The National Catholic Review
Vincent Ryan
The Middle Ages are popularly perceived as a period of intellectual and cultural stagnation. This perspective is reinforced by the common description of this era as the Dark Ages or the fact that the word medieval is frequently used as a pejorative in our modern vocabulary. These stereotypes, many of which were first formulated by Renaissance intellectuals, have little basis in historical truth. In fact, modern scholars now refer to the High Middle Ages as the 12th-century Renaissance. In Mysteries of the Middle Ages: The Rise of Feminism, Science, and Art from the Cults of Catholic Europe Thomas Cahill, who gained fame and fortune with his bestselling book How the Irish Saved Civilization, builds on this trend in his examination of the various cultural achievements of this era in the latest entry in his Hinges of History series.

The book opens with several chapters that consider the intellectual contributions from Classical Greece and Ancient Rome, which significantly shaped the medieval milieu. By the author’s own admission, his emphasis on the city of Alexandria is a bit of a stretch. The chapter on Rome is more justifiable, but becomes more of an ode to his part-time home city than a concise consideration of the Roman influence on the medieval world. This section also exemplifies some of the worst aspects of the book: a meandering narrative and sloppy history. A recap of ancient Roman history, for instance, is sidetracked for several pages by a discussion of modern Italy’s ban on capital punishment, which, while praiseworthy, has very little to do with the topic at hand. More problematic are such gaffes as Cahill’s assertion that unlike many other ancient stocks, the Romans are more or less the same people they were in the time of the Caesars. This could be true, I suppose, if one were to ignore the wide-scale Germanic invasions, migrations and resettlement in the Italian peninsula during the fourth and fifth centuries. Even more disappointing is the author’s regurgitation of some typical historical myths. A sensible skewering of the faux history in The Da Vinci Code (which Cahill does quite well) is offset by claiming that Constantine became Christian to secure his political power or that Pope Pius XII was complicit in the Holocaust (a charge that Charles Gallagher, S.J. and José Sanchez have shown in the pages of this magazine to be contrary to the historical evidence).

Cahill is on firmer footing when he finally begins to examine the achievements of the Middle Ages, offering a particularly lively discourse on the mystic Hildegard of Bingen and the worldly Eleanor of Aquitaine. The remarkable lives of these two women are used to highlight the growth of the cult of the Virgin Mary, the development of courtly literature and the greatly improved status of women during the 12th century.

This same approachbrief biographies of prominent medieval people as a prism for viewing the larger changes during this periodis replicated in most of the book’s chapters, with varying degrees of success. The sections on Dante and Giotto are outstanding, with Cahill arguing for a greater appreciation of the latter’s contributions to the emergence of Renaissance art. The chapter on Francis of Assisi is also quite profound at points, though Cahill’s characterization of the saint as if he were a modern pacifist is a bit simplistic. To support this premise, he focuses on Francis’s efforts to convert the Muslim sultan during the Fifth Crusade. Such a perspective is misguided and demonstrates an ignorance of the medieval Christian attitude toward crusading in particular and just war in general. Francis never condemned crusading; he just used the campaign as a means to engage in his order’s main function: preaching.

Moreover, this example reflects the author’s tendency to make modern analogies throughout the text. There is certainly something to be said for making present-day associations to provide a better understanding or appreciation of an ancient or unfamiliar concept, but Cahill overdoes it. By the time readers reach the description of a troubadour as a knightly Chuck Berry, most will probably have had their fill of such comparisons. Equally irritating is the author’s shameless promotion of his previous works in a number of the book’s footnotes.

Still, Cahill himself is a gifted wordsmith, whose prose is always entertaining and at times even captivating. His conversational and informal approach might turn off some readers, but it does make the book immensely accessible and a brisk read. The moralizing tendencies can also be off-putting and are of very limited value, though by work’s end the reader will realize that Cahill cares little for the emperor Justinian, Bernard of Clairvaux (he wishes Dante had placed him in his Inferno) and New York’s Cardinal Edward Egan.

While the book does have merits, I would recommend in its place the classic study, The Making of the Middle Ages by the late Oxford don R. W. Southern, which matches Cahill’s prose with much more historical precision. Finally, the title itself is a misnomer, perhaps the creation of an editor hoping to cash in on the current Da Vinci Code craze or the Templar conspiracy genre. The only real mystery here is how someone so capable could have produced such a flawed study.

Vincent Ryan is a Ph.D. candidate in medieval history at Saint Louis University, St. Louis, Mo.

Comments

William F Foster | 2/10/2007 - 5:11pm
I read with interest Vincent Ryan's review of Thomas Cahill's boo, "Mysteries of the Middle Ages." In general it is an acceptable review, but shows signs of the Ph.D.'s candidate conviction that his research is the most telling on a subject. Thomas Cahill has the gift of reaching a broad audiences of varying educational achievements. His writing is earthy, but intriguing.

I won't go into detail to refute Ryan's description of St Francis attitude toward the crusade's or Constantine's conversion. He probably does not agree with Thomas carroll's "Sword of Constantine,"an intersting treatment of Constantine, and for that matter, the controversy about the role of Pius XII's actions toward the Third Reich, a complex subject.

None of us possesses ground truth on any of the subjects Cahill advances, and Ryan criticizes. They merit discussion in a rational and scholarly way.

William F Foster, Ph D