So I recently finished reading Thomas Cahill's Mysteries of the Middle Ages
. If you want a fun, easily accessible book on the Middle Ages this is it. And I realize that very few people are out there looking for a fun book on the Middles Ages, but this really is a good read. As I mentioned in my last post on it, this is pop history. Not the type of pop history that claims Jesus had kids or that the Knights Templar are controlling our government, but a book that makes the stories of history available to the non-academic. And one that makes me want to go and learn more. It is also beautifully illustrated - full color pictures and lovely decorative elements that recall illuminated manuscripts.
True to its claim look at the "hinges of history," this book is a series of glimpses at the events and people that Cahill believes made profound impact on the course of Western Civilization (sidenote - is it just me or do others always hear Jean-Luc Picard's voice every time they write/read that word). While his list is of course limited, as he readily admits, one is still treated to a wide selection of fasinating stories. Dante, Hildegard of Bingen, Eleanor of Aquitaine, Francis of Assisi, Giotto... to name a few. He comments on the changing perspectives on women and how art influences theology. He traces elements of our modern world to their conception in the Middle Ages. I found it all to be a great starting point. I want to find out more about some of the characters - Peter of Abelard, Francis of Assisi... names I had heard before but know little about. It will be fun to explore.
Cahill's voice is primary in this work and his opinions are everpresent. I appreciated that. As he explores those that Dante assigned to his layers of hell and heaven, Cahill gives his own perspective of who he too would condemn or allow into heaven. One person he says he would bar from heaven is Bernard of Clairvaux, which seriously amused me. While I'm not a fan a deciding who's in or out, the picture painted of Bernard was not a favorable one. A theological watchdog who bought persecution on those who disagreed with him, gave favors to his incrowd, despised women, and held more power and influence than was healthy for one man - Bernard reminded me a bit too much of certain contemporary church leaders with whom disagree. I guess some things never change.
In his postlude ("A Dantesque Reflection" as it's called) Cahill also has some harsh words for today. The negative trends of the Middle Ages or the corruption of good traditions today provoke some harsh words from him. He has some not so subtle comparisons between certain greedy popes and the current administration. And he lashes into the church in our day for using its power to cover up sex scandals. In his most controversial passage he accuses the priests and bishops of abusing Christ. Imagine the twelve-year-old Christ in the temple being raped and abused by the teachers of the law - for "whatever you have done to the least of these... you have done to me." His call is to the church to take back the power that the lay people have lost and revive again the great tradition started in the Middle Ages (by people like Dante or Catherine of Sienna) of the common person changing the course of events. For "without the clear vision and unwelcome advice of such men and women, the church as it is has no chance of acting in the world in succor or in prophecy."
Labels: Book Reviews