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Mysteries of the Middle Ages: The Rise of Feminism, Science, and Art from the Cults of Catholic Europe (Hinges of History) Hardcover – October 24, 2006

3.6 out of 5 stars 60 customer reviews
Book 5 of 6 in the Hinges of History Series

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Editorial Reviews

From Publishers Weekly

Cahill's latest engaging romp through pop intellectual history (after Sailing the Wine-Dark Sea) focuses, despite the subtitle, not on fringe cults, but on the mainstream of medieval Roman Catholic thought. Instead of obscurantist dogma, he finds a ferment of implicitly progressive ideas that laid the groundwork for modernity. The veneration of the Virgin Mary, he contends, prompted a boost in women's status, exemplified by the mystic nun Hildegard of Bingen, who gained public status and power as a spiritual figure. The papacy's claim of spiritual authority independent from temporal power contained the seeds of modern notions about the separation of church and state, democracy and the legitimacy of political dissent. And the perennial head scratching over the doctrine of transubstantiation, he argues, stimulated the beginnings of both empirical science and artistic realism. Cahill's treatment is more impressionistic than systematic, and built around lively profiles of iconic medievals like Abelard and Héloïse, Francis of Assisi and Giotto, whose paintings get a long, lavishly illustrated exegesis. The author wears his erudition lightly and leavens his writing with reader-friendly anachronisms, likening Hildegard to blues chanteuse Bessie Smith and calling the Franciscans "the world's first hippies." The result is a fresh, provocative look at an epoch that's both strange and tantalizingly familiar. Photos. Color illus. throughout. (Oct. 24)
Copyright © Reed Business Information, a division of Reed Elsevier Inc. All rights reserved.


"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. 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....Cahill spans centuries of history beautifully and seamlessly, giving readers a lovingly painted picture of the high Middle Ages and how its sensibilities evolved to shape ours today."
--The Los Angeles Times

"A prodigiously gifted populizar of Western philosophical and religious thought spotlights exemplary Christians in the High Middle Ages...Cahill serves as an irresistible guide: never dull, sometimes provocative, often luminous."
—Kirkus Reviews

Praise for Sailing the Wine-Dark Sea

“Fascinating…Commendable…Cahill has an impressive knowledge of the Greek world.…His admirable skill at summing up movements of enormous complexity surfaces throughout the book.”
Seattle Times

“Astonishing…If anybody can get us reading about Homer, Plato, Socrates, Aristotle, Thucydides, Xenophon and more, Cahill will.”
—Chicago Tribune

Praise for Desire of the Everlasting Hills

“Each of [Cahill’s] books offers moments of genuine insight into the workings of culture, literature, and the human heart.”

“With grace, skill, and erudition, he summarizes obtuse semantic and historical arguments, highlights the findings most relevant to lay readers, and draws disparate material together in his portraits of Jesus, his mother, Mary, and the apostle Paul.”
Washington Post Book World

Praise for The Gifts of the Jews

“Captivating…Persuasive as