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After the long period of cultural decline known as the Dark Ages, Europe experienced a rebirth of scholarship, art, literature, philosophy, and science and began to develop a vision of Western society that remains at the heart of Western civilization today. By placing the image of the Virgin Mary at the center of their churches and their lives, medieval people exalted woman After the long period of cultural decline known as the Dark Ages, Europe experienced a rebirth of scholarship, art, literature, philosophy, and science and began to develop a vision of Western society that remains at the heart of Western civilization today. By placing the image of the Virgin Mary at the center of their churches and their lives, medieval people exalted womanhood to a level unknown in any previous society. For the first time, men began to treat women with dignity and women took up professions that had always been closed to them. The communion bread, believed to be the body of Jesus, encouraged the formulation of new questions in philosophy: Could reality be so fluid that one substance could be transformed into another? Could ordinary bread become a holy reality? Could mud become gold, as the alchemists believed? These new questions pushed the minds of medieval thinkers toward what would become modern science. Artists began to ask themselves similar questions. How can we depict human anatomy so that it looks real to the viewer? How can we depict motion in a composition that never moves? How can two dimensions appear to be three? Medieval artists (and writers, too) invented the Western tradition of realism. On visits to the great cities of Europe—monumental Rome; the intellectually explosive Paris of Peter Abelard and Thomas Aquinas; the hotbed of scientific study that was Oxford; and the incomparable Florence of Dante and Giotto—Cahill brilliantly captures the spirit of experimentation, the colorful pageantry, and the passionate pursuit of knowledge that built the foundations for the modern world. Bursting with stunning four-color art, Mysteries of the Middle Aages is the ultimate Christmas gift book.


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After the long period of cultural decline known as the Dark Ages, Europe experienced a rebirth of scholarship, art, literature, philosophy, and science and began to develop a vision of Western society that remains at the heart of Western civilization today. By placing the image of the Virgin Mary at the center of their churches and their lives, medieval people exalted woman After the long period of cultural decline known as the Dark Ages, Europe experienced a rebirth of scholarship, art, literature, philosophy, and science and began to develop a vision of Western society that remains at the heart of Western civilization today. By placing the image of the Virgin Mary at the center of their churches and their lives, medieval people exalted womanhood to a level unknown in any previous society. For the first time, men began to treat women with dignity and women took up professions that had always been closed to them. The communion bread, believed to be the body of Jesus, encouraged the formulation of new questions in philosophy: Could reality be so fluid that one substance could be transformed into another? Could ordinary bread become a holy reality? Could mud become gold, as the alchemists believed? These new questions pushed the minds of medieval thinkers toward what would become modern science. Artists began to ask themselves similar questions. How can we depict human anatomy so that it looks real to the viewer? How can we depict motion in a composition that never moves? How can two dimensions appear to be three? Medieval artists (and writers, too) invented the Western tradition of realism. On visits to the great cities of Europe—monumental Rome; the intellectually explosive Paris of Peter Abelard and Thomas Aquinas; the hotbed of scientific study that was Oxford; and the incomparable Florence of Dante and Giotto—Cahill brilliantly captures the spirit of experimentation, the colorful pageantry, and the passionate pursuit of knowledge that built the foundations for the modern world. Bursting with stunning four-color art, Mysteries of the Middle Aages is the ultimate Christmas gift book.

30 review for Mysteries of the Middle Ages: The Rise of Feminism, Science and Art from the Cults of Catholic Europe

  1. 4 out of 5

    Kb

    ARGH. This book! 1. The author does not reveal his semi-thesis until the conclusion of the book and fails to make his arguments (when he has an argument) conform to the thesis throughout the book. 2. The first thing they teach you when you do graduate work in history is that history is not inevitable. Because something happened in the 12th century it does not mean that things have to be the way they are in the 21st century. Hildegard von Bingen and Eleanor of Aquitaine do not feminism make. In fac ARGH. This book! 1. The author does not reveal his semi-thesis until the conclusion of the book and fails to make his arguments (when he has an argument) conform to the thesis throughout the book. 2. The first thing they teach you when you do graduate work in history is that history is not inevitable. Because something happened in the 12th century it does not mean that things have to be the way they are in the 21st century. Hildegard von Bingen and Eleanor of Aquitaine do not feminism make. In fact, to discuss feminism in the middle ages if a massive anachronism. 3. The author completely fails to see how the cult of the Virgin Mary was also harmful to women - it provided an unobtainable model for women to follow, for no virgin could be a mother and no mother could be a virgin. It sets up the virgin v. whore dichotomy that still plagues the Western world today. (HA! I broke point #2.) 4. He seems really influenced by his own modern conception of Catholicism that he constantly judges the Church of the Middle Ages by. He discounts Dominican roles because of their role in the Inquisition in the centuries to come. He also makes disparaging comments about Protestant theologies that aren't even existant in the time period. Then there's the whole rant about pedophile priests at the end, which wtf. 5. What the hell was his whole diatribe against Islam as a "simple religion." That "simple religion" saved most of the knowledge of the Greeks that were influential in the centuries he covers and coming ones. 6. The constant commercials to read his other books are annoying. If the other books are written as crappily as this one, I'm not even going to look at them. On the other hand, the book was the closest thing to a medieval manuscript with all the pretty illustrations but man, the text sucked.

  2. 4 out of 5

    Jen

    I'll say this for Cahill--he holds nothing back. Let's start with the book proper, because I'm a medievalist and an editor, so I notice these things. Setting this up like an illuminated manuscript was a brilliant move--the marginalia, the side notes like glosses instead of the more academic foot- or endnotes, even the scribe-like scratches of page numbers made this book a visual joy to read, which was a neat trick. As to the contents, this gets the stamp of approval from a Real Live Medievalist. I I'll say this for Cahill--he holds nothing back. Let's start with the book proper, because I'm a medievalist and an editor, so I notice these things. Setting this up like an illuminated manuscript was a brilliant move--the marginalia, the side notes like glosses instead of the more academic foot- or endnotes, even the scribe-like scratches of page numbers made this book a visual joy to read, which was a neat trick. As to the contents, this gets the stamp of approval from a Real Live Medievalist. It's not in-depth or even fully correct all the time, which Cahill himself addresses very smartly in the last chapter. But it's a fantastic introduction, and his sources in the back are a great way to go further, should you wish to. The tone is personable and funny, and Cahill has no problem letting you know exactly what he thinks about a person or event--which works, oddly, in this context. It becomes a friend telling you exciting stories rather than a lecture of facts, which is a much more preferable presentation of history, anyway. I was surprised with his epilogue, and disagree with its inclusion in this volume. While I agree with the anger it carries and the clarion call it's trying to sound, I don't think it had any place here and it felt like an over-extension of the familiarity Cahill had created in the rest of the book. This is not the place for a soapbox, worthy though it may be. Brilliant book, though, and I'll definitely be looking for ways to incorporate some of his language into my classes. A final "right on" for Cahill is his decision to often include the original language of the texts he quotes; as someone who's studied some of these languages, it's good to see where his provided translations miss the meaning for the sake of the rhythm and to be able to get into the texts myself, but it's also nice just to read the beauty of the languages I don't know. Well done, Cahill. I'll definitely be looking for more in this series.

