Tuesday, April 28, 2009

Review: Mysteries of the Middle Ages:

Thomas Cahill's series Hinges of History started with a bang with the publication of How the Irish Saved Civilization in 1995. This is the 4th in the Series, and it is a beautiful ART book. I love history. I love to read history books, although many tend to be dry and academic. Cahill is not academic, but this book could never be used as a text book. It is supplementary reading; it is not even quite history. It has an agenda that is actually stated in the subtitle: "The Rise of Feminism, Science, and Art from the Cults of Catholic Europe." However, it is not until the last chapter that we are bombarded with his personal angst with 20th and 21st century Roman Catholicism. To say there's an ax to grind is putting it mildly. Raised and educated as a Catholic, his bias and love for, and now his anger (however righteous one might view it) about Catholicism has almost turned him into a modern day Dante. Reading the last chapter, I was waiting to see to which circle of hell he consigned present day leaders. And......while I am no fan of George W. Bush, Cahill's thinly veiled vitriol (he claims he was referring to Phillip the Fair)--in his ending diabtribe, the last paragraph of the chapter "The Politician's Emptiness" was aimed directly at W.
...the acquisitive, dissembling, violence-prone politician...who could lie to himself and lie to others...give orders to torture the helpless and banish the innocent while on his way to church, hold men prisoner indefinitely without charging them...refuse to acknowledge the mercenary motives of his closest advisers, abrogate international treaties, pollute whole ecosystems while pretending to do otherwise, and declare his vicious wars just, necessary and blessed by God.
Certainly, the study of history should lead us to lessons learned. Cahill's lessons learned are quite biased however. At least he admits that he left out huge chunks of Medieval History (this book covers approx 900-1300 A.D.) of the period--he has one "Intermezzo" (it doesn't even rate being called a chapter) for "Entrances to Other Worlds..The Mediterranean, The Orient, and The Atlantic." Aside from being the proximate cause of half of Europe spending an inordinate amount of time, money and manpower on the Crusades, the Muslims get short shrift for any contributions they may have made. OK OK...he stated on the cover he was studying Catholic cults. The Iberian peninsula, the British Isles, and anything not centered in the Holy Roman Empire, especially present day Italy, is given only glancing mention. My mother always told me that if I couldn't say something nice, not to say anything at all. So if we put down the Hinges of History book, and read the subtitled book, this is an exquisite discussion of the early Renaissance in Italy. Beginning with the lucious endpapers of deep blue and sparkling gold showing the Ceiling of Scrovegni Chapel in Padua, through the numerous maps and charts helping the reader keep track of the myriad of players in the political doings of the times, to the 57 (!!) color illustrations of works of art of the period, this is a gorgeous feast for the senses. It is almost like reading an illustrated manuscript of the period. Even the font is spectacular. This book deserves to be picked and read if for nothing else than the sensual experience. Each chapter (until the last two) presents a piece of his explanation of the influence of the Catholic church on modern day feminism, science and art. Hildegard of Bilgen, Heloise & Abelard, Francis of Assissi, Thomas Aquinas and Dante receive star billing. In fact, I wish I'd read this before embarking on my earlier read of Dante this year. Cahill has a classic education, and certainly takes great pains to present his theories in very readable, easy to understand prose. It is not dumbed down, never boring, neither does it exhibit blatant snobbery. While I normally prefer my history books with more specific citations and references than Cahill offers, I'm not left with the impression that his research is lacking. It is interpretive research at its best. He presents suggestions for further reading based on his assessment of what he thinks his readers might be interested in. If we look at this as a history book, it's maybe a 3 star. If you look at it as a narrative of very specific theories, well-researched and supported, exquisitely presented, it's a 5 star.


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