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Mysteries of the Middle Ages: The Rise of Feminism, Science and Art from the Cults of Catholic Europe

(The Hinges of History #5)

3.81  ·  Rating details ·  3,967 ratings  ·  347 reviews
After the long period of cultural decline known as the Dark Ages, Europe experienced a rebirth of scholarship, art, literature, philosophy, and science and began to develop a vision of Western society that remains at the heart of Western civilization today.

By placing the image of the Virgin Mary at the center of their churches and their lives, medieval people exalted woman
Hardcover, 368 pages
Published October 24th 2006 by Nan A. Talese (first published 2006)
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3.81  · 
Rating details
 ·  3,967 ratings  ·  347 reviews

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Aug 13, 2012 rated it did not like it
Shelves: nonfiction
ARGH. This book!

1. The author does not reveal his semi-thesis until the conclusion of the book and fails to make his arguments (when he has an argument) conform to the thesis throughout the book.

2. The first thing they teach you when you do graduate work in history is that history is not inevitable. Because something happened in the 12th century it does not mean that things have to be the way they are in the 21st century. Hildegard von Bingen and Eleanor of Aquitaine do not feminism make. In fac
Mysteries of the Middle Ages is history told through biography and anecdote. While it covers grand themes, as the title implies, it does so in an immediate, small scale way that makes the transitions of time more accessible to lay readers (i.e.: me).

I picked Mysteries up somewhat by chance; I was reading Ken Follett’s Pillars of the Earth, and wanted to supplement my meager knowledge of the period. Originally, I passed this over because it was too expensive at my local Borders (it has full-color
Apr 09, 2012 rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
I'll say this for Cahill--he holds nothing back.
Let's start with the book proper, because I'm a medievalist and an editor, so I notice these things. Setting this up like an illuminated manuscript was a brilliant move--the marginalia, the side notes like glosses instead of the more academic foot- or endnotes, even the scribe-like scratches of page numbers made this book a visual joy to read, which was a neat trick.
As to the contents, this gets the stamp of approval from a Real Live Medievalist. I
Feb 18, 2009 rated it it was ok
This is the first book in a long time that I've stopped reading mid-way through. I appreciated the pictures. I like pictures. But they could not compensate for the otherwise amateur composition of this book.

The frequent plugs for Cahill's other books in the text are arrogant, but understandable. The idiot-friendly comparisons between medieval troubadors and the Rolling Stones are annoying, but tolerable. But the fact that he makes judgments which are not only out-of-context, but inflammatory (li
Dana Stabenow
Cahill is determined to redeem the Middle Ages from the likes of William Manchester (A World Lit Only By Fire) and Mark Twain (A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur's Court). On the contrary, Cahill writes

The reputation of the Middle Ages for thuggish cruelty is largely (if not wholly) undeserved.

which I find a bit of a relief, since I much prefer the Middle Ages of Brother Cafael to the Middle Ages of Torquemada. When Cahill cites Hildegarde of Bingen as proof of the rise of feminism in the Middl
Jul 01, 2007 rated it really liked it
Recommends it for: History and Biography lovers
Shelves: finished
I have the audio book (abridged) which I've listened to through the state of Nevada, a state in which to listen to audio books.

I picked up the book thinking that I didn't know much about the Middle Ages, but as I listened, Cahill reintroduced me to some of my favorite historical figures: Hildegard, Eleanor of Aquitaine, Roger Bacon, Thomas Aquinas, St. Francis of Assisi, Dante, Giotto. I realized that I knew more about the Middle Ages than I thought.

Cahill talks of the time through the people an
Jacob Aitken
Aug 04, 2011 rated it liked it
Cahill argues that those terrible dark ages actually sparked movements that elevated women and anticipated science.

Cahill is always worth reading. He is very interesting and is a good writer. He brings up many topics that modern academics ignore.