  3. 5 out of 5

    ~Geektastic~

    Mysteries of the Middle Ages is history told through biography and anecdote. While it covers grand themes, as the title implies, it does so in an immediate, small scale way that makes the transitions of time more accessible to lay readers (i.e.: me). I picked Mysteries up somewhat by chance; I was reading Ken Follett’s Pillars of the Earth, and wanted to supplement my meager knowledge of the period. Originally, I passed this over because it was too expensive at my local Borders (it has full-color Mysteries of the Middle Ages is history told through biography and anecdote. While it covers grand themes, as the title implies, it does so in an immediate, small scale way that makes the transitions of time more accessible to lay readers (i.e.: me). I picked Mysteries up somewhat by chance; I was reading Ken Follett’s Pillars of the Earth, and wanted to supplement my meager knowledge of the period. Originally, I passed this over because it was too expensive at my local Borders (it has full-color illustrations on nearly every other page), but I’m happy to say I found a copy at a quarter of the price at a used shop. Not that this has much bearing on the quality of the book, but I thought that the event was fortunate so it contributed to my interest in it. Lucky for those of us not well-versed in the slow crawl (or backslide) of history from the relative enlightenment of ancient times to the Dark Ages, Cahill starts with early Greek thinkers and progresses through the ages with representative figures to illustrate each shift in thought. From Aristotle and Plato, he moves on to the grand Medieval figures like Hildegard, Eleanor of Aquitaine and Thomas Aquinas, sprinkled liberally with famous stories like that of Heloise and Abelard. Cahill writes in a conversational style that suits the nature of the book in many ways; it’s not intended to be comprehensive, but it skims over the relevant figures and movements to paint a large scale-portrait of several hundred years of tumultuous history. I doubt there are many other history books that manage to name drop Saint Francis of Assisi and Sex and the City within the same 300 pages, but at the same time, some of his references to modern pop culture and politics are jarring rather than helpful. Cahill is not the most objective historian I have ever encountered; sometimes, he can be surprisingly snarky in his observations, particularly those concerning religion. Speaking of religion, this book was very useful in clarifying a few historical concepts of Catholicism that have always bothered me. Very early Christianity was a nihilistic religion; everything relied on the swift approach of Judgment Day and the Church’s philosophies show this quite clearly. I have always wondered when the shift occurred between the “End Times” religion of early believers, and the much more worldly concerns of the later incarnation of the Church. Cahill uses various people and their writings to illuminate the progression of thought that generated a shift in perspective from a philosophy of negativity (the Earth is an evil, disgusting place) to one more positive (the Earth is not perfect, but we must improve it for the time we are here). Cahill follows the progress of science by tracing the presence of Aristotelian thought through the ages, pointing out the works in which it emerges and proving that, despite our conceptions of Medieval thinking and religious fanaticism, observational and secular thinking was always lurking below the surface, emerging into the light from time to time in the works of people like Roger Bacon. While Cahill can be accused of belittling religious thought from time to time, he is at least fair when considering points like how our misconception that Europe in the Middle Ages was populated by crazy "flat Earth" believers is inaccurate. Art, on the other hand, seems to follow an opposite path from science, becoming more expressive because of religion rather than in spite of it. Cimabue and Giotto are Cahill’s primary examples, and their work contrasts strikingly with the stiff ikons of Byzantine art, which were descendants of Greek formalism. I also learned an interesting tidbit in the section on art; I never knew that the word “iconoclast” comes from the destruction of religious icons by a cult of religious fanatics that believed the Muslim practice of non-representative art was the foundation of their military success. As far as tracing art and science through the ages, the book is very good. Feminism is a little sketchier; just because two prominent female figures emerged near the same time doesn’t mean feminism suddenly took root. At the same time, some women have always fought against the constraints of their time, so it’s really hard to say where “feminism” as we know it really emerged and the examples here are as good as any. So there was a fairly even blend of good information and pointless proselytizing in this. Cahill could have written a much better book had he decided to omit his tangential tirades concerning modern day events and his personal take on religious thinking. They aren't terribly long, but they disorient the reader from the narrative and cause you to question his objectivity as a historian, which in turn makes you doubt the validity of his observations concerning the actual subject at hand. I have been working on this review throughout my progress in the book and have been impatient to post it, so I will be adding more once I see what conclusions Cahill draws to tie everything together.

  4. 5 out of 5

    Jackie

    This is the first book in a long time that I've stopped reading mid-way through. I appreciated the pictures. I like pictures. But they could not compensate for the otherwise amateur composition of this book. The frequent plugs for Cahill's other books in the text are arrogant, but understandable. The idiot-friendly comparisons between medieval troubadors and the Rolling Stones are annoying, but tolerable. But the fact that he makes judgments which are not only out-of-context, but inflammatory (li This is the first book in a long time that I've stopped reading mid-way through. I appreciated the pictures. I like pictures. But they could not compensate for the otherwise amateur composition of this book. The frequent plugs for Cahill's other books in the text are arrogant, but understandable. The idiot-friendly comparisons between medieval troubadors and the Rolling Stones are annoying, but tolerable. But the fact that he makes judgments which are not only out-of-context, but inflammatory (like his diatribe against modern Islam) is both unprofessional and inappropriate. I would have continued reading if the book were merely boring, but misleading the reader with unfounded assumptions (his bibliography is more akin to a personal reflection) is something I feel is unacceptable.

