Cahill begins with a prelude in Alexandria, running quickly through the major persona in Alexandria’s history. Alexandria was wonder to the ancient world, partly because it was a planned city, and had streets in clean, straight lines, unlike the ad-hoc, higgledy-piggledy assortment of buildings and narrow, winding streets of most cities. The city had statues, mostly of Aphrodite, everywhere, a museum, and the largest library in the ancient world, with 400,000 scrolls. Alexandria was a center of scholarship: Euclid developed geometry there, the Jews created the Septuagint translation of the Old Testament, among others. By the end of the fourth century AD, Alexandria was no longer such a scholastic place, and Cahill closes with Christians destroying the (now illegal) pagan Temple of Serapis, and a mob of fundamentalist monks dragging a well-regarded female philosopher and mathematician Hypatia into the cathedral and killing her.

The concern of the book is the High Middle Ages, roughly 1200 - 1300. The first personality is Hildegard von Bingen, tenth daughter of a noble family who was sent to be an anchorite at the age of eight. (Eight was older then than now: boys would be apprenticed by eight and girls would be bethrothed.)  Anchorites were women who encased themselves in a small room and did not leave until they died. The room was next to the church and had a window so that the woman could participate in the monastic services. Hildegard had seen visions overlaid on top of the real world ever since childhood. Her visions brought her respect and authority, being authenticated by the highly regarded monk Bernard of Clairvaux as being from God. She apparently was quite a strong character. When she was elected as abbess after her mentor Jutta died, she moved the nuns to a new site to be out from under the authority of the abbot. She defended the right for her nuns to wear their hair long, with jewelry and bangles because, while Paul had instructed married women to have inner, not outward, beauty, she and her nuns were virgins, and therefore in perpetual flower of beauty. She took monastic chant to new levels of creativity. She also toured the country, giving lectures to packed crowds. Cahill transitions from Hildegard to the cult of Mary, mother of Jesus, although without explaining how it came about.

The much celebrated medieval courtly love was a game of adultery. Castles were full of knights guarding it, but short on women. Although the knight ostensibly pursued the lady, the reality was that she predetermined the outcome. One such strong-willed lady was Elanor of Aquitaine. She was born to a family ruling over a lot of what is now southern France. She was a fan of the new music of the day from the troubadors, who sang of love; she also loved dancing, which now included both men and women. She was married at 16 to Louis, king of France (which was much smaller than her territories). She did not like dreary Paris, and seems not to have respected her husband, who was not a successful military man. She seems to have toyed with the idea of annulment on the grounds that they were too closely related (not unlikely for royalty). After 15 years, she had given birth to only two daughters, and no sons, so Louis grew more open to the idea. After she met Henry of Anjou, a masculine man and a natural leader, the annulment happened, she went back to Aquitaine and immediately asked Henry to come and marry her.

Henry did, in 1152, and promptly invaded England. They lived happily for a while, but Henry grew restless and had affairs. By 1168 she was living apart, administering his French possessions. Henry kept promising his sons inheritances, but kept changing the terms and keeping power for himself, which angered his sons, who rebelled at Elanor’s urging in 1173. Henry defeated them, magnanimously forgave them, but imprisoned Elanor. History had many examples of sons rebelling against fathers, but never wives rebelling against husbands. She was imprisoned for the next 16 years until Henry died. Her imprisonment seems to have softened her and given her a peace, because when Henry needed her to make peace in the family and gave her some limited freedom, she mediated faithfully, with no scheming on her part. After Henry died, she spent much of her life trying to keep peace between in the family. She ruled England well while Richard was on crusade, and at the end of her life she gave freedom to many servants and gifts even to her jailors. Cahill observes that Hildegard showed that a woman could be a profound mystic and theologan, while Elanor showed that a woman could be a free sexual being.

