December 7, 2006

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Mysteries of the Middle Ages: The Rise of Feminism, Science and Art from the Cults of Catholic Europe, by Thomas Cahill (2006, Nan A. Talese, 343 pages)
By Amy Diaz adiaz@hippopress.com.

The Middle Ages was one of those historical periods that always got short shrift in school.

I remember spending what felt like an eternity on early Greeks and Romans — it must have felt like an eternity to my teachers to because I always remember rushing through everything from the Age of Exploration to whenever the history book was printed (the Ford administration in the lousy school districts, the Reagan administration in the well-to-do ones). About the Middle Ages I remember very little except for some mention of the plague and some talk of German merchants. Really, until kids are old enough to watch Monty Python and the Holy Grail, what do the Middle Ages have to offer in terms of entertainment value?

As it turns out, plenty. A scheming queen, a saucy nun, bitchy clergy, some pretty spectacular art and a general laying of the ground work for the coming centuries in the a region of the world that would go from chaos to hemispheric and eventually global dominance. Thomas Cahill has a knack for finding the corker-of-a-story in ignored periods of history and weaving them into lively, not-at-all-textbooky volumes. How the Irish Saved Civilization, The Gifts of the Jews and Desire of the Everlasting Hills are three of the books that, along with Mysteries of the Middle Ages, make-up his Hinges of History series.

Here he give us, mostly, the high and late middle ages, from about the 12th century through the 15th century. He starts by explaining the lay of the land in the Dark Ages (or early Middle Ages, from about the fourth through 11th centuries). Rome falls, barbarians invade, lifespans go down, dangers go up, learning and health suffers and it is the unifying force of Christianity and its ruling head (the Pope) that eventually makes Europe a place where people can conduct life without constant fear of upheaval.

The Catholic Church plays an enormous role in society, not just acting as a calming and mediating force between the powerful, but also in the way that its development begins to effect society’s development. Though Cahill’s bringing the “feminism” label to the period is a bit of a stretch, he makes a good argument about how the rise in importance of the Virgin Mary to Catholics gives a boost to everyday women and particularly royal women as well. Mary is treated as a unique individual (given a name and a role in history), nearly unheard of among women throughout history. Respect Mary and it’s not such a far journey to respecting the writings of Hildegard, a nun and a mystic who becomes a celebrity and an advisor to kings. Cahill describes her as a feisty woman not afraid to pick fights with popes when need be and had a surprisingly diva-like approach to her earthly existence:

“She dressed her sisters like princesses for special fest days. … Unlike other nuns, who sheared their hair and covered what was left, Hildegard’s virgins wore their hair long and unbound, scarcely concealed by the flowing silk veils, pure white — Hildegard’s favorite color.” He describes objections of other nuns to this level of glam with characteristic glee, calling Hildegard’s response “a letter as full of catty innuendo as the dialogue from an episode of Desperate Housewives” and summing up Hildegard’s language as “take that, bitch.”

Cahill clearly digs his characters and tells the stories with a kind of jauntiness that suggests tales told over pints or between era-appropriate mugs of mead. He’s enraptured over tales of Eleanor of Aquitane, a sort of Hilary Clinton of her day who manages to not only wield political power but enter into what is quite possibly the first marriage in history between to people actually in love with each other. Historical examples of clashes between Islam and Christianity recounted as though they were happening now — and Cahill makes a pretty good case that they are. With the enthusiasm of a sports fan and the nerdiness of a scholar, Cahill brushes the dust off these pieces of Europe’s awkward past and proudly shows them to us, giving this age vitality and excitement usually reserved for other parts of the timeline.

It doesn’t hurt that Mysteries of the Middle Ages is, itself, a very bright and pretty book. Reproductions of paintings and frescos flesh out the descriptions of castles and churches and colorful maps help us locate the settings for his tales. The first pages of chapters get tapestry like designs and randomly show up on pages. It’s as though the pages themselves — nevermind the text — refuse to let us get bored.

Pretty enough to serve as a gift for a history geek, Mysteries of the Middle Ages is also lively enough to actually be read. B+ Amy Diaz.