Beatrice’s Last Smile: A New History of the Middle Ages

  • By Mark Gregory Pegg
  • Oxford University Press
  • 504 pp.

A winning antiquarian primer for the rest of us.

Beatrice’s Last Smile: A New History of the Middle Ages

Beatrice’s Last Smile diverges from the usual muster of sweeping European histories. If you’re drawn to triumphant tomes bristling with systematic thought — with wide-angle analytical vistas stretching horizon to horizon — keep looking. Author Mark Gregory Pegg has something else in mind in this happily surprising volume.

Pegg assembles 133 vignettes, brief glimpses into pivotal moments in the lives of the mostly Christian worthies who together exemplify the long reach of the European era, Constantine to Columbus. Only a few of these snippets run past five pages; several span only one or two.

Expect to find many from the era’s A-team here (Charlemagne, Aquinas, Boccaccio), as well as a flock of delightfully obscure benchwarmers (the visionary Barontus, Archbishop Agobard of Lyon, Gervaise of Tilbury). The result is an impressionistic, shifty montage of close-ups, a snappy mix more fitting, arguably, for trippy pre-sleep reveries a la Coleridge than the transfixed all-nighters that back-cover blurbers are prone to invoking.

Assembling this work was clearly a heady business — and a quirky one — for Pegg, who has boldly deputized himself to take on this squirming 12-century heap of people and events. And, yes, he tackles the task with visceral granularity, gracefully capturing the intellectual (read “religious”) crosscurrents of the age from the bottom up in narrative snapshot rather than monologue. (In a handful of them, and only a handful, Professor Pegg does glide in with compact commentaries on the trends and preoccupations of the time.) 

He transports the reader into the presence chamber, the scriptorium, the library, the churchyard, the peasant hut, and the battleground, telling of troubadours, monks, mystics, saints, revolutionaries, and rulers. And while this chronicle, in aggregate, accrues a conceptual coloration, the folk Pegg writes about carry his grander theme for him. He lets us build toward the panoramic through our newly acquired familiarity with the real people he portrays. Below is a sample drawn from the always fetching openings to his vignettes:

  • “In 610 a 40 year old man named Mohammed ibn Abdullah was all alone amongst the drift sand and the basalt pebbles of the Hijaz in the western Arabian peninsula…when he suddenly collapsed, shivering and trembling, as a thunderous and unfathomable noise reverberated through him.”
  • “Around 825, Findan, a noble young warrior from Leinster, was sent by his father to a long sandy beach on the Irish Sea to buy back his sister, kidnapped by ‘those pagans called Northmen.’”  
  • “Five thousand horsemen, ten thousand foot soldiers, and around twelve thousand other ragtag men, women, and children surrounded the city of Bèziers on Wednesday, July 22nd, 1209. All of them, from great lords to beggar boys, from noble ladies to washerwomen, wore a cross of cloth on their clothing.”
  • “In July 1211 a dead adolescent boy named Guilhem suddenly appeared in rags one night in the room of an 11 year old girl.”
  • “‘What will I do if I become pregnant by you?’ Beatritiz de Plannisoles asked Peire Clergue after she began a sexual relationship with him.”
  • “‘It began in the land of darkness,’ speculated the Syrian scholar Abu Hafs ‘Umar ibin Al-Wardi in his Epistle on Reports of the Pestilence…shortly before it killed him.”

For the academic purists and other serious readers who crave supplementary material, Pegg amply documents his sources, both primary and secondary. They range from the standard to the obscure and are acknowledged in notes and bibliography sections that together occupy a hefty 15 percent of the book.

If there’s a shortcoming in this marvelous mosaic of a volume, it touches on Pegg’s use of Dante’s Beatrice as the culmination/apotheosis of the medieval mindset. Perhaps because of the narrative approach he adopts, Pegg never quite clinches the case here, at least for this reader. And the book’s cover art is similarly puzzling, not at all the “grab you” image worthy of this vivid account of the age, this dazzling treatise in tight focus.

Bob Duffy reviews frequently for the Independent.

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