Siobhan's Reviews > Mysteries of the Middle Ages: The Rise of Feminism, Science, and Art from the Cults of Catholic Europe

Mysteries of the Middle Ages by Thomas Cahill
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Aug 18, 10

bookshelves: 2010, history
Read in August, 2010

Mysteries of the Middle Ages is a joy to read, and not just because of the author’s pleasant writing style or his choice of a fascinating, little-touched topic. The first surprise about the book is its design. Of course, one shouldn’t judge a book by its cover, and in this case, that’s very true. The cover is no great shakes; the treasures are all inside, from the way footnotes are presented to the typeface on the first page of each chapter. Medieval works of are depicted and explained, to support the author’s arguments, of course. But the inclusion of these pieces made my heart glad throughout the reading, so they served another purpose as well.

As for those arguments themselves, Thomas Cahill takes a unique look at history, at those actions and actors in the past that profoundly influence our world today. The Middle Ages are typically viewed as a time of darkness when learning was lost and nothing much happened, when the ordinary person was ill educated or illiterate and never ventured too many miles from home. The truth is more complex, although there was plenty of illiteracy and ignorance to go around.

Cahill paints wonderful portraits of subjects ranging from Hildegard of Bingen to Dante. He devotes considerable time to two my favorite historical figures, Eleanor of Aquitaine and Francis of Assisi; that’s the first time I’ve seen those two paired up in such a way.

There may be plenty of people who would find this topic dry as dust, but Cahill really makes the times come alive by focusing on specific individual whose lives influence the course of history. Mysteries of the Middle Ages is well written, entertaining, a surprise and a delight.

One word of warning: Anyone who likes William Manchester may be disturbed by Cahill's treatment of him. I think I've read the book that Cahill quotes here, and I didn't come away with any great disdain for Manchester, but Cahill truly does. I can see his point, though.
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message 1: by Ann (new) - added it

Ann Siobhan, thanks for of course I'm salivating to read this! I survived a "literature of the Middle Ages" course in college (umpteen years ago) where I recall a churlish fellow student complaining that we were expected to remember the name of "every saint, horse, sword, and stone in 900 pages," but it was really magical.

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