Francis of Assisi pursued a different kind of love from Elanor: love for Jesus. Son of a wealthy cloth merchant and living a worldly life, he paused at a church coming back from an unsuccessful attempt to be a knight. He heard Jesus tell him to rebuild his church. He started selling his father’s cloth behind his back and using the money to repair the church. When his father sued him, he publicly and theatrically disowned his father, stripping naked and returning all his belongings to his father, saying that he would call God his father from then on. He accepted followers, but refused to create a Rule, like Benedict did, rejecting all honors of being clergy and insisting that he and his followers were laity. They were to love the outcast like Jesus did, to judge no one (because Jesus judged no one), to seek peace, to preach the Gospel and love to everyone, and to be wanderers, lest they grow fat like monks. During the Third Crusade, Francis made a trip to preach to the Sultan, who did not immediately kill him as Islamic law dictated, but invited him for a week of discussion. Francis may adopted the Muslim practice of praying five times a day as reciting the Angelus three times a day. By now the church had required him to make a religious order out of his followers, and with his failure to bring peace with Islam, he say his life as a failure. But it was a failure by one who had done everything out of love for Christ.

The major cities of Europe, Paris in particular, were centers of intellectual learning. Universities had a charter which made them largely independent of the city and kingdom they were in. Students attended for at least eight years, paying tuition and attending sets of lectures by salaried professors. The last two years were the time for the students to show off; the students would defend theses before a lively and critical audience. This could make or break a student’s career. The best of these was Abelard. He rejected Plato’s World of Forms, and taught that rational inquiry began with doubt. He rejected the theory of original sin that Augustine propounded (we cannot inherit an action we did not participate in, although we could inherit the punishment), rejected that Christ died for our sins (instead, it was an act of identifying with us), and rejected Jewish guilt for Jesus’ death (they did not know what they were doing, as Jesus himself said). He set up his own school in Paris (eventually the University of Paris), and at 35 taught at the cathedral school of Notre Dame. He also tutored the teenage niece of one of the cathedral canons, who was pretty much the first girl who he was interested in. Their studies suffered, and she became pregnant. The father was not entirely pleased, and one thing led to another, resulting in goons forcibly castrating Abelard. He became a monk and she became a nun.

Thomas Aquinas, who determinedly resisted his family’s efforts for him to be a knight, joined the Dominicans, a mendicant group like the Franciscans. His noble family was ashamed at this and kidnapped him, but let him return after he refused to do anything else. Thomas was a fat in body, but lithe in mind, and brilliantly packaged Aristotelian thought into a form that could be accepted. Augustine held to the Platonic view that the Forms, that is, the Spiritual, was what had value, while the flesh did not. Aquinas gave value to the flesh as well as to the spiritual. After all, “incarnation” means “God become flesh/meat”; Jesus had a body just like us. In fact, now we are the temple of the Holy Spirit. He wrote 25 volumes of text, which became foundational for the Catholic Church, but shortly before his death he stopped writing, saying that because of an experience he had had with God, he realized that everything he had written was like straw compared to what he had seen.

Art in this time period, while still looking very Byzantine, contained a lot of observations of daily life tucked into the cracks. Jesus became a softer figure in the mosaics, and on the edges people carried out their daily life: a woman feeding chickens, shepherd with their flocks, etc. Roger Bacon, of the University of Oxford, had a similar observational bent. He studied at Paris under Abelard, like Thomas Aquinas. He came decided that reason draws a conclusion, but only experience makes the conclusion certain. Following in the footsteps of the experimentalist Robert Grosseteste who did quantitative experiments on tides, solar heat, colors of the rainbow, and more, Roger Bacon experimented with everything. He systematized knowledge, and wrote Opus maius, an encyclopedia of art and science.

He also studied astrology. Ancient cultures thought that the stars shaped your destinies. And because time was cyclical, it made sense to visit an oracle to see where you fit on the cycle. The Church was never comfortable with this, since it denied the role of human free will. Ancient European cultures, notably the Celts, thought that the world was fluid, and thus things could change shape. This fit well with Aristotle’s view that everything was composed of four elements (air, earth, fire, water) in various proportions. If you could change the proportions, you could change something into another. Most notably, base metals into gold, but also finding the powder that would restore youth.