  5. 5 out of 5

    Dana Stabenow

    Cahill is determined to redeem the Middle Ages from the likes of William Manchester (A World Lit Only By Fire) and Mark Twain (A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur's Court). On the contrary, Cahill writes The reputation of the Middle Ages for thuggish cruelty is largely (if not wholly) undeserved. which I find a bit of a relief, since I much prefer the Middle Ages of Brother Cafael to the Middle Ages of Torquemada. When Cahill cites Hildegarde of Bingen as proof of the rise of feminism in the Middl Cahill is determined to redeem the Middle Ages from the likes of William Manchester (A World Lit Only By Fire) and Mark Twain (A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur's Court). On the contrary, Cahill writes The reputation of the Middle Ages for thuggish cruelty is largely (if not wholly) undeserved. which I find a bit of a relief, since I much prefer the Middle Ages of Brother Cafael to the Middle Ages of Torquemada. When Cahill cites Hildegarde of Bingen as proof of the rise of feminism in the Middle Ages, you might raise a skeptical eyebrow. When Cahill then proceeds to point out that Heloise and Eleanor of Aquitaine were contemporaries of Hildegarde, you begin to wonder if perhaps he might be onto something. It's easy to jam all these centuries together and label them as brutal, ignorant, misogynist and diseased (see any high school history course), but then, Cahill rightly points out, how do you explain Hildegarde, Heloise and Eleanor? Giotto? Dante? Roger Bacon? Chartres? Lively prose and a wealth of contextual savvy combine to make this a quick read. There is lots of detail about life as it was then lived The insoluble medieval problem in the face of such a company was sanitation. Plumbing was unknown; and the tradition of public bathing, though as much a part of the Greco-Roman heritage as plumbing had been, had perished beyond Byzantium. Because individual bathing in a copper basin in a drafty castle could lead so easily to chill, then to fever and death, kings and queens seldom bathed more than once a month, those with neither washerwoman nor ewerer at their command scarcely more than once or twice a year. Saint he might have been, you could smell Francis of Assisi coming long before you saw him. Cahill isn't shy about using the present to illustrate the past, either Yes, the Bush/Blair invasion of Iraq was an immense blunder engineered by adolescent fantasists, ignorant of cultural realities. But no one, whether Bush or bin Laden, has the right to blow up innocent civilians...Islam began as a warrior religion bent on worldly conquest... When Francis of Assisi joins the Fifth Crusade ...the Mediterranean had become, in fact, a Muslim sea, its African and Asian coasts entirely dominated by the Crescent. Francis, in fact, meets in person with Sultan al-Malik al-Kamil, nephew of Saladin himself, he who booted Richard the Lionheart out of Palestine once and for all. The saint proselytizes the sultan, to no avail, and Francis takes his admiration for the five-times daily Islamic call to prayer back to Europe where it becomes the three-times daily recitation of the Angelus. Who knew? I particularly enjoyed the footnotes, which are in this case sidenotes, with illustrated letters. For example [imagine an illustrated lower case b here] In the ancient world, women never addressed large crowds, not only because their opinions were unsought, but because there were no public address systems, and the unaided casting of the voice to a large crowd, especially in the open air, present insurmountable difficulties to most women...The late Romanesque and Gothic cathedrals of the Middles Ages, because they were echoing sound boxes, gave women their first opportunity to address large meetings. Again, who knew? In the next to the last chapter, Cahill parallels Dante's Inferno to our own time with startling aptness, but the last chapter is reserved for a polemic against the Catholic Church in its present pedophilic incarnation, although said polemic feels more heartbroken than accusatory. From the Scrovegni Chapel to the Ryan Report, lo, how the mighty have fallen.

  6. 5 out of 5

    Susan

    I have the audio book (abridged) which I've listened to through the state of Nevada, a state in which to listen to audio books. I picked up the book thinking that I didn't know much about the Middle Ages, but as I listened, Cahill reintroduced me to some of my favorite historical figures: Hildegard, Eleanor of Aquitaine, Roger Bacon, Thomas Aquinas, St. Francis of Assisi, Dante, Giotto. I realized that I knew more about the Middle Ages than I thought. Cahill talks of the time through the people an I have the audio book (abridged) which I've listened to through the state of Nevada, a state in which to listen to audio books. I picked up the book thinking that I didn't know much about the Middle Ages, but as I listened, Cahill reintroduced me to some of my favorite historical figures: Hildegard, Eleanor of Aquitaine, Roger Bacon, Thomas Aquinas, St. Francis of Assisi, Dante, Giotto. I realized that I knew more about the Middle Ages than I thought. Cahill talks of the time through the people and he does it with an engaging voice: not too dry and never melodramatic, a difficult skill to learn. The time comes alive through these remarkable people. Cahill posits that it was a remarkable time; I think the time had remarkable people. In addition, Cahill makes connections to present time, sometimes in very unexpected ways. As he describes the characteristics of current political figures, he continues the description with a surprise ending such as, "and such was Philip the Fair of France." Likewise, he severely (and deservedly) takes to task the contemporary Roman Catholic Church by making connections to Dante's Divine Comedy. I enjoyed the entire book and intend to either read or listen to it again. It was quite comforting in the heat of the summer Nevada desert to be in the presence of these favorite people of mine.

  7. 5 out of 5

    Jacob Aitken

    Cahill argues that those terrible dark ages actually sparked movements that elevated women and anticipated science. Cahill is always worth reading. He is very interesting and is a good writer. He brings up many topics that modern academics ignore. The bad parts: 1) While he gets the general overview of history correct, his specific analyses are usually wrong--and wrong by a long shot. For example, he said that the Greek Orthodox were not as concerned with the Incarnation as the Romans. This is ju Cahill argues that those terrible dark ages actually sparked movements that elevated women and anticipated science. Cahill is always worth reading. He is very interesting and is a good writer. He brings up many topics that modern academics ignore. The bad parts: 1) While he gets the general overview of history correct, his specific analyses are usually wrong--and wrong by a long shot. For example, he said that the Greek Orthodox were not as concerned with the Incarnation as the Romans. This is just silly. 2) He can't stay on topic for more than two pages. While he is supposed to be examing x topic from the Middle Ages, he will then start complaining about 21st century right-wing politics. 3) He has this weird obsession with sex. I feel like I need a moral bath after I read him. the good parts: 1) for all of his faults, Cahill really, really loves the Middle Ages. And he tries to interpret the Middle Ages on the Middle Ages' terms. This makes him definitionally better than most "scholars" on the Middle Ages. 2) His chapter on alchemy, while fundamentally wrong by about 100 years, and it is debatable whether Transubstantiation necessarily led to alchemy in Europe, is very fascinating. 3) His exposition of Roger Bacon gives the reader one of those "wow" moments. 4) He is one of the few medievalists who raises the issue of "multiple dimensions" within reality (e.g., the area where angels, demons, faeiries, etc live). Whether this is theological viable today is beside the point. The medievals believed in this and Cahill, unlike tenured academics today, isn't embarrassed by the point. Cahill is certainly worth reading and always interesting. But one needs a good grasp on the history beforehand. His facts are almost always wrong (or at least warped). Mary gave women a valuable role, he says. Further, discussions on the Eucharist would later lead to scientific reasoning. Now on one level Cahill's argument is just plain bad and would fail any theology exam. But on another level... Transubstantiaion in its more crass formulations says that the bread and wine become the body and blood--really. Medieval reasoning allowed thinkers to see how fluid matter could be. While absurd at one level, this is exactly what "nano technology" is today. It also let modern theologians like Catherine Pickstock and John Milbank show the relation between the Eucharist and ontology.

  8. 5 out of 5

    Pamela

    This is the Reader's Digest take on history. Like any good digest, Cahill draws on the Middle Ages' most interesting topics and presents said topics very accessibly. Despite being disappointingly low on cults and mysteries (false advertising!), this book was a great introduction to religious art and philosophy. Never before have I found the two to be more accessibly presented. However the whimsical illustrations (not the photos, but the gargoyles littering every other page) and riffing tangents This is the Reader's Digest take on history. Like any good digest, Cahill draws on the Middle Ages' most interesting topics and presents said topics very accessibly. Despite being disappointingly low on cults and mysteries (false advertising!), this book was a great introduction to religious art and philosophy. Never before have I found the two to be more accessibly presented. However the whimsical illustrations (not the photos, but the gargoyles littering every other page) and riffing tangents made me feel like I was reading a kid's board book on medieval history. On the whole, a friendly but sloppy history.

