Wednesday, January 10, 2007

Cahill's Mysteries of the Middle Ages

I've been reading Mysteries of the Middle Ages by Thomas Cahill and can say that I essentially agree with this review by William Lobdell. Both the good:
In this, the fifth of his proposed seven-book series, "Hinges of History," which have explored the formative roles of the Irish, the Greeks, the Jews and the people of Jesus' day in Western Civilization, Cahill's command of rich historical detail makes medieval cities and their colorful characters come alive.

Throughout it all, you are keenly aware that the author wants you to fall in love with this pivotal period in Western civilization every bit as much as he did.

"I invite you on a pilgrimage, dear Reader," he writes. "Come along with me (and many others) to places we have never seen before and to people we could otherwise never have expected to know."

In his easy writing style, the author argues persuasively that mainstream Roman Catholic theology and thought catapulted Europe out of the Dark Ages and into an era that saw women's status elevated, modern science take root and artists shake off their Byzantine chains.

He does this by plucking a wonderful cast of historic figures from the 11th through the 14th centuries, which constituted the latter part of the Middle Ages that began in the 4th century. Dante, Giotto, St. Francis of Assisi and Thomas Aquinas are some of the familiar names. Others are known only among historians and "Jeopardy" champions.
And the bad:
Cahill's only missteps come when he ties medieval events too closely to pop culture or today's politics.

In one passage, the author writes about a letter "as full of catty innuendo as the dialogue from an episode of 'Desperate Housewives.' "

In another, he alludes to President Bush in describing a medieval leader who lied to himself and to others, who tortured the helpless "on his way to church," who held men in prison indefinitely without a trial, refused to acknowledge mercenary motives of his closest advisors, abrogated international treaties, polluted the environment and declared his wars just, necessary and blessed by God.

"Such a man was Philip the Fair, unscrupulous, suspicious, envious, and rigid, who succeeded his father to the French throne in 1285, who regularly blackened the reputation of anyone who dared oppose him, and who fancied himself the 'most Christian' of Christian Kings," Cahill writes.

In what is otherwise a great symphony, such off-key notes ring loudly as either too of-the-moment or too politically preachy in a book based in the Middle Ages.
Cahill also gets on his soapbox about the death penalty and a few other items. I was less annoyed by the pop culture references than with the politicizing, though. Besides, even including the political stuff, I'm willing to allow that it is exactly this sort of contemporizing of history that makes Cahill popular amongst the general public.

1 comment:

Loren Heal said...

I just found your blog, googling for whigs and Jackson. Great work here. I'm only an amateur historian, which is to say I read in the bathroom.

Anyway, good stuff.