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

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.

Triumph of the Gospel over Greek philosophy

The philosophers … chose to teach philosophy to the Greeks alone, and not even to all of them; but Socrates to Plato, and Plato to Xenocrates, Aristotle to Theophrastus, and Zeno to Cleanthes, who persuaded their own followers alone.

But the word of our Teacher remained not in Judea alone, as philosophy did in Greece; but was diffused over the whole world, over every nation, and village, and town, bringing already over to the truth whole houses, and each individual of those who heard it by him himself, and not a few of the philosophers themselves.

And if any one ruler whatever prohibit the Greek philosophy, it vanishes forthwith. But our doctrine on its very first proclamation was prohibited by kings and tyrants together, as well as particular rulers and governors, with all their mercenaries, and in addition by innumerable men, warring against us, and endeavouring as far as they could to exterminate it. But it flourishes the more. For it dies not, as human doctrine dies, nor fades as a fragile gift. For no gift of God is fragile. But it remains unchecked, though prophesied as destined to be persecuted to the end. (St. Clement of Alexandria, The Stromata, 6.18)

Book Review: Desire of the Everlasting Hills: The World Before and After Jesus

Desire of the Everlasting Hills: The World Before and After Jesus by Thomas Cahill, ISBN: 0-385-48251-5

I don’t think I could possibly sing the praises of this book enough. It is an excellent discourse on just what is so special about Christ and about the faith, Christianity, named after him. Cahill is an intelligent, rational thinker and an articulate, nearly poetic, individual both at the same time. This is a very rare combination indeed, and one that leads Cahill in this book, as in the others I’ve read by him, to be able to work through problems logically, cogently explain the solution he’s reached, and, even when you disagree with that solution, offer you some deep insights along the way.

Believe it or not, even though I sing his praises every opportunity I get, there is plenty that I disagree with in Cahill’s work, especially in this particular book. I think, for instance, that he relies far too heavily upon the atheistic crowd who seem to scream with the loudest voices amongst those in the fields of Biblical history and textual criticism. He’s able to see past the gibberish more often than not, but a reliance upon these “scholars” is enough to slant the results in the end.

Perhaps the biggest problem I saw in this book specifically on that note is that Cahill all but ignores the voice of the early Church Fathers on pretty much everything. I was shocked that in discussions of the authorship of the Gospels, St. Papias of Hierapolis and St. Irenaeus of Lyons, two of our earliest sources of identification of authorship, went completely unmentioned. I think this ignoring (and ignorance) of the early Church Fathers is a dangerous trend in modern Biblical scholarship, and even Cahill wasn’t able to get over it.

I also have to say that I disagree with some of Cahill’s final conclusions. Again following the trends of modern Biblical scholarship, Cahill concludes by recreating a new Jesus in-his-own-image. Cahill’s Jesus is probably more like the “Jesus of Faith” (if I can be forgiven the awful terminology and pardoned for the implications) than are the Jesuses of Crossan or Pagels, but a new (and different) Jesus it is nonetheless; it is Jesus Cahill, not Jesus Christ.

All of that said, I do recommend this book to all to read. What few flaws there are in Cahill’s work will quickly be forgiven as he moves onto his next powerful point and astute observation, and of those there are many.