  9. 5 out of 5

    Cara

    I put this down pretty much exactly halfway through, when the author leaves the Middle Ages and goes on an unnecessary anti-Islam diatribe, parroting the right-wing anti-Muslim talking points you hear from any Fox News guest. It is otherwise a compelling account of a hodgepodge of figures from Catholic history; though neither deep nor thought-provoking, at least fairly interesting. I have no idea why the author decided to ruin his own credibility halfway through, and I can't imagine why his edit I put this down pretty much exactly halfway through, when the author leaves the Middle Ages and goes on an unnecessary anti-Islam diatribe, parroting the right-wing anti-Muslim talking points you hear from any Fox News guest. It is otherwise a compelling account of a hodgepodge of figures from Catholic history; though neither deep nor thought-provoking, at least fairly interesting. I have no idea why the author decided to ruin his own credibility halfway through, and I can't imagine why his editor let him.

  10. 5 out of 5

    Tiffany

    Far from comprehensive but very readable. Cahill covers Hildegard, Eleanor of Aquitaine, Thomas Aquinas, Dante and Roger Bacon, along with many other famous figures of the time. Cahill traces art and science throughout the period and the influence of Catholicism on Western culture. If nothing else, this book made me want to read more about Eleanor of Aquitaine and the Plantagenets.

  11. 5 out of 5

    Shiloah

    I truly appreciated this take on the history of the Medieval Times. He focused on those who made a significant difference in the history that affects our lives today. I enjoyed every moment with this book.

  12. 5 out of 5

    Ian

    The central thesis that Mr. Cahill sets forth in Mysteries of the Middle Ages certainly intrigued me from the outset. I was very curious to see the threads of modern thinking rising from the ashes of the Roman Empire, and how the Catholic Church facilitated this remarkable transition. Unfortunately, I never felt that the author completely proved his main argument. While I enjoyed the examples provided by Francis of Assisi, Francis Bacon, Hildegard, etc. I never really felt that this book came to The central thesis that Mr. Cahill sets forth in Mysteries of the Middle Ages certainly intrigued me from the outset. I was very curious to see the threads of modern thinking rising from the ashes of the Roman Empire, and how the Catholic Church facilitated this remarkable transition. Unfortunately, I never felt that the author completely proved his main argument. While I enjoyed the examples provided by Francis of Assisi, Francis Bacon, Hildegard, etc. I never really felt that this book came together as his other works have done. He attempts to explain the lose feel by pointing out that the middle ages were incredibly disparate based on region, philosophy, fiefdom (among other causes), but this explanation does not compensate for the lack of tight narrative flow that one finds in his other Hinges of History volumes. Worth dipping into if you have the time, but I would recommend his other works well above this outing.

  13. 4 out of 5

    Katie

    This was a pretty book, generous with maps, photos, illustrations, and set in a beautiful typeface. Sadly, that's the best I can say for it. This was a superficial, chatty waste of money and time. Picked this up in an airport bookstall - FAIL. I felt crankier after reading this in flight than I imagine I would have if I'd just spent the two hours making funny little seatback-tray mosaics with my standard-issue airline pretzels.

  14. 5 out of 5

    Charles Calvano

    Disappointing in some ways, though fascinating in others. I got the feeling that Cahill had some research notes lying around from his earlier books and didn't want them to go to waste -- so he assembled this book which seems quite episodic and covers a seeming hodge-podge of topics.

  15. 5 out of 5

    Darcy

    The main reason I decided to buy this book, rather than borrowing it from the library, was because of the inclusion of the beautiful and colorful illustrations, paintings, and photographs (I even bought it in Barnes and Noble instead of Amazon!). From the aesthetic perspective, this is the type of book you want sitting on your bookshelf, and in many ways, it was a very good book. I enjoyed learning about how science, art, and religion intersected during the Middle Ages and how a secular society The main reason I decided to buy this book, rather than borrowing it from the library, was because of the inclusion of the beautiful and colorful illustrations, paintings, and photographs (I even bought it in Barnes and Noble instead of Amazon!). From the aesthetic perspective, this is the type of book you want sitting on your bookshelf, and in many ways, it was a very good book. I enjoyed learning about how science, art, and religion intersected during the Middle Ages and how a secular society morphed into a Christian one. I had never seriously considered how the Romans became the Italians. I thought Cahill’s portraits of Dante, Eleanor of Aquitaine, and Hildegard of Bingen were insightful and well-written. I especially enjoyed his analysis of Giotto’s frescos in the Scrovegni chapel. The Middle Ages was a rich time indeed and I feel as though I learned a great deal from reading this book, but overall, it lacked polish. First, the tone was confusing. Attempts at demonstrating reverence for prayer and other religious rituals were offset by juvenile and often offensive asides that had all the finesse of a clever college frat boy trying desperately to catch people’s attention. Most glaring was Cahill’s reference to Christ on page 315 (I’ll let you look that one up yourself). Certainly, Cahill is appealing to a modern and perhaps a mostly secular audience, but I found he bordered on disrespectful and was unnecessarily crude, even while trying to impress on his reader the profound religiosity of so many in the Middle Ages. Most obnoxious though was the way Cahill muddied with waters by inserting his own personal diatribes against Bush, nuclear weapons, and current issues of sexual abuse and homosexuality within the Catholic church. I was surprised to find that instead of devoting his final chapter to the so-called mysteries of the Middle Ages, that he used it as a platform in which to decry the Catholic church for what he sees as their inappropriate response to current problems. Cahill may or may not be correct in his assertions, but in no way does this contribute to the thesis of his book. I expected to walk away from this with my head swimming with the wonders and mysteries of the Middle Ages (much like I felt after reading Richard Holmes’ The Age of Wonder). Instead, my final impression of this book was about the current Catholic church and its need for reform. Once again, not something I necessarily disagree with, but certainly not the reason I bought this book. I feel as though the title and information on the back of this book is intentionally misleading. In his postlude, Cahill states that, “The story this book has had to tell is the story of the (often overlooked and belittled) Catholic contribution to Western civilization. Yet, the back of this book tells me that I’m going to learn about “how medieval thinkers created the origins of modern intellectual movements.” The book jacket makes absolutely NO mention of Catholicism; yet according to Cahill, that’s really what the book is about. Interestingly, I notice that on the Goodreads edition, the full title does indicate that this book will be dealing with "the cults of Catholic Europe," yet the full title of my book is "Mysteries of the Middle Ages and the Beginning of the Modern World." A quick search on Amazon shows me that the first title was from the 2006 edition and the new title (the one that doesn't mention Catholicism) is from 2008. I'm not sure why they decided to edit the title (perhaps referring to Catholicism as a cult was offensive to some), but the former title is more true to the contents of the book.

