman Turkish onslaught in the 15th century, by dint of its ‘extraordinary resilience and self-confidence’, says Judith Herrin, a leading Byzantinist. The northern Italian city of Ravenna, with its wondrous mosaicked churches and gilded mausolea that miraculously survived the aerial bombardments of the second world war, was manifestly