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

Image of Beatrice's Last Smile: A New History of the Middle Ages
Release Date: 
July 13, 2023
Oxford University Press
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"a fascinating narrative . . . Pegg is a masterful guide into the developing Christian world."

Mark Gregory Pegg covers a lot of ground in Beatrice's Last Smile, charting European history from the 3rd century to the 15th. It's an expansive definition of the Middle Ages, including Late Roman, Early Christian, and Byzantine. Pegg spells out his intentions clearly in the preface:

"This book follows these fluctuations between the divine and the human through an interweaving of stories about men, women, and children living and dying between the third and the fifteenth centuries. It opens and closes with the martyrdom of two young women: a twenty-two-year-old mother in Carthage in 203, Vibia Perpetua, and a nineteen-year-old girl in Rouen in 1431, Jeanne la Pucelle (or Jeanne d'Arc). . . . The past has never been another country's it has always been another universe. Yet trying to evoke lives long gone, such as Perpetua's and Jeanne's, and maybe capturing some part of their incandescent reality, is what is so wonderful about being a historian."

Those who expect new insights into the lives of ordinary people will be disappointed, however. This is solidly a history of those who spurred a lot of writing or who wrote a lot themselves, leaving trails relatively easy to trace. The majority of the figures discussed will be familiar, from Caracalla to Augustine to Dante. What is new about Pegg's writing is his emphasis on the transition from a Roman identity to a Christian one. He's also good at showing how wealth moved from ruling families to the church. Rather than being a new history of the Middle Ages, the book feels like a new history of Christianity. There is a strong sense of how Christianity shaped Europe, economically, politically, and culturally.

"By the beginning of the eighth century a penitential culture now defined much of the early medieval West. This was a new understanding of what it meant to be human, to be Christian, and to be judged by God and His servants. Of course, there was great variation in how this culture was realized in day-to-day existence between the Mediterranean and the North Sea, but within this patchwork of Christendoms there were distinctive similarities. It was now a very different world from the East Roman and the Islamic worlds. . . . Finally, unlike persons in Constantinople or Damascus, when men, women, and children looked up at the night sky over Tours or Canterbury, they knew that other humans were flying over them on marvelous and frightening journeys to heaven and hell."

It's a complicated story and Pegg does a good job of leading the reader through the intricacies of this new world order, though inevitably in a book that covers so much ground, there's a lot that's left out. With the focus on Christianity and the divisions created by various sects and heresies, less-Christian histories are side-tracked, though the development of Islam merits a short, insightful description.

The main audience for this book, then, may be a Christian one, or those readers interested primarily in that history. It's certainly a fascinating narrative, and Pegg is a masterful guide into the developing Christian world.