  16. 5 out of 5

    Alex Telander

    MYSTERIES OF THE MIDDLE AGES: AND THE BEGINNING OF THE MODERN WORLD BY THOMAS CAHILL: In the fifth book in his Hinges of History series, Thomas Cahill takes on the period of the middle ages, going into depth on the important people of the era and what effect they had on the history. Regardless of the actual content of the book, Mysteries of the Middles Ages deserves an award for excellence in design and layout. It is one of the most ornate and beautifully designed books I’ve ever read. As soon a MYSTERIES OF THE MIDDLE AGES: AND THE BEGINNING OF THE MODERN WORLD BY THOMAS CAHILL: In the fifth book in his Hinges of History series, Thomas Cahill takes on the period of the middle ages, going into depth on the important people of the era and what effect they had on the history. Regardless of the actual content of the book, Mysteries of the Middles Ages deserves an award for excellence in design and layout. It is one of the most ornate and beautifully designed books I’ve ever read. As soon as one opens the cover, one is greeted by color and lavish design, colorful photographs and paintings, as well as eye-catching and picaresque fonts. Cahill begins with a somewhat lengthy introduction spending a little too much time on the content of his past books and leading through the centuries up to the fall of Rome and the beginning of the Middle Ages. He then skips past the “Dark Ages” and jumps to the twelfth century with Hildegard of Bingen. There is very little mention, and certainly no chapters on the likes of Charlemagne, Alfred the Great, or William the Conqueror, who were all incredibly important people in first setting in motion specific events, ideas, and practices that gave rise the High Middle Ages and the great strides made therein, as well as creating precedents and standards that are used in today’s modern age. Subtitling this as “And the Beginning of the Modern World,” is somewhat insulting when only in a small aside does Cahill discuss Muhammad and the birth of Islam in the late sixth century, after spending a quarter of the book on Jesus. Nevertheless, for what Cahill does spend his time talking about, he does well and thoroughly. Using a conversational and at times jocular tone, making this a book for the layman, he begins with Hildegard of Bingen and then goes on to Eleanor of Aquitaine, one of the most important women in the history of the western world. It is here that Cahill digs into the deep and complex history of the High Middle Ages with the rise of the universities and the growth of science and math and art and the crucial stirrings of what would come to be known as the Renaissance, beginning in Paris, then Oxford, and finally to Italy with Padua, Florence, and Ravenna, concluding with Dante. While Mysteries of the Middle Ages should not be considered a complete telling of the important people and “hinges” of the Middle Ages, it nevertheless is an excellent book on the High Middle Ages, and some of the important people who made great strides and leaps – sometimes at the cost of their own lives – to help create the civilized and advanced world we live in today. For more book reviews, and author interviews, go to BookBanter.

  17. 4 out of 5

    Pamela

    Mysteries of the Middle Ages: The Rise of Feminism, Science and Art from the Cults of Catholic Europe is a delightful book and I would have been happy with one at least twice its length. I have read How the Irish Saved Civilization, another in Thomas Cahill's Hinges of History series and, sooner or later, I will wind up reading the rest. They are so interesting. Besides, it's always nice when an author agrees with you and I have also always felt that the in between periods of history foreshadow Mysteries of the Middle Ages: The Rise of Feminism, Science and Art from the Cults of Catholic Europe is a delightful book and I would have been happy with one at least twice its length. I have read How the Irish Saved Civilization, another in Thomas Cahill's Hinges of History series and, sooner or later, I will wind up reading the rest. They are so interesting. Besides, it's always nice when an author agrees with you and I have also always felt that the in between periods of history foreshadow what will take place in their more famous following periods. Here, it is what happened in the High Middle Ages that opened the path to the Renaissance. For me, it's where the really interesting things are happening because so few people are doing them. When the Renaissance comes along, everyone has gotten into the act. Cahill starts with an introduction that reviews the major points of Greek influence on the middle ages with Aristotle's re-discovery the most influential. The book itself deals with several notable characters in major fields. Hildegard of Bingen is here to represent feminism, flanked by certainly her morally opposite, but no less powerful number, Eleanor of Aquitaine. For science and philosophy, there is Roger Bacon and Thomas Aquinas. There is even an interesting discussion of alchemy and the popular search for the Philosopher's Stone as a prototype of the scientific method. Overall though, Cahill reserves his highest praise for St. Francis of Assisi and his Franciscans, Dante and the Commedia, and Giotto's innovations in art. The book itself is lavishly illustrated throughout and filled with beautiful colored plates. Its biggest drawback is several side issues that are obviously important to Cahill but really don't belong in a history book, even a breezy, reader-friendly one. Talking about modern Presidencies, political issues like the death penalty and indulging in what can only be called a mini-diatribe on the current moral state of the hierarchy in the church distracts even though I agree with all of it. Otherwise, this is a wonderful trip through the High Middle Ages.

  18. 4 out of 5

    Jack

    Cahill writes an often entertaining though wholly biased account of select people and events covering a large range of Medieval history. I was mostly able to ignore his biased rants when applying his pretty obvious religious judgements in most instances but when, near the end, he launches into a vitriolic rant concerning the Byzantine reign of Justinian and his empress-wife Theodora that mirrors all the vitriolic personal attacks in Procopius' "Secret Histories," the depth of the bias throughout Cahill writes an often entertaining though wholly biased account of select people and events covering a large range of Medieval history. I was mostly able to ignore his biased rants when applying his pretty obvious religious judgements in most instances but when, near the end, he launches into a vitriolic rant concerning the Byzantine reign of Justinian and his empress-wife Theodora that mirrors all the vitriolic personal attacks in Procopius' "Secret Histories," the depth of the bias throughout the Cahill's book became all the more evident. The two works in fact share the quality of presenting events with knowledge and some insight, though severely clouded with judgmental attacks based on the morals of the authors. In Cahill's case, he back-applies those morals and judgements from our time. Most modern historians agree that the lurid accounts Procopius presents in his Secret History aren't much more than bitter axe grinding at best. The other issue I have with Cahill is his huge stumble into the trap of presentism. He bases his theses, again, on back-applying modern perspectives on the distant past leading to, what he assumes, are obvious correlations. Most of these arguments are thin at best and downright laughable at worst. This isn’t history. It’s a mish-mash of historical events and figures used as a vehicle for a moral soap-box at times and often as evidence for causation that is weak to ridiculous.

  19. 5 out of 5

    Annie Smidt

    Didn't really enjoy this book. It *was* about the middle ages (though mostly the 12th century and mostly Italy) but mysteries, not so much. The rise of feminism, science and art from the cults of Catholic Europe, not so much. It was more like selected anecdotes from the lives of sundry medieval famous people, with an eye towards how Greek thought did or did not influence them and then a ton of fawning of Dante. With a LOT of passages in early Italian. (Which I'm sure is very lovely, but, plebe t Didn't really enjoy this book. It *was* about the middle ages (though mostly the 12th century and mostly Italy) but mysteries, not so much. The rise of feminism, science and art from the cults of Catholic Europe, not so much. It was more like selected anecdotes from the lives of sundry medieval famous people, with an eye towards how Greek thought did or did not influence them and then a ton of fawning of Dante. With a LOT of passages in early Italian. (Which I'm sure is very lovely, but, plebe that I am, I had to read the Divine Comedy in translation, many years ago). I don't know, I studied a lot of medieval art and culture at university and found it pretty fascinating, but this book just didn't do it for me. It had a lot of odd and somewhat inappropriate tangents, as others have mentioned. I could have done with less Bush in Iraq and some of my best friends died on death row and more (and deeper) connections between medieval art, science, religion and cultural history. Also could have done with a lot more Northern Europe. It's pretty sad to talk about Medieval culture and ignore Flemish painting, French and English architecture and Irish manuscripts...

