I’ve been reading a terrific book about the Middle Ages, recently, by an American scholar with a great sweeping view of history about the powerful influence of medievalism on the contemporary world. I’ve always found the imaginative influence of the Middle Ages captivating: Chaucer’s pilgrims, the wild behaviours of feudal lords, the gritty view of life/death (horseman, pass by), the struggle to find universal order through art, literature and religious practice. Medieval references abound in contemporary culture; why is this?
Mysteries of the Middle Ages and the Beginning of the Modern World by Thomas Cahill cuts a broad swath through this question by focusing on the stories of lesser-known historical figures who had pivotal impacts on history and contributed immensely to Western culture and the evolution of Western sensibility. The stories of people like Hildegard of Bingen, Peter Abelard of Paris, England’s Thomas Aquinas, and Italy’s Dante Alighieri and Giotto di Bondone reveal how we became the people we are and why we think and feel the way we do today.
Sometimes books like this are a little blunt with the writer’s personality, who may at times figure as prominently as the historical figures and events they attempt to depict. People like Harold Bloom, Camille Paglia or perhaps even David Attenborough come to mind. They take a controversial stance and aim for a popular audience and leave readers suspicious about their authority. But Cahill’s work is the first I’ve come across that does this for the Middle Ages, and, frankly, I like it.
Take, for example, this passage, which draws a clear line between one aspect of the medieval sensibility and our own:
In our Age of the Common Man, nobility has fled the field, which makes it difficult for us to come to terms with the temper of an age in which class structures were taken for granted and everyone was duly expected to fulfill his or her divinely assigned role, an age in which shoemakers remained forever shoemakers, and duchesses duchesses and fish-wives fish-wives, and no one entertained even a whisper of hope for an improvement in status. The disadvantages of such a society are so evident to us that its contentments remain hidden from view. We fail to acknowledge, on the one hand, how full of anxiety our own society is, how its lack of assigned roles leaves so many individuals woefully isolated, permanently nervous about the random fluctuations of their fortunes. If, on the other hand, one could say, “I am the shoemaker of Trier, as was my father before me, as will my son after me; I am an integral part of my community, even necessary to it; my neighbours respect me and depend on my skill,” one could own an abiding peace that eludes all but a very few children of the twenty-first century.
Cahill explains the medieval ideal of virginity, as personified in the the Virgin mother, as an unassailable assumption, exalted above all ancient precedents because it was the key to achieving a place beside God with one foot, and the other in this temporal world. The “sacrificial virginity of exceptional religious figures,” such as Hildegard, gave them an aura of perfection.
Such extraordinary connection to Heaven turned them [virgins] into mediating intercessors on our behalf, human, like us but not so distracted by earthly concerns, living consciously in the presence of God.
Cahill suggests that this is one legacy of the Middle Ages, that, by placing the image of the Virgin Mary at the center of the church and their lives, medieval people exalted womanhood to a level unknown in any previous society. For the first time, men began to treat women with dignity and women took up professions that had always been closed to them. Women were by no means accorded the same status as men, but they ceased being non-entities, as they had been in Roman times and the interegnum following the fall of Rome. But the rise of people like Hildegard of Bingen as a kind of super-star religious figure in the early 12th Century or Eleanor of Aquitaine as powerful royalty was an acknowledgement that women were “players,” and moreso in many respects because a woman (Mary) was the central figure of the Church itself.
Cahill has a colourful descriptive turn and brings the characters he describes to life, rousing them from sombre historical figures into vigorous, three-dimensional people who think, speak and write and are not afraid to advance new ideas against the establishment. He really succeeds in portraying the foment of ideas in the Middle Ages, paving the way for the Renaissance and the modern world.
Mysteries of the Middle Ages and the Beginning of the Modern World is part of projected series by Cahill collectively titled “The Hinges of History.” Mysteries, published in March 2008, is the most recent book in the series. Others by Cahill include:
- 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; and
- Sailing the Wine-Dark Sea: Why the Greeks Matter.
Cahill’s portrayal of the Middle Ages is almost exhilarating. He captures the energy, the spirit of experimentation and the passionate pursuit of knowledge that built the foundations for the modern world. He is an inspiring guide through the time period and if this is an indication of the others in the Hinges of History series, I will be moving on after finishing this one to try the others.