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Wednesday, December 27, 2006

What the Middle Ages gave us

The Middle Ages implies something less-than, that in-between time connecting the violence of the Dark Ages and the enlightenment of the Renaissance. A time when not much happened and all was quiet.

But as author Thomas Cahill writes in Mysteries of the Middle Ages: The Rise of Feminism, Science, and Art from the Cults of Catholic Europe, it was a time of great movements. It was the Middle Ages that brought us Thomas Aquinas, Hildegard of Bingen, Dante, Geoffrey Chaucer, St. Francis of Assisi, Eleanor of Aquitaine and Catherine of Sienna.

In a beautifully designed book with stunning color photographs and maps by Nan A. Talese, Cahill has done a remarkable though cursory job of demonstrating how the Catholicism of the Middle Ages laid the groundwork for western civilization. This is the time when Romans became Italians, when the Virgin Mary inspired construction of a great Cathedral, when St. Francis inspired faith in action, Thomas Aquinas inspired faith in reason and Giotto di Bondone inspired faith through realistic art.

It took me a while to get through the book if only because I lacked the time to read it. But once some free time opened up it is a breezy read, pulling together seemingly unconnected events to give readers a picture of how faith (specifically Catholicism) combined with reason to create our world.

Cahill, who is at work on another in his series "Hinges of History" has amassed a great deal of knowledge presented here as history for the layman. In his quest to popularize the time period, he sometimes resorts to popular culture analogies that jar the reader out of medieval reverie -- at one point comparing the dialogue in Hildegard of Bingen's letters to an episode of "Desperate Housewives." ("Take that, bitch.") Fortunately, those annoyances are kept to a minimum.

The major disappointment, however, is in lack of depth. The history geek longs for more depth and detail in the events only touched upon by the author. For example, he only touches briefly on the love affair between Abelard—who first posited that Christ didn't die to pay for human sin but as an act of "supreme generosity and identification with the human condition," and that the Jews had no idea that Jesus was God and so could not be accused of deicide, a position that would take the Vatican eight centuries (and Vatican II) to come around to sharing—and Heloise, a woman he loved as much for her mind as for her body. It was a modern love and the reader yearns to learn more about the couple.

During medieval times, philosophers such as Abelard did not marry, believing that all energy must be spent on philosophy or teaching.Unfortunately, the nasty Bernard of Clairvaux—he of the "faith believes; it does not dispute" way of thinking—tormented Abelard and eventually poisoned those closest to him. Abelard was castrated in his bed after news of his secret marriage to Heloise began to spread.

In the end, Abelard was broken physically and spiritually at the hands of the Catholic Church.

Fortunately, Cahill has compiled a very readable notes section of the book that describes the works he consulted during research. It's a road map for anyone interested in learning more about this period or about any of the characters.

Throughout the book, the struggle between faith and reason shifts and evolves at times with one gaining the upper hand over the other. But all along that tension impacts everything from science and the development of modern universities to art and even the impact on modern filmmaking.

If there's an overall theme to Cahill's book it is that which is similar to Dante's "Divine Comedy"—that power in the hands of the church can become a vile thing.
"(Boniface) was one of the vilest men ever to sit on the throne of Saint Peter, a cleric wholly concerned with his own power and aggrandizement, who took to parading about in the costume of an emperor ('I'm pope! I'm Caesar!' he shouted) and who remodeled the papal crown into the novelty of the triple tiara, symbolic of his vaunted authority as high priest, king (of the Papal States) and emperor over the emperor."
He warns of a similar problem in today's church, that its leaders should divest themselves of robes and trappings of wealth if it is to regain influence particularly in the U.S. Though his view of Catholicism is usually kept in check, he lets his disgust show at the end of the book.
"Dante bewailed the selling of church offices, describing this practice as 'Christ [being] bought and sold the whole day long' in the Rome of Pope Boniface VIII. That was, however, a far less depraved situation than the current one, where, as Dante would be forced to conclude, the twelve-year-old Christ, who conversed with doctors of the law in the Temple of Jerusalem (in Luke 2:41-52), is made to give blow jobs and rammed up the ass the whole day long by the doctors of the law of the New Jerusalem, while the high priests of the Temple stand guard at the entrances, lest any uninitiated outsides should discover what is going on. However shocking these words may sound to some ears, there can be no doubt that this is what clerical dissemblers have done to the Jesus they claim to care so much about. For 'whatever you have done to the least of these … you have done to me.' (Matthew 25:40)."
Harsh words, indeed, but perhaps a view shared privately by many others who struggle to put reason to such acts against the faithful. Despite his ending diatribe against the modern church, Cahill's work is a worthy effort and introduction to a time that should be heeded more closely.

What all of these characters of the Middle Ages—some celebrated, some tolerated and some persecuted—demonstrate is that the shaping of the western world was done not by the popes and bishops, but at the grassroots level, by writers, artists, scientists, philosophers, musicians, builders and theologians.

Mysteries of the Middle Ages: The Rise of Feminism, Science, and Art from the Cults of Catholic Europe(368 pages), published by Nan A. Talese (Oct. 24, 2006)


Kelly Boyer Sagert said...

I love these types of books. Definitely on my list to be read . . .

Wendy Hoke said...

I'm a history geek, Kelly. So these kinds of books are always fun for me.

Kelly Boyer Sagert said...

Same here! On our family vacations, we always go to historical locales.