  20. 5 out of 5

    Laura Andersen

    Nothing could shake How the Irish Saved Civilization as his best, but all of Cahill's Hinges of History books are wonderful.

  21. 5 out of 5

    Todd Stockslager

    I just reread this book I first read back in 2007 so here is my new review (with the same same four star rating): Review title: Growing into the West In The Hinges of History, v. 5, Cahill brings his unique historical approach to the 12th and 13th centuries. When we last heard from Cahill in volume 4, he was Sailing the Wine Dark Sea to introduce us to how the Greek language, political structures, and philosophers shaped their classical world and our modern world. Here, he starts with a preface I just reread this book I first read back in 2007 so here is my new review (with the same same four star rating): Review title: Growing into the West In The Hinges of History, v. 5, Cahill brings his unique historical approach to the 12th and 13th centuries. When we last heard from Cahill in volume 4, he was Sailing the Wine Dark Sea to introduce us to how the Greek language, political structures, and philosophers shaped their classical world and our modern world. Here, he starts with a preface and introduction re-establishing our footing in the Greek and Roman world within the context of Christianity, Judaism, and Islam in the early centuries of the AD era, then develops the continuing impact of these "singular treasures that make up the patrimony of the West" as Cahill calls it in his introduction describing the Hinges of History series. As is typical of Cahill, but not often of histories, he focuses not on the sequence of events but on the seriousness of ideas, of philosophy, art, architecture, and belief. And as is typical of the series, these treasures come not from kings or popes, who are merely bit players in this history, but from men and women who mattered most then and still today, whether sainted, venerated, or merely followed. Here we meet Saint Hildegard, who as a cloistered virgin saw visions and preached sermons that pointed the way to worship of the Virgin Mary, a worship reflected in the stained glass art and architecture of the great cathedrals built to the glory of Notre Dame. We meet Eleanor of Aquitaine who as duchess and queen shaped political history, but in the last two decades of her life, retired to the cloisters, she pointed the way to Francis of Assisi, who preached a radical form of love for God through love for his creation. Cahill describes Francis' death: "I have done what is mine," were his last whispered words to his companions. "May Christ teach what is yours to do." Larks sang and flew in circles above the house where he died. As Frances had already noticed, they are the birds who "are friends of the light." And that is how romance became prayer. (p. 173) Cahill always illustrates his Hinges of History books richly because so many of his arguments are visual, and this one is no exception, with representations of the Virgin and her son from these centuries showing romance becoming prayer in the loving mother and baby's tender poses in contrast to the severe faces and stereotyped poses of previous centuries. This collage of images contains "swatches of late antique and early medieval Rome, oddly conjoined strips from maps both geographical and metaphysical, a not-so-blushing virgin, a blushless queen, and (as we shall soon see) a nun who prides herself on being her lover's whore. What on earth do all these things have to do with one another? But to present the Middle Ages otherwise--as a seamless garment--would be to falsify their character and leave the reader grasping at a phantasm." (p. 187-188). Cahill paints scenes with words and pictures that bring history into living motion and emotion. In the second half of the story Cahill highlights Thomas Aquinas and Roger Bacon, whose faith and philosophical grounding in the newly-rediscovered Aristotelean emphasis on evidence and experimentation built on the sensual textures of Hildegard and Francis to establish the modern European university model. Paris, Oxford, Bologna, and Padua gathered scholars and students in educational settings that remain recognizable today. It is indisputable, regardless of the frequency of counter examples and of the prevailing perception of modern critics, that it was with the example of Jesus's life, the rise of Christianity through individuals living out his example in the centuries after, and the ascendancy of the church in the Middle Ages that the status of women and the pursuit of science were established even when occasionally denied by orthodoxy or organizational action. Cahill completes the scope of his subtitle by closing the loop back to art, in the textual complexity of Dante's Divine Comedy and the frescos and architecture that both inspired and were inspired by this culminating masterpiece of this broad period of history. In further explanation of the book title, Cahill writes that he is using the word "Mysteries" in the contemporary definition which roughly corresponds to the sacraments, of which the most important (and the most mysterious) is communion. In Cahill's hands, this communion is more than just a sacramental ritual, but a mystery of spiritual and historical beauty that indeed is a hinge on which the history of the modern world pivots: The God-Man finds his home on earth [at his birth] among the poor, the outcast, the forgotten. . . . He and his parents are just a mite uncomfortable when three exotic kings arrive to pay homage. There is no shallow cleverness; what profundity there is rests only in the depths of humane meaning that the images can conjure up. . . . [after his death and resurrection] This is a love story in which Christ the Lover seeks out Mankind his Beloved in order to welcome human beings back into "the general dance," the fantastic, if hidden, harmony of creation . (p. 53-54) Here was my original review: Greek matrix populated by Judeo-Christian content This book is greatly readable as are all of Cahill's "Hinge of History" series (this the fifth), but less satisfying to me than the others. In this entry Cahill ties together the roots of history from --Judaism (The Gifts of the Jews: How a Tribe of Desert Nomads Changed the Way Everyone Thinks and Feels (Hinges of History)), --Jesus (Desire of the Everlasting Hills: The World Before and After Jesus (Hinges of History)) and --Greece (Sailing the Wine-Dark Sea: Why the Greeks Matter) as preserved by the Irish (How the Irish Saved Civilization (Hinges of History). As Cahill summarizes in conclusion, Western civilization is a Greek matrix populated by Judeo-Christian content. In the leap from Roman times to the High Middle Ages of the 12th and 13th Century, Cahill must cover so much territory that this books feels more like a rushed survey than the deeper but still accessible studies of the earlier books. In addition, because the sequence of the books has not been strictly chronological, Cahill must (especially early on) make frequent footnote references to the earlier books, a technique as confusing and potentially distracting as a movie told in out-of-sequence flashbacks. But this book is like the others well and purposefully illustrated, and Cahill's ability to phrase old events and idea in living language enables fresh light to dawn on long-dark events. My favorite bit from this book is an English Carol (uncertain of date, but probably from the time period of this book)) called "My Dancing Day", as Cahill writes "a love story in which Christ the Lord seeks out Mankind his Beloved in order to welcome human beings back into 'the general dance', the fantastic, if hidden, harmony of creation. In a searching theological exposition, such a thought might not appear simple, but here it is presented as if in a child's picture book." 1. Tomorrow shall be my dancing day; I would my true love did so chance To see the legend of my play, To call my true love to my dance; Chorus Sing, oh! my love, oh! my love, my love, my love, This have I done for my true love1 2. Then was I born of a virgin pure Of her I took fleshly substance Thus was I knit to man's nature To call my true love to my dance. Chorus 3. In a manger laid, and wrapped I was So very poor, this was my chance Betwixt an ox and a silly poor ass To call my true love to my dance. Chorus 4. Then afterwards baptized I was; The Holy Ghost on me did glance, My Father's voice heard from above, To call my true love to my dance. Chorus 5. Into the desert I was led, Where I fasted without substance; The Devil bade me make stones my bread, To have me break my true love's dance. Chorus 6. The Jews on me they made great suit, And with me made great variance, Because they loved darkness rather than light, To call my true love to my dance. Chorus 7. For thirty pence Judas me sold, His covetousness for to advance: Mark whom I kiss, the same do hold! The same is he shall lead the dance. Chorus 8. Before Pilate the Jews me brought, Where Barabbas had deliverance; They scourged me and set me at nought, Judged me to die to lead the dance. Chorus 9. Then on the cross hanged I was, Where a spear my heart did glance; There issued forth both water and blood, To call my true love to my dance. Chorus 10. Then down to hell I took my way For my true love's deliverance, And rose again on the third day, Up to my true love and the dance. Chorus 11. Then up to heaven I did ascend, Where now I dwell in sure substance On the right hand of God, that man May come unto the general dance. Chorus