According to Cahill, St. Francis pioneered the movement of art from stiff ikons to realistic people. His poetry was full of metaphor in the troubador style (Brother Sun, Sister Moon), but it was his Christmas creche that really started it. In his quest for people to really experience Christ, he put a real baby in the manger, and brought live animals into the church. His followers had that same quest for what-was-it-like. The great painter Cimabue discovered a shepherd boy very talentedly scratching a picture of a sheep onto a rock and recognized greatness. He invited Giotto di Bondone to apprentice with him. Cimabue had already started to put smiles on his stiff ikonic pictures, but Giotto went farther and started making his people lifelike. He was a lay Franciscan brother, so much of his work was of St. Frances. Giotto’s subtle gradients of color made the figures appear so lifelike that contemporary observers of his work reportedly sometimes became unsure that they were not real. Unlike ikons where the figure is always front-on, Giotto places St. Francis in the act of living life, where he is often show in a side view.

In Florence many years later, in 1300, a young Dante was elected as one of seven priors who were the highest civil authority. He and his six priors banished some Guelphs of the Black faction who had cut off the nose of a teenager in the rival White faction. One of the banished men went to Pope Boniface. The Pope asked Florence to provide two hundred horsemen to help in his skirmish with a feisty Margherita degli Aldobrandeschi. Dante advised the city to do nothing, which it did. The Pope invited the German king into Italy, where Charles started plotting an invasion of Florence. Florence sent Dante and two others to the Pope to ask for peace; the Pope let the other two go and detained Dante. Charles occupied Florence, and the Blacks elected the seven priors, who charged Dante of bribery and fraud. Since Dante was unable to appear at his trial, he was condemned to death. Then the Pope released him. Dante wandered around Tuscany for a while hoping to be able to go back to Florence, but without success. After a number of years of wandering, he finally found a a patron in Ravenna, sent for his family, and composed The Divine Comedy. (Comedy because it ends happily.)

The poem is thousands of lines of evenly metered, rhyming early Italian. In it, Dante journeys to Heaven, but via Hell and Purgatory, owing to a she-wolf which blocks the path. In Hell Dante journeys from the lighter punishments for sins that harm only oneself to the deeper sins that harm others. At the very lowest levels he finds a lot of popes, buried headfirst into a rock opening over fire—they were there because they sold church offices for personal gain. Inferno is Dante’s attempt at understanding the causes of man’s troubles. Cahill claims that Dante is fundamentally upset at dishonesty—dishonesty with oneself, which leads to the dishonesty of politicians with each other. Dante has gently allegorized his understanding of sin into a story that feels very personal, yet at the same time very universal.

Mysteries of the Middle Ages is not one of Cahill’s better books. As usual, he paints engaging portraits of some notable people of the Middle Ages, but he largely fails to connect them to the bigger picture. In particular, he does not give much of the flavor of the age. He does give some cultural background for the people’s stories, but nothing very extensive. He alludes to the fact that medieval people thought very differently than we do, more symbolically, but rarely goes very far into details.

Furthermore, some of the longest stories are not the highlights for understanding the Middle Ages. Hildegard von Bingen is an interesting character, but despite apparently showing that women could be just as mystic and ecclesiastical (and stubborn and controlling) as men, she did not really inspire any successors. What was her impact on history? Not her twentieth-century feminism, which she probably would have rejected. Likewise, Elanor of Aquitaine is also interesting, but all that just to show that women could be free sexual beings? She engineered one annulment, but not a second. She did not even sleep around, apparently, in contrast with her second husband. Besides, was there really any doubt about women being free sexual beings? It is not like there was no lack of sexual freedom—who were the men all sleeping with, anyway? Finally, is sexual “freedom” something we should really be celebrating? Outside of machismo, men’s habit of sleeping around has frequently been viewed negative; great, so now women are freed up to behave equally negatively?

Another tiring aspect of the book is that Cahill keeps talking about Christianity from an unbeliever’s perspective, which becomes apparent when he observes that Aquinas’ reliance on Aristotle seems irrelevant to us, “but for us [Hans] Kung’s analysis remains fresh and unlikely to reach its expiration date anytime soon.” It turns out that Kung is a theologian that asked Pope Francis to agree that the Resurrection never happened, and then hopefully that God does not exist. But believing in the Resurrection and the existence of God is the whole point of being a Christian (and a Catholic)—even the Apostle Paul said that if the Resurrection never happened, Christians are to be pitied the most. So if Cahill thinks that a non-Christian theology is “fresh” and unlikely to expire, how is he supposed to actually understand the Middle Ages, where everyone actually (at least nominally) believed this and it informed their actions?

One example is Cahill’s wish that Francis’ meeting with the Sultan would have continued and then maybe we would not have a war between civilizations. What does he think was going to happen when a civilization that believed that the Church was responsible for extending the Kingdom of Heaven throughout the earth encountered a civilization that believed that it was a moral duty to jihad against your neighbors and convert them by military might? I do not think Cahill understands what religious beliefs really are; the two beliefs are fundamentally incompatible, and you cannot actually reach an agreement on opposing beliefs by having longer chats. How well are those Israeli/Palestinian peach chats working? Any sign of limited government Republicans reconciling with social welfare Democrats yet?

Furthermore, it is tiring to read things like, of course the Apostle Paul did not actually write the book of Timothy. “Of course”? That was the first time I’d heard of it. Apparently a bunch of scholars did a textual analysis on the writings attributed to Paul, discovered that it had a number of words used nowhere else, and jumped to the conclusion that it was a forgery in Paul’s name, despite the fact that it is Pauline in theology and was quoted from by Polycarp in the early 100s. Polycarp was a contemporary of Timothy, the recipient, and lived about 30 miles away; you’d think it would be hard to create a credible forgery when you could walk to the recipient in two days and ask him. The early church accepted the letter as genuine since the earliest days, yet scholars 2000 years removed can be so sure that “of course” Paul did not write it? Sheesh.

Similarly, Cahill seems prone to taking whatever extremist position makes a better narrative. He states that the Library of Alexandria had 400,000 books, but scholars debate a number between 40,000 and 400,000. Maybe some acknowledgement of that rather large difference would be in order? Likewise, he asserts that the destruction of the Temple of Serapis destroyed countless volumes of the Library stored there, yet the Wikipedia article says that scholars are by no means sure if there were any books left in the library by that time. We do not even know when it was destroyed, although fire resulting from either Julius Caesar or Emperor Aurelian’s invasions are likely candidates. Cahill also fails to note that the destruction of the temple happened after paganism was declared illegal, so while one might not agree with the destruction, it does seem like it would be rational to destroy an illegal temple. (One might also rescue any remaining books beforehand.)

I would have liked to find out how the cult of the Virgin Mary actually started, but despite the chapter’s name suggesting it, all we get is a story of an assertive mystic name Hildegard. Yet, the Bernard of Clairvaux he roundly criticizes is generally seen as being an influential proponent of Marianism. It seems like in his zeal to pull feminism from a nun, Cahill misses a main driver behind the cult of Mary. And on top of that, he does not explain how the cult of Mary affected medieval thinking and action.

When Cahill is not trying to impose his anti-war and modern mores on history, however, he does give interesting biographical sketches peppered with cultural information. His literary summaries, while not so extensive as his ones from antiquity (presumably owing to a greater volume of content), do try to get to the essence of what drove the authors. He also makes good points in the development of art. However, for a book in a series entitled “Hinges of History,” he fails to describe the hinge, or even to locate the door.

Review: 5
Cahill has obviously researched the material, but it seems like he has not thoroughly understood the Middle Ages, at this book feels much more of a surface portrait, compared to his portraits of antiquity. He tries to weave the biographical sketches together, but it comes out feeling very disjoint. Interesting characters, all, and some main characters of the time, but with many of them I struggle to see the lasting effect that they had. Also, questionable assertions and a very modern sensibility hamper his ability to let the unique qualities of the Middle Ages (whatever they are—I still do not know) shine through, especially because medieval thought is very not modern. C.S. Lewis’ The Discarded Image is the Middle Ages done right, although without the engagement of biographical sketches and rather more limited in scope.