Mark Gregory Pegg’s new book explores love, heresy, and the individual stories of the medieval West.

In his new book, “Beatrice’s Last Smile: A New History of the Middle Ages,” Professor of History Mark Gregory Pegg traces humanity’s changing relationship to the divine over 1,200 years of western medieval history. Recently, he sat down with the Ampersand to explain what that history tells us about personhood in the medieval past, the meaning of love, and the culture of the West.

Mark Gregory Pegg

What is the significance of the book’s title, “Beatrice’s Last Smile”?

At the end of Dante Alighieri’s poem “The Divine Comedy,” Dante is surrounded by the white rose of paradise in the company of Beatrice, a young woman he once loved. Suddenly, his companion disappears. He looks up and sees her in the rose’s distant third tier. She smiles at him one final time before turning away. Dante, far from being sad, is joyful as he now understands love, himself, and the universe — indeed all existence that ever was and will be — because of Beatrice’s last smile.

Jorge Luis Borges thought Beatrice’s last smile the most moving image ever achieved in Western literature. For me, it encapsulates the history of the Middle Ages because it evokes the ebb and flow of holiness and humanity in the living of a life that shaped the medieval world. 

The book follows these fluctuations between the divine and the human through an interweaving of stories of men, women, and children living and dying between the third and the 15th centuries. Whatever we may wish, there is nothing similar between us and them. Yet trying to evoke lives long gone — and maybe capturing some part of their reality — is what is so wonderful about being a historian.