  22. 4 out of 5

    Eric

    I thought I knew nothing about the Middle Ages, and the title caused me to have certain ideas in mind before I read it. I was not expecting to get a short biography of a half dozen or so key figures from the years 1000 to 1300. Nor did I realize that I actually had heard of almost all of them. When he got into the arts toward the end of the book, I initially found it a bit annoying how he focused closely on a few pieces of art by Giotto and a few passages from Dante's The Divine Comedy. But by th I thought I knew nothing about the Middle Ages, and the title caused me to have certain ideas in mind before I read it. I was not expecting to get a short biography of a half dozen or so key figures from the years 1000 to 1300. Nor did I realize that I actually had heard of almost all of them. When he got into the arts toward the end of the book, I initially found it a bit annoying how he focused closely on a few pieces of art by Giotto and a few passages from Dante's The Divine Comedy. But by the end of it, I found myself looking around this chaotic world we're in now and feeling a strong 'plus ça change, plus c'est la même chose' about it all. It was both sad (because, jeez, 700 years!) and oddly comforting. I found myself wondering who in Hollywood is taking their inspiration from Dante, and feeling a desire for that level of muckraking, and wishing that something that strong would break through. I'm not entirely sure, as much as I appreciated his closing chapter, how appropriate it was to drop in such a strong, largely unrelated, editorial. Maybe he was feeling inspired by Dante! Upshot -- now I actually want to learn more. It makes me look at Renaissance festivals a bit askance, because, really, they're more Middle Ages festivals. But I guess that just doesn't sound quite as enticing somehow. Oh, and it makes me want to go back to Italy. And France. And Germany. It's more than a little humbling to look around me, watching 30 year old businesses and buildings be torn down, and contemplate buildings that are a thousand years old and more. Not just the Roman ones, but so many others. So, yeah, for some reason I liked this one better than the other ones I read by him. Despite it being longer. Despite it seeming to not really clearly capture the arc that I was hoping to see. Still, it caught something that struck a note with me.

  23. 4 out of 5

    alex guns

    A self-proclaimed antithesis to William Manchester's anti-medieval polemic "A World Lit Only by Fire", Cahill's "Mystery of the Middle Ages" attempts to paint the Middle Ages in a more flattering light. Cahill focuses on the 12th-century renaissance; an era of ecclesiastic reform brought on by an ascendant merchant class that made room for the likes of St. Aquinas, St. Francis, Peter Abelard and Dante Alighieri. A time of renewal, dusting off the work of founding philosophers, and a new seriousn A self-proclaimed antithesis to William Manchester's anti-medieval polemic "A World Lit Only by Fire", Cahill's "Mystery of the Middle Ages" attempts to paint the Middle Ages in a more flattering light. Cahill focuses on the 12th-century renaissance; an era of ecclesiastic reform brought on by an ascendant merchant class that made room for the likes of St. Aquinas, St. Francis, Peter Abelard and Dante Alighieri. A time of renewal, dusting off the work of founding philosophers, and a new seriousness all snuggly under the yoke of Christendom. The book falls flat when Cahill attempt to draw straight lines between these 12th-century leaders and modern political movements. Or worse yet that Cahill saw the High Middle Ages as worth a reappraisal because it reminded him so much of modernity. Mysteries of the Middle Ages is littered with embarrassing references to reality TV and non-serious conclusions, like how Elenor of Aquitaine would have fit right in in the Women's Liberation Movement. Cahill's best moments are in his detailed descriptions of Giotto di Bondone's frescoes. The enthusiasm for a far-flung past, the tracing of the artist's deliberate craftsmanship, Cahill comes to life in these moments and in turn brings the reader closer to The High Middle Ages he admires so much. A World Lit only by Fire was so fierce in its rhetoric, condemning the entire era as a colossal waste of time, it was practically calling out for reprisal upon it's publication. While I am sympathetic to Cahill's thesis, his presentation, the construction of his arguments and his prose styling fall far from his reach and only serve to expose the gulf between him and Manchester

  24. 5 out of 5

    William

    This book probably presented a challenge for Cahill in his Hinges of History series, in that the Middle Ages is how he opened the series, with "How the Irish Saved Civilization." That book painted the fall of Rome as the beginning of a time when the preservation of ancient Greek and Roman culture presented a challenge to the continuation of civilization. But Cahill goes to lengths in this book to show that darkness did not descend on Europe with the end of the Roman Empire. I love this series of This book probably presented a challenge for Cahill in his Hinges of History series, in that the Middle Ages is how he opened the series, with "How the Irish Saved Civilization." That book painted the fall of Rome as the beginning of a time when the preservation of ancient Greek and Roman culture presented a challenge to the continuation of civilization. But Cahill goes to lengths in this book to show that darkness did not descend on Europe with the end of the Roman Empire. I love this series of books, but as they have gone on, I grow somewhat tired of Cahill's using 3,000 years of Western Civilization as his axe against the papacies of John Paul II and Benedict XVI, not to mention whatever politician is on his list at the moment. Whatever currency is gained by this with some readers is lost with others. You want your tour guide to point you to the canvas, and maybe tell you why its worth looking at. But at some point, they let you make the artistic appreciation. There's no need to be "relevant" when you're talking about Dante, Chaucer, Abelard or Aquinas. They remain relevant.

  25. 4 out of 5

    Metal Nyankos

    You know something's wrong when the author doesn't state their central, unifying thesis until page 195 - oh, and said thesis is only stated in a footnote. You further realize something's off when, after reading the thesis statement, you ask yourself "Oh, so that's the point you've been trying to make for almost 200 pages? I just thought you really hated William Manchester!" After reading this and the slightly less disappointing Heretics and Heroes: How Renaissance Artists and Reformation Priests You know something's wrong when the author doesn't state their central, unifying thesis until page 195 - oh, and said thesis is only stated in a footnote. You further realize something's off when, after reading the thesis statement, you ask yourself "Oh, so that's the point you've been trying to make for almost 200 pages? I just thought you really hated William Manchester!" After reading this and the slightly less disappointing Heretics and Heroes: How Renaissance Artists and Reformation Priests Created Our World I'm going to have to give Cahill a pass for a long, long time.

  26. 4 out of 5

    Evelyn

    It's a good introduction to a range of topics, but mostly made me want to look up biographies of some historical figures I'd previously not known much about....and read the Divine Comedy. Good place to start if you're looking for other interesting historical subjects to dig deeper into, I wouldn't suggest it as an Audio book as I can only assume many of the art discussed had accompanying pictures that I missed out on in that format.

  27. 5 out of 5

    Quinn Strange

    This book is stylistically gorgeous and unpretentious. A both educational and entertaining read. Just sublime.

  28. 4 out of 5

    Autumn

    The author's enthusiasm is so cute. A real delight to read

  29. 4 out of 5

    Matt

    In popular imagination the medieval period is a time of ignorance and superstition, fear and violence, and crushing religious intolerance of anything the Church was against. Mysteries of the Middle Ages is the fifth volume of Thomas Cahill’s ‘Hinges of History’ series, focusing on the individuals in the High Middle Ages who shaped Western society that we know today. Over the course of 300+ pages, Cahill sets out to give his reader a new way to look at the Middle Ages. Cahill begins the book not d In popular imagination the medieval period is a time of ignorance and superstition, fear and violence, and crushing religious intolerance of anything the Church was against. Mysteries of the Middle Ages is the fifth volume of Thomas Cahill’s ‘Hinges of History’ series, focusing on the individuals in the High Middle Ages who shaped Western society that we know today. Over the course of 300+ pages, Cahill sets out to give his reader a new way to look at the Middle Ages. Cahill begins the book not during the Middle Ages, but in the city of Alexandria in Egypt looking at how the Greco-Roman and Judeo-Christian traditions began their long processes of synthetization began before exploring how the Romans became the Italians as a way to differentiate between the Greek East and Latin West for the rest of the book. Then beginning with Hildegard of Bingen, Cahill makes the reader look at the Middle Ages in a vastly different way by showing the power and importance of 12th century Abbess who would one day be declared a saint then turned his attention to a woman of secular power, that of Eleanor of Aquitaine who held political power in a significant way while also allowing the developing “courts of love” evolve. This evolving form of culture spread into the Italian peninsula and influenced a young man from Assisi, Francis who would shift this emphasis of earthly love into spiritual love. The focus of the spiritual then shifted to Peter Abelard and St. Thomas Aquinas who became to emphasis the thoughts of Aristotle over those of Plato in theological discussions while Roger Bacon used Aristotle to begin examining the world around him and thus science that we see today. Yet the world around those during the High Middle Ages began to influence art and literature in both secular and spiritual ways from the Cathedral of Chartres to the works of Dante and Giotto would have influences even to today. Although Cahill readily admits that he could have and wanted to discuss more individuals from a wider swath of Europe, he does an adequate job in showing that the Middle Ages were not what the popular view of the time period was believed to be. Cahill several times throughout the book emphasizes that the Middle Ages, especially from the 12th to the early 14th centuries, were not a time of stagnate culture that the humanists of the Renaissance began calling it. However, Cahill’s asides about Islamic culture as well as the Byzantines were for the most part a continuation of centuries-long mudslinging or a product of today’s ideological-religious conflicts and ironically undermined one of his best arguments, the role of Catholicism in shaping Western society. Cahill’s Catholicism was that of all the individuals he wrote about, who were Christians, not the Church and its hierarchy that over the course of the High Middle Ages became a point of embarrassment to both lay and cleric alike. Mysteries of the Middle Ages shows the beginnings of the synthesis of the two strains of Western society, Greco-Roman and Judeo-Christian, that Thomas Cahill has built up to in his previous four books. As a popular history it very well written, but its flaws of modern and centuries old prejudice undercut a central theme Cahill was developing and wrote about at the end of the book. Yet I cannot but call it a good book to read.

  30. 5 out of 5

    Stephen

    I read a library ebook version. I'm not sure if the images would be better in a paper version. My suspicions on that matter are high. I did like the footnotes being easily accessible inline with the text: touch a footnote marker, "popup". So enough of the format. What of the content? Cahill is an interesting author. I like his perspective and selection of history to portray. Sometimes I think he comes across as know-it-all or too dismissive, but I think he accepts that role, given his discussion I read a library ebook version. I'm not sure if the images would be better in a paper version. My suspicions on that matter are high. I did like the footnotes being easily accessible inline with the text: touch a footnote marker, "popup". So enough of the format. What of the content? Cahill is an interesting author. I like his perspective and selection of history to portray. Sometimes I think he comes across as know-it-all or too dismissive, but I think he accepts that role, given his discussion on how much he had to leave out of this book. He takes a cue, I think, from C.S. Lewis and is, generally, a fan of (Catholic, European) medieval life. Cahill is also an enthusiastic "historian/biographer/man of letter". I like his recommendations. He again recommends "Kristin Lavransdatter" in this volume, which I thoroughly enjoyed based on his previous recommendation. So here, he recommends 3 English translations of Dante's Divine Comedy (which I have yet to read), 2 of which have the opposite page Italian, so he recommends just learning a little Italian and enjoying that - in the original (of course). Well, I might just do that (and I might [higher probability] not). Here's the volumes he recommends (cf. page 329 in the ebook where he's giving a rough bibliography): "For sheer readability from start to finish, I would recommend Allen Mandelbaum's The Divine Comedy of Dante Alighieri in three paperback volumes (Bantam 1982, 1984, 1986) with facing pages in Italian and English. It is accurate and genuinely poetic. For a prose rendering that adheres closely to the Italian, the obvious choice is John D. Sinclair's (Oxford, 1961), also in three paperback volumes with facing pages in both languages... The translation I use frequently in the text because of its successful imitation in English of Dante's terza rima scheme is by Peter Dale (Anvil, 1996)." He also mentions Dorothy L. Sayers and John Ciardi. And it's here he advises us to learn a smattering of Italian "if you can spare the time" :) So again, his enthusiasm: I learned a lot, and I want to read more about people like St. Francis, and art in various parts of Italy, e.g. Florence, Ravenna, Padua etc etc.). And in general, he made me (even) more a fan (with sincere patience in historical matters) of the medieval era and the people that impacted history. Quote (317): "As the preceding chapters have demonstrated, it was not bishops but laypeople who were responsible for the historic glories of Catholicism, given as gifts to the Western world" (defending the decentralization of 'political power') Likely forgetting other things to include in this review, so I'll end with one of the poem snippets he begins a chapter with that caught my attention: Sound, sound the clarion, fill the fife! Throughout the sensual world proclaim, One crowded hour of glorious life Is worth an age without a name. - Sir Walter Scott (or "more correctly attributed"), Thomas Osbert Mordaunt)

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