POC Blog

The random technotheolosophical blogging of Reid S. Monaghan

The Mysterious Middle Ages - A Mini-Review

I just finished reading (rather listening to the audio book) Thomas Cahill's work Mysteries of the Middle Ages - The Rise of Feminism, Science and Art from the Cults of Catholic Europe. The work's tag line certainly reflects the actual eclecticism of this volume as it does attempt to trace the roots of Feminism, Science and Art in Western Culture.  Cahill is upfront about the rather disparate themes taken up in this volume - a patchwork he calls it, but one that rightfully reflects the various cultures morphing and shaping during the middle ages.
Cahill, unlike many post Enlightenment scholars, is not a despiser of Western culture and therefore his histories read as one who actually appreciates his subject matter.  One gets the sense he is actually intrigued by the cradles of Western identity, giving them all a fair hearing on their own terms.  In his other volumes he has taken up the role of the Irish, the Jews, the Greeks and Jesus himself as he has waded through the many streams of western identity and influence.  This book takes up the developments in Catholic Europe from roughly the 12th through the early 14th century.
His subjects for feminism were a combination of nun, queen and virgin.  Hildegarde, Eleanor of Aquitaine and the Catholic veneration of the Virgin Mary.  I found the chapter about the mystic nun Hildegarde to be interesting but it could have lost some of its girth.  The history of Eleanor and her husbands and sons was interesting history but the transition material about the lusty sexual escapades of the medieval castles could have been omitted.  It seems however that Cahill wanted to see the sexual liberality in the post enlightenment west as an outflow of the free woman of the castle.  I found it a bit tiresome.  Of course the veneration of the virgin extended a high view to certain virtuous and saintly women in the middle ages but I found its connection to feminism slightly strained. 
There were histories of men such as St. Francis that those who love justice today will certainly take delight in - I loved hearing the story of Francis showing up naked in court when his father was suing him over material possessions.  There were also several gems from his writing that I scribbled down in a moleskin while at a stop in the car.  Francis was an important figure on the road to a more gentile Europe breaking with the Rome of its past and helping the same people become the Italians.
The segment of the book I enjoyed most was the focus on two thinkers and philosophers of the academic seedbed which was medieval France. Both the accounts of Peter Abelard and Thomas Aquinas were brief but interesting stories into the lives of two very different men who struggled to use reason to understand the world.  Thomas is one of the philosophers my son is named after, mainly for his foundational role in shaping the world in preparation for modern science.  It was good to see Cahill reject the caricatures of the period between Aristotle and Enlightenment as "the dark ages" as indeed there was much light to be found in Christian thinkers such as St. Thomas. No, his theology is not my own, but his example of using reason in service of the gospel is one for which I am grateful.  The developments in England under Bacon were of interest as well but I will let the interested wander into the halls of Oxford if they so choose to read this book.
Finally, I was delighted with the histories of art given in this book.  As one who has studied very little in this field I was just captivated by treatment of the painters and poets of Florence.  In particular, this brief biography of Dante and the love the authored showed for his work The Divine Comedy was a pure joy for me as I listened over the distant hum of my lawn mower.  I don't have time to take us this poem - one that I shamefully have not read.  Yet I do hope to take it up at some point - perhaps even as an audio book to take with me on some journey in the car.
Overall, Cahill's works reflect the mind of a modern historian looking back at chapters of our history.  He is appreciative of his subjects and does not belittle things such as the Christian contribution in our heritage.  In fact, there are times when he feels very at home in Christianity.  However, his thoughts reflect very modern sensibilities and not a gospel worldview as found in the New Testament.  Yet I am still very thankful for his writing as he takes you on a journey into Western ideas that is not ashamed our Christian past.  He even recommends Bible reading and has a high respect for the Bible. His treatment of the incarnation and its effect on Western intellectualism is quite favorable towards this central Christian teaching. I am not sure that his treatment of Jesus in Desire for the Everlasting Hills will be something I will enjoy, but it may be my next Cahill installment. The final two installments in the series were revealed by Cahill in a Q&A on his web site.
Each volume of the Hinges of History® is intended to be read with pleasure and even surprise; it is not a series of academic obligations. Thus, in the past I have refrained from talking about the books to come, as if I was creating a syllabus. But now that there are just two volumes left to write, I imagine many readers can see where I am headed. So I will come clean: Volume VI will treat the Renaissance and, especially, the Reformation, thus tracing the Protestant contribution; Volume VII, tracing the secular-revolutionary-democratic contribution, will begin with the Enlightenment and go to . . . Well, I think that's enough to say, for now.

I will look forward to his interpretation of the Protestants and some of my theological fore bearers; perhaps he will see how law and liberty actually flowed from those who did Protest with courage enough to stand for freedom of conscience with life and limb on the line.  

For those interested in Cahill's work, I would recommend you begin with the Irish and then meander along as you so choose.  He also has an extensive page of discussion questions which serve as a helpful readers guide for the journey.