Mysteries of the Middle Ages: The Rise of Feminism, Science, and Art from the Cults of Catholic Europe by Thomas Cahill, IBSN: 978-0-385-49556-1
This was yet another masterful entry in Thomas Cahill’s Hinges of History series. In this book, Cahill covers the Middle Ages (about the years 400-1400), specifically focusing on developments in Western Europe during this period.
As is usual of Cahill’s books, there are no holds barred as we explore how these times long past have shaped the world we know today in so many important ways. Cahill is never shy about expressing his opinions and exposing the facts (the two often, but not always, coincide), no matter how controversial and even offensive those opinions and facts may be. I was particularly impressed in this book with his honest treatment of Islam on pages 180-181; to be honest, I’m not sure why a fatwa hasn’t been issued against him yet!
The only complaints that I have about this book are that Cahill doesn’t seem to have done his research for this book as well as he did for the previous installments in the series. Even though Cahill points out in the final chapters that the negative opinion of the Middle Ages that most students are taught even today in schools is an anti-Catholic fabrication of a later age, I was rather disappointed to see that he repeats several myths that emerged from this besmirching of the Middle Ages without questioning them. For instance, he blames the burning of the library of Alexandria on a “Christian mob” on page seven and repeats the origins of the word “Easter” as invented by the Venerable Bede on pages 59-60; both of these have been discounted as myths by modern historians.
He also seems at several points to invent details that are unknown to the actual historical accounts with the hope of heightening the literary effect of his writing. For instance, he describes the group that lynched the female pagan philosopher Hypatia as “howling monks.” Not only was the group that lynched Hypatia not a monastic group, but I doubt that they howled much either.
A further problem that I spotted is his treatment of St. Justinian the Emperor, which he bases, as so many historians inexplicably do, entirely on Procopius’ Secret History. The fact that Procopius describes Justinian as a shapeshifting demon in this same book should be enough to at least cast it under suspicious if not entirely remove it from the milieu of decent historical research; this thought doesn’t seem to have occurred to either Cahill or any historian of the Byzantine era that I’ve yet come across. Perhaps Procopius’ pseudo-history is just too much fun to get rid of.
Thankfully, these historical flaws play a very minor part in the overall work. In fact, most of them are said either in passing or even as footnotes. This book remains nonetheless a wonderful, insightful, and illuminating read for those attempting to both understand the Middle Ages as the Middle Ages and also to understand the heritage of the Middle Ages found in our own lives today.