368 pages, Anchor, ISBN-13: 978-0385495561
Mysteries of the Middle Ages: And the Beginning of the Modern World by Thomas Cahill is the fifth book in a series he is writing called the “Hinges of History” (who knew?) and covers a wide swath of oft-despised European history as the author seeks to portray the Middle Ages as a time in which the roots of Modern Europe were established while simultaneously fighting the idea that Medieval Europe was a wasted period of time where nothing happened (except the decline of Western Civilization) until the Renaissance (a period of time that Cahill argues is, in fact, a part of the Middle Ages). Of the many frustrating things about this book is the formatting: the book begins in Alexandria, Egypt, then moves onto Rome, then moves onto Hildegard von Bingen, then onto the topic of sex in the Middle Ages, onwards and upwards to Eleanor of Aquitaine, before transitioning to Francis of Assisi with this sentence, “[i]n 1182 three years after the death of Hildegard and in the same year Eleanor turned sixty, a boy was born…” and then ending the chapter section with, “[a]nd that is how romance became prayer…” (despite the fact that “romance” doesn’t even appear in any of the pages before this sentence) thence transitioning awkwardly from Francis of Assisi to his next (seemingly random) topic by inserting a brief “Intermezzo” (as he calls it)…and by this point Mysteries of the Middle Ages feels like there has been four different books.
It isn’t until the third chapter that this work begins to coalesce as Cahill swings from the University of Paris and Peter Abelard, to Thomas Aquinas and the court of Henry II, then fluidly into chapter four and the University of Oxford and Roger Bacon. From these great academic minds Cahill transitions to the arts, with Bonaventure to Giotto and Dante; however, the flow of the book still seemed impeded by the Cahill’s gushing over Giotto, whose writings seem to be more about how the man moved him than about how the man moved history, which is what his book is supposed to be about. From there the book starts for the third time (so it seemed to me) with the issue of the Cult of the Virgin, and here Cahill’s tendency to use specific individuals to make grander points comes into its true fruition. This is seen in terms of his points on Feminism, of which his first supporting point is the Cult of the Virgin. In order to show his perspective that feminism was growing or improved upon in the Middle Ages, Cahill used a grand total of two – TWO – women: Hildegard von Bingen and Eleanor of Aquitaine. These two women are not just exceptions to the rules; they are exceptions to the exceptions, for they are as rare a couple of characters as one could hope to find in history. It is almost impossible to find more writings by a single woman in the course of history than those of Hildegard, a woman whose virtue allowed her to be accepted across gender lines, though it is more likely that what she was capable of doing this not because of her gender, but rather a mix of superstition and an assumed holiness that allowed her to be so widely accepted. Eleanor gained her power the old fashioned way: she married it.
Ultimately, the biggest weakness of this book is that it tries to cover too much in too little space. Cahill tries to show major themes in specific characters, but what it actually does is show specific exceptions and not general rules. It could be argued that Dante gave more to the Italian language than he did to literature, and it is easily argued that Hildegard gave more to Christianity than she gave to feminism. These weak points of the book coupled with Cahill’s use of opinion and emphatic statements at times when he isn’t sure of all the facts leads to an unpersuasive, though admittedly well-written, book.