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The Dark Ages? Think again

Mysteries of the Middle Ages The Rise of Feminism, Science, and Art From the Cults of Catholic Europe Thomas Cahill Nan A. Talese/Doubleday: 348 pp., $32.50

December 01, 2006|William Lobdell | Times Staff Writer

LIKE a favorite college professor who could make any subject fascinating and understandable, Thomas Cahill takes us on an intoxicating journey through medieval Europe in "Mysteries of the Middle Ages: The Rise of Feminism, Science, and Art From the Cults of Catholic Europe."

In this, the fifth of his proposed seven-book series, "Hinges of History," which have explored the formative roles of the Irish, the Greeks, the Jews and the people of Jesus' day in Western Civilization, Cahill's command of rich historical detail makes medieval cities and their colorful characters come alive.

Throughout it all, you are keenly aware that the author wants you to fall in love with this pivotal period in Western civilization every bit as much as he did.

"I invite you on a pilgrimage, dear Reader," he writes. "Come along with me (and many others) to places we have never seen before and to people we could otherwise never have expected to know."

In his easy writing style, the author argues persuasively that mainstream Roman Catholic theology and thought catapulted Europe out of the Dark Ages and into an era that saw women's status elevated, modern science take root and artists shake off their Byzantine chains.

He does this by plucking a wonderful cast of historic figures from the 11th through the 14th centuries, which constituted the latter part of the Middle Ages that began in the 4th century. Dante, Giotto, St. Francis of Assisi and Thomas Aquinas are some of the familiar names. Others are known only among historians and "Jeopardy" champions.

To show how the church's rising devotion to the Virgin Mary opened doors to women, Cahill describes how Hildegard of Bingen, an ordinary woman -- like Mary -- did extraordinary works through God's grace.

A mystic and abbess in 11th century Germany, she wrote weighty books on theology and on her visions, counseled royalty, bishops and popes, and preached to large crowds on the road.

"[T]he list of her correspondents in the last decades of her life reads like a roll of the royal houses of Europe," he writes, "and to all she gave what succor she could, as well as frank counsel."

Hildegard once wrote to the German king Frederick I -- also known as Barbarossa or Redbeard -- chastising him for his attempt to interfere with the election of a pope: "You juvenile fool."

Cahill makes the case that no woman could have achieved so much nor expressed opinions as freely as Hildegard did before the veneration of the Virgin Mary -- a paragon of a faithful, chaste woman -- was put at the center of the faith, raising the status of all women in the process. The adoration of Mary arose out of the Council of Ephesus in 431, when church leaders underscored her importance as the mother of God.

As for the march of modern science beginning in the Middle Ages, Cahill puts much of the credit on the broad shoulders of Thomas Aquinas, whose nickname was the "Dumb Ox of Sicily." In his voluminous writings, Aquinas used Aristotelian tools of reason to examine church theology and its mysteries -- such as transubstantiation, or how bread and wine are transformed during Mass into the literal body and blood of Christ.

His method of probing would be the foundation from which "medieval science would take its uncertain first steps," Cahill writes. "[T]he wave that emanated from Thomas Aquinas [drew] the attention of all to the primacy of human reason in the struggle to come to terms with human experience."

Artists too wanted to present a world that reflected reality more clearly than their Byzantine predecessors who used flat, two-dimensional images and rigid, stylized figures in their work. Soon, humanity poured into the artwork: Angels smiled, Mary and the infant Jesus embraced, and the body of Christ hung limply on the cross.

The Italian artist Giotto used his Catholicism in "a nearly scientific quest to reproduce more exactingly in art the very things his eyes could see, his hands could touch, his heart could love -- and preeminently among these lovable things the human body itself," Cahill argues.

The prose is made even more inviting by the book's resemblance to a Bible from the Middle Ages, with large drop letters in medieval fonts and colorful illustrations beginning each chapter. Helpful margin notes and four-color reproductions of the era's art, architecture and maps ground the reader in the times.

Cahill's only missteps come when he ties medieval events too closely to pop culture or today's politics.

In one passage, the author writes about a letter "as full of catty innuendo as the dialogue from an episode of 'Desperate Housewives.' "

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