The bad parts:
1) While he gets the general overview of history correct, his specific analyses are usually wrong--and wrong by a long shot. For example, he said that the Greek Orthodox were not as concerned with the Incarnation as the Romans. This is ju
Jun 21, 2007 rated it it was ok
This is the Reader's Digest take on history. Like any good digest, Cahill draws on the Middle Ages' most interesting topics and presents said topics very accessibly. Despite being disappointingly low on cults and mysteries (false advertising!), this book was a great introduction to religious art and philosophy. Never before have I found the two to be more accessibly presented. However the whimsical illustrations (not the photos, but the gargoyles littering every other page) and riffing tangents ...more
Dec 16, 2013 rated it did not like it
Shelves: abandoned
I put this down pretty much exactly halfway through, when the author leaves the Middle Ages and goes on an unnecessary anti-Islam diatribe, parroting the right-wing anti-Muslim talking points you hear from any Fox News guest. It is otherwise a compelling account of a hodgepodge of figures from Catholic history; though neither deep nor thought-provoking, at least fairly interesting. I have no idea why the author decided to ruin his own credibility halfway through, and I can't imagine why his edit ...more
I truly appreciated this take on the history of the Medieval Times. He focused on those who made a significant difference in the history that affects our lives today. I enjoyed every moment with this book.
Jun 27, 2008 rated it liked it
The central thesis that Mr. Cahill sets forth in Mysteries of the Middle Ages certainly intrigued me from the outset. I was very curious to see the threads of modern thinking rising from the ashes of the Roman Empire, and how the Catholic Church facilitated this remarkable transition. Unfortunately, I never felt that the author completely proved his main argument. While I enjoyed the examples provided by Francis of Assisi, Francis Bacon, Hildegard, etc. I never really felt that this book came to ...more
Sep 22, 2008 rated it it was ok
Recommends it for: NO ONE
Recommended to Katie by: my own poor judgement
This was a pretty book, generous with maps, photos, illustrations, and set in a beautiful typeface. Sadly, that's the best I can say for it. This was a superficial, chatty waste of money and time. Picked this up in an airport bookstall - FAIL. I felt crankier after reading this in flight than I imagine I would have if I'd just spent the two hours making funny little seatback-tray mosaics with my standard-issue airline pretzels.
Charles Calvano
Disappointing in some ways, though fascinating in others. I got the feeling that Cahill had some research notes lying around from his earlier books and didn't want them to go to waste -- so he assembled this book which seems quite episodic and covers a seeming hodge-podge of topics.
Sep 11, 2014 rated it liked it
The main reason I decided to buy this book, rather than borrowing it from the library, was because of the inclusion of the beautiful and colorful illustrations, paintings, and photographs (I even bought it in Barnes and Noble instead of Amazon!). From the aesthetic perspective, this is the type of book you want sitting on your bookshelf, and in many ways, it was a very good book. I enjoyed learning about how science, art, and religion intersected during the Middle Ages and how a secular society ...more
Alex Telander
Mar 21, 2008 rated it really liked it
MYSTERIES OF THE MIDDLE AGES: AND THE BEGINNING OF THE MODERN WORLD BY THOMAS CAHILL: In the fifth book in his Hinges of History series, Thomas Cahill takes on the period of the middle ages, going into depth on the important people of the era and what effect they had on the history. Regardless of the actual content of the book, Mysteries of the Middles Ages deserves an award for excellence in design and layout. It is one of the most ornate and beautifully designed books I’ve ever read. As soon a ...more
Jun 28, 2015 rated it really liked it
Shelves: history, non-fiction
Mysteries of the Middle Ages: The Rise of Feminism, Science and Art from the Cults of Catholic Europe is a delightful book and I would have been happy with one at least twice its length. I have read How the Irish Saved Civilization, another in Thomas Cahill's Hinges of History series and, sooner or later, I will wind up reading the rest. They are so interesting. Besides, it's always nice when an author agrees with you and I have also always felt that the in between periods of history foreshadow ...more
Apr 02, 2013 rated it it was ok
Shelves: history
Cahill writes an often entertaining though wholly biased account of select people and events covering a large range of Medieval history. I was mostly able to ignore his biased rants when applying his pretty obvious religious judgements in most instances but when, near the end, he launches into a vitriolic rant concerning the Byzantine reign of Justinian and his empress-wife Theodora that mirrors all the vitriolic personal attacks in Procopius' "Secret Histories," the depth of the bias throughout ...more
Annie Smidt
Sep 16, 2013 rated it did not like it
Shelves: read-2013
Didn't really enjoy this book. It *was* about the middle ages (though mostly the 12th century and mostly Italy) but mysteries, not so much. The rise of feminism, science and art from the cults of Catholic Europe, not so much. It was more like selected anecdotes from the lives of sundry medieval famous people, with an eye towards how Greek thought did or did not influence them and then a ton of fawning of Dante. With a LOT of passages in early Italian. (Which I'm sure is very lovely, but, plebe t ...more
Laura Andersen
Nov 17, 2015 rated it really liked it
Shelves: non-fiction
Nothing could shake How the Irish Saved Civilization as his best, but all of Cahill's Hinges of History books are wonderful.
alex guns
Nov 22, 2017 rated it it was ok
A self-proclaimed antithesis to William Manchester's anti-medieval polemic "A World Lit Only by Fire", Cahill's "Mystery of the Middle Ages" attempts to paint the Middle Ages in a more flattering light. Cahill focuses on the 12th-century renaissance; an era of ecclesiastic reform brought on by an ascendant merchant class that made room for the likes of St. Aquinas, St. Francis, Peter Abelard and Dante Alighieri. A time of renewal, dusting off the work of founding philosophers, and a new seriousn ...more
May 29, 2017 rated it really liked it
This book probably presented a challenge for Cahill in his Hinges of History series, in that the Middle Ages is how he opened the series, with "How the Irish Saved Civilization." That book painted the fall of Rome as the beginning of a time when the preservation of ancient Greek and Roman culture presented a challenge to the continuation of civilization. But Cahill goes to lengths in this book to show that darkness did not descend on Europe with the end of the Roman Empire.

I love this series of
Nov 02, 2017 rated it really liked it
It's a good introduction to a range of topics, but mostly made me want to look up biographies of some historical figures I'd previously not known much about....and read the Divine Comedy.

Good place to start if you're looking for other interesting historical subjects to dig deeper into, I wouldn't suggest it as an Audio book as I can only assume many of the art discussed had accompanying pictures that I missed out on in that format.
Quinn Strange
May 30, 2017 rated it it was amazing
This book is stylistically gorgeous and unpretentious. A both educational and entertaining read. Just sublime.
In popular imagination the medieval period is a time of ignorance and superstition, fear and violence, and crushing religious intolerance of anything the Church was against. Mysteries of the Middle Ages is the fifth volume of Thomas Cahill’s ‘Hinges of History’ series, focusing on the individuals in the High Middle Ages who shaped Western society that we know today. Over the course of 300+ pages, Cahill sets out to give his reader a new way to look at the Middle Ages.

Cahill begins the book not d
Jan 04, 2010 rated it really liked it
I read a library ebook version. I'm not sure if the images would be better in a paper version. My suspicions on that matter are high. I did like the footnotes being easily accessible inline with the text: touch a footnote marker, "popup".
So enough of the format. What of the content?
Cahill is an interesting author. I like his perspective and selection of history to portray. Sometimes I think he comes across as know-it-all or too dismissive, but I think he accepts that role, given his discussion
Adam Marischuk
Apr 17, 2017 rated it liked it
Volume 5 of the Hinges of History

On it's own merits, this volume is likely the best in the series, though 'How The Irish Saved Civilization' deserves credit for being the first, both novel and a little controversial if not inflammatory. The title leaves something to be desired, as I am not certain which 'mysteries' he is refering to. Can we not have ONE book/film one Middle Ages that does not reference 'primae noctis' or Merlin?

Cahill deserves credit for the construction of a book which looks a
Steven Peterson
Aug 17, 2009 rated it really liked it
This is a well written book that illustrates some of the major advances toward a more modern world that occurred during the middle ages. This is largely accomplished through a detailed examination of several key people (and one could surely quibble with these selections, although they are pretty reasonable to me): Hildegarde of Bingen, Eleanor of Aquitaine, Francis of Assisi, Peter Abelard, Henry II (Plantagenet), Roger Bacon, Dante, Giotto, and a handful of others.

One issue that bothered me so
It has been SO long since I've reviewed any books. I stalled on this one, so I thought I could start back up here, and chip away at them. And suddenly, I understand why I went on hiatus for so long.

Mysteries of the Middle Ages tells of an era of history shaped by the Catholic Church and its influences. Its premise is how the modern world owes so much of its culture to the Church. While it does put down some compelling evidence, I'm unconvinced that it's as positive as the author seems to think.

Aug 18, 2010 rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
Shelves: history, 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 suppo ...more
Jan 14, 2012 rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
It is so much fun to read a book where there's a fairly routine need to stop and look up a word. Cahill's approach to history is so lively and intellectual (at least for this old brain) that I feel entirely enlivened just realizing I read the book. To highlight several illustrious historic figures (Francis of Assisi, Hildegard of Bingen, and Dante Alighieri--to name a few)instead of using a linear way of covering the same ground is brilliant, not to mention fresh and stimulating, both.

But the m
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Born in New York City to Irish-American parents and raised in Queens and the Bronx, Cahill was educated by Jesuits and studied ancient Greek and Latin. He continued his study of Greek and Latin literature, as well as medieval philosophy, scripture and theology, at Fordham University, where he completed a B.A. in classical literature and philosophy in 1964, and a pontifical degree in philosophy in ...more

Other books in the series

The Hinges of History (6 books)
  • How the Irish Saved Civilization: The Untold Story of Ireland's Heroic Role from the Fall of Rome to the Rise of Medieval Europe 
  • The Gifts of the Jews: How a Tribe of Desert Nomads Changed the Way Everyone Thinks and Feels
  • Desire of the Everlasting Hills: The World Before and After Jesus
  • Sailing the Wine-Dark Sea: Why the Greeks Matter
  • Heretics and Heroes: How Renaissance Artists and Reformation Priests Created Our World
“Is is seldom possible to say of the medievals that they *always* did one thing and *never* another; they were marvelously inconsistent. ” 10 likes
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