Friday, February 6, 2009

Mysteries of the Middle Ages

Mysteries of the Middle Ages and the Beginnings of the Modern World
© 2006 Thomas Cahill
317 pages, plus notes and index

A couple of weeks ago I met a friend for breakfast, and he brought with him an interesting-looking book. He explained that he received the book for Christmas and thought I would enjoy reading, and so I have. The book is a beautiful piece of work about the intellectual life of the medieval era. At the end, Cahill explains that his purpose was to explain the story of the "often belittled" Catholic contribution to the Renaissance. He deliberately addresses the arguments made by historians like William Manchester, who painted the medieval era as one of intellectual stagnation, where the Christian church suppressed all dissent and progress. The Church certainly did suppress progress in some areas, but what I've noticed from the medieval reading I've been doing since I read Manchester's A World Lit Only By Fire is that the medieval era was not as intellectually dead as I once thought. From our perspective they spent their time "counting how many angels could dance on the head of a pin", but civilization did continue to evolve, even after the superstructure of western civilization that had been the Roman Empire decayed and withdrew.

Cahill labors to establish the beginnings of feminism, western art, and science in the context of the Catholic Church. There is no other context for them that I am aware of in this era. Intellectual life -- odd as it seems now -- was centered around monasteries and the cathedral schools that became medieval universities. This much I know from taking courses in the subject and reading on my own. (Medieval history is not actually my primary interest: it just allows me to (1) study social history and (2) gain knowledge that supports a hobby of mine, which is writing a fantasy novel where late-Roman and medieval culture influence the culture I am creating.) His style is rabidly informal. This changes as the book wears on, but in the opening chapters Cahill is so astonishingly informal that I would stop reading, amazing that he was being so familiar with the reader. For instance: he writes on the exchange of letters between one nun and another, one Hildegard, in which the first nun tsk-tsks at the way Hildegard allows her nuns to dress. Hildegard defends herself eloquently, and Cahill quotes this. At the end of Hildegard's exchange, he tacks on: "Take that, bitch." The opening chapters are full of little comments like that -- "or to (God help us) Syria", and "By Zeus, how's that?" in reference to one Christian theologian stating his intention is to not feel carnal emotions at all.

The author begins by introducing us to the world of Alexandria and of Greek philosophy in general. Something I found immensely interesting was the idea that one Judeo-Greek philosopher divided the Platonic god -- Aristotle's unmoved mover -- into three parts:

All the same, Philo adopts (and adapts) man Greek philosophical categories. God is indeed the One of which nothing may be known for said -- except that he is, which is why he gave his name to Moses as ho on (He Who Is). By his Word (Logos, in Greek), as Genesis tells us, God created the world. Philo even calls the Logos a "second god" and God's firstborn. And Philo perceives even a third level in God, the Powers by which he acts in the world. Philo's Logos and Powers, therefore, play the role of mediators between the unknowable One and mankind.

Well, hello, Christian theology. Bit early for you, isn't it? In succeeding chapters, Cahill addresses the intellectual development of Rome through Greek schools of thought, the cult of virginity, the pursuit of love and its consequences, the beginnings of Reason, alchemy, western art, poetry, and politics. We meet many characters in these chapters. Some are more exciting than others, at least for me. This is a very readable narrative, and I recommend it. Beyond the narrative, though, this is a beautiful book. Even if the words were written in Arabic, this would be a beautiful book: the physical object itself is exquisite. Beautiful pictures are set right into the text, not consigned to plate-pages in the middle of the book. When quoting from primary sources, Cahill sets the text with margin art, like you might see in a monastical copy. The physical book is like a piece of art. It conveys the idea of a medieval manuscript, which is apt given its subject.

I was delighted with this book, and I will read more of the author. This is part of a series called The Hinges of History. I actually remember reading one of his books long ago, called Sailing the Wine-Dark Sea. I should return to it. This was an immensely satisfying book: both to read and to look at.


  1. Fascinating. I have added this & 'Sailing the Wine-Dark Sea' to my Amazon Wish List.

  2. It might take a while... I have a *huge* backlog of reading to do - though I do expect to finish two books this coming week.

    Part of my plan for the year is to work my way through the Penguin Great Books series. It's about high time I read some of the literary foundations of the modern Western world.

  3. I've heard of that series. I don't know if I've read from their translations, myself, but I've definitely seen them. I think they have a translation of Marcus Aurelius' Meditations. I looked at it (or the book I'm confusing as being a Penguin Classic) back in December and thought the translation too formal for my tastes.

    Is it just fictional literature, or does it include political writing and so on?

  4. SC said: Is it just fictional literature, or does it include political writing and so on?

    As far as I know its only non-fiction. 'Meditations' is actually my next read in the series. I wanted to read them in order but had to read 'The Social Contract' for my degree course.

    I have the first set of 20 (I intend to read one a month) and a hand full of books in the next two sets.

    The first set is as follows:

    On the Shortness of Life
    Confessions of a Sinner
    The Inner Life
    The Prince
    On Friendship
    A Tale of a Tub
    The Social Contract
    The Christians and the Fall of Rome
    Common Sense
    A Vindication of the Rights of Woman
    On the Pleasure of Hating
    The Communist Manifesto
    On the Suffering of the World
    On Art and Life
    On Natural Selection
    Why I Am So Wise
    A Room of One's Own
    Civilization and its Discontents
    Why I Write

  5. I've copied that for future reference: thank you. I've read the Manifesto three times now -- once in the summer for personal curiosity, once in the fall for a European history class, and once this spring for a sociological theory class. It's the only one on that list, although there are some (The Prince, The Social Contract) that I've certainly heard of.


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