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

Oxford Univ. Jul. 2023. 440p. ISBN 9780199766482. $34.95. HIST
Pegg (history, Washington Univ.; A Most Holy War) bookends his sweeping narrative of medieval Western history with the Christian martyrdoms of Roman patrician Vibia Perpetua in 203 and of French heroine Jeanne la Pucelle in 1431. While not a history of religion, this is a religious history. The author draws on holiness as a connective thread across place and time, tracing shifts in religious culture from public piety to personal faith and from penitential to confessional culture. This is all while chronicling the Roman Empire’s collapse and Latin Christendom’s formation and fragmentation. Stories of renowned and obscure individuals—poets, priests, princes, peasants—illustrate these shifts. The author combines eloquent prose with expertise in medieval culture, literature, and politics. Numerous subheadings within chapters help make the book accessible to scholars and novices alike. The author does dabble unnecessarily in revisionism with provocative pronouncements on the historicity of the Prophet Muhammad and the impact of the Justinian plague.
VERDICT Like Dante’s character Beatrice, readers will likely look back on this book with an appreciative smile.
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