Mysteries of the Middle Ages: The Rise of Feminism, Science, and Art
from the Cults of Catholic Europe
by Thomas Cahill
(368 pages, $32.50, hardcover)
reviewed by Robert C. Cheeks
Sometimes civilization progresses both intellectually and spiritually, argued the philosopher Eric Voegelin, as it did in the High Middle Ages. But for us, “the general deculturation of the academic and intellectual world in Western civilization” has effected “the social dominance of opinions that would be laughed out of court in the late Middle Ages.”
An author who has closely examined this period, and does not laugh its insights out of court, is historian, writer, and practicing Catholic Thomas Cahill. He is the author of the acclaimed series “The Hinges of History,” beginning in 1996 with How the Irish Saved Civilization, and continuing with The Gifts of the Jews, Desire in the Everlasting Hills, and Sailing the Wine-Dark Sea.
In the fifth installment of the series, Mysteries of the Middle Ages, Cahill celebrates the twelfth-century renaissance that propelled the West toward a rebirth in science, philosophy, literature, and the arts and the period known as the “High Middle Ages” (A.D. 1100 to 1350) it began.
Cahill’s thesis is established on three points: The cult of the Virgin Mary allowed men “for the first time to treat women with dignity”; the doctrine of transubstantiation encouraged “new questions in philosophy”; and artists were free to begin the “Western tradition of realism.”
The strength of Cahill’s books is his ability to write vignettes about cultures, cities, and, most importantly, people: from the German anchorite and later abbess Hildegard to the extraordinarily tall and beautiful Eleanor of Aquitaine (one thinks of Katharine Hepburn); from St. Francis of Assisi, whom the author psychoanalyzes as being “naturally bipolar,” to St. Thomas Aquinas.
Cahill seeks to illustrate how modern these people were, one senses more for political and social reasons than historical. For him, St. Francis is the “sexual democrat, dividing the cosmos equally between male and female,” thus introducing European culture to modern feminism. The beauteous Eleanor proves that a queen “could be a free sexual being,” that “her desires are ours, her objectives our own,” thereby providing a link between twelfth-century concupiscence and modern rationalizations of sexual freedom.
The author’s study of the various cities (Paris, Padua, Oxford, Florence, and Ravenna) are well rendered, as is his vignette of Dante Alighieri, and his discussion of the inspiring frescos at such places as the baptistery of San Giovanni in Florence.
It is in his critique of theological doctrine that he will offend orthodox Christians. In his discussion of the philosopher Peter Abelard, he writes,
And though the idea that Christ died to repay his Father for human sin is still a favorite theory of many (especially evangelical) Christians, it is a doctrine no one can make logical sense of, for, like the Calvinist theory of Election, it necessitates a sort of voraciously pagan Father God steeped in cruelty and, in the case of Jesus’ horrific death, his son’s blood.
The final chapter, “A Dantesque Reflection,” is a rant, unrelated to the subject of the book, leveled against the hierarchy of the Catholic Church, which Cahill seeks to correct by re-introducing what he calls the “practices of its apostolic foundation,” that is, the election of all clergy by “the people,” and calling for an “uprising of laypeople” led by “sincere movements” like Voice of the Faithful and Call to Action. It disrupts the presentation and symmetry of the book, and will leave even the progressive reader wondering why, in heaven’s name, he bothered to include it.
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