Monday, March 1, 2010

Thomas Cahill’s Mysteries of the Middle Ages

Thomas Cahill continues his "Hinges of History" volumes with Mysteries of the Middle Ages: And the Beginning of the Modern World (2008, 368p.). I listened to it a second time as a part of my medieval reading project, and yes, I enjoyed it a second time. Cahill is born storyteller, whose informal style, pithy asides, and trenchant observations make for listening (or reading) that provides both entertainment and insight. Cahill prefaces his book with a glimpse of the Alexandria of Late Antiquity. From there, Cahill bases his tour based primarily on a discussion of notable and noteworthy personages of the period, including saints like Hildegard of Bingen and St. Francis, thinkers like Abelard (including an account of this tragic love affair with Heloise), St. Thomas Aquinas (no dumb-ox he), and Roger the proto-scientist Bacon, and artists Giotto and Dante (my man!). Cahill also discusses the many lives of Eleanor of Aquitaine (think Kathryn Hepburn in Lion in Winter), whose marriages, affairs, and actions provide quite a story in themselves. Cahill provides a sympathetic perspective on these figures so far away in time, and he appreciates how they laid the groundwork for what came later. Of the attitudes one may take about the Middle Ages, from derision to romantic celebration, Cahill takes the role of one who appreciates its positive accomplishments but who also fully acknowledges all of the blemishes.

If you've no real acquaintance with the Middle Ages, I recommend this book as an excellent introduction. A reader will find it full of the lore that makes this period both intriguing and slightly terrifying. BTW, if you haven't read the first book in his "Hinges of History" series, How the Irish Saved Civilization, I highly recommend it as well. It provides the story of the bridge between Roman civilization and the Middle Ages often known as the Dark Ages, but now referred to among historians as Late Antiquity. Anyway, it's the story of the Irish and how their monasteries preserved learning at a time when learning in the West was deeply crippled.

1 comment:

homebase said...

Sounds very good, I haven't ever read How the Irish Saved Civilization, so maybe I will put it on the list first then the other one. Thanks for the tip , always looking for a good book this time of year.