Mysteries of the Middle Ages: The Rise of Feminism, Science, and Art from the Cults of Catholic Europe by Thomas Cahill
Review published in The Globe and Mail (Canada) 2007
There is an instantly recognizable type known as a “Dublin Catholic.” A person belonging to this small subset of humanity is usually a male of Irish descent, middle-aged and ruddy-faced, and, most important, annoyed at the Catholic Church. More comfortable on the soft contours of the barstool than with the hard pieties of the church pew and armed with a ferociously abstract secondary education dunned into him by some dark-robed order of teachers, the Dublin Catholic can effortlessly regale his fellow quaffers with tales of what the current pope is doing wrong and what, if elevated to the office of supreme pontiff, he would do to right matters. It takes one to know one – so I can say, almost infallibly, that in this little subculture of ours the scribbled name of Thomas Cahill, if consigned to the flames at the Sistine Pub and Grill, would produce a choking cloud of white smoke. Cahill is, indeed, the pope of Dublin Catholicism.
The fellow loves the West and, especially, Latin Christianity – but knows the Church to be deeply flawed. A decade or so ago, Cahill began his ascent to the throne of Saints Peter and Patrick with the improbably entitled “How The Irish Saved Civilization”, in which he argued that Irish monasticism preserved the light of learning in the blackest night of the Dark Ages. The runaway success of that volume, which occasioned a tsunami of green pride, led to the concoction of a series called the “Hinges of History”, in which Cahill, through seven subsequent books, promised to retail the influence of “gift-givers” in the development of Western Civilization. The Jews came next in line, then the earliest Christians, followed by the thinkers of ancient Greece. Now we have arrived at the fifth installment: “Mysteries of the Middle Ages: The Rise of Feminism, Science, and Art From the Cults of Catholic Europe”. Given that subtitle, we should head straight to the snug and order drinks for all, for it’s going to be a long night.
Fortunately, Cahill proves to be very good company. A lively storyteller, in this volume he selects a well-known episode or biography from the Middle Ages, holds it up for examination in the light of his own passions and humors, then puts it aside to take up another. The result resembles a blog in book form, where each chapter is, in essence, a lengthy post with only a tenuous connection to its fellows. Admitting the patchwork quality of the narrative, Cahill argues that to “present the Middle Ages otherwise—as a seamless garment—would be to falsify their character and leave the reader grasping at phantasm.”
Cahill delivers an entertaining if dutifully familiar anthology of tales. The story of Abelard and Heloise gets retold, as does the life of Eleanor of Aquitaine, queen, politician and patroness of the troubadours. Inevitably, the birth of the Gothic cathedral is celebrated, as are the scholastic investigations of Thomas Aquinas, the mischievous doings of the students of Paris’s Latin Quarter, the empirical experiments of Oxford’s Roger Bacon, and the innovations of medieval Italy’s trinity of genius: Francis of Assisi (piety), Dante (literature) and Giotto (art). Less familiar to devotees of feudalism may be the story of the Rhineland’s Hildegard of Bingen, abbess, polymath, author, mystic and musical composer, a woman who, like her contemporary Eleanor of Aquitaine, thrived in a world made for men. Hildegard’s story dovetails, for Cahill, with the nascent medieval worship of the Virgin Mary in assigning a new and better place for women in a culture awash in a maturing Catholicism. In fact, a great deal of
Catholic arcana is treated in the footnotes, which appear as sidebars on the page: if you can’t remember whether to set your alarm to Lauds or to Vespers, Cahill is your man.
To guide the reader through this lush Catholic landscape, “Mysteries” comes with lavish color illustrations scattered throughout, a fanciful illumination running alongside the various poems and songs cited, and, less happily, several clunky charts (e.g., “Major Medievals”, “Relevant Romans”) stuck in the middle of an otherwise canny design (The dust jacket helpfully informs the shopper that Cahill’s is “the ultimate Christmas gift book.”). Also subject to debate is the author’s decision in this hinge of history to turn up the pop-culture volume of his already fluid prose voice. The words “um” and “hey” are used to dubious comic effect, and we learn, among other things, that the quarrelsome Plantagenets were “no Brady Bunch” and that the first trouabour of the eleventh century was seen by his successors as “a sort of knightly Chuck Berry to a younger generation of Beatles and Rolling Stones.”
Less defensible, especially for a Dublin Catholic, are the passages where Cahill agrees with the pope. That, of course, is anathema. Cahill spouts off on all manner of subjects – in this examination of the medieval era, he manages to skewer Bush, the Iraq War and “The Da Vinci Code” – yet in an inexplicable chapter on Islam billed as an “Intermezzo” (why is Islam even an interlude in this oh-so-Catholic riff?) he trots out the hoariest of Islamophobic tales about violence and forced conversion. Describing Islam, woundingly, as “the brainchild of a (probably illiterate) camel driver named Muhammad”, Cahill ends his bizarre digression by proclaiming, “We in the West must come to accept that a people now numbering 1.3 billion and parked at our door for a millennium and a half will not go away.” Islam as a people, Tom? Clearly, once Cahill strays from the canon, he becomes, um, a loose cannon, distressingly like that Ratzinger fellow, who stuck the papal slipper far down his throat in September by echoing similarly ill-informed nonsense about Islam from within the Catholic bubble.
Still, as my first-grade teacher, Sister Maria Perpetua, used to say of injury suffered, “You must offer it up.” No book is flawless, no man infallible, not even the pope of the Dublin Catholics. In the epilogue to this rambling love letter to his faith, Cahill reverts to form and excoriates the contemporary Church for its inaction in the recent pedophile scandals. “The Catholic Church in the United States may be doomed in any case,” he writes, “unless the episcopate as a whole resigns, divesting itself of its gorgeous robes and walking off the world’s stage in sackcloth and ashes.” What this had to do with Francis, Eleanor and Hildegard was beyond me, but I stuck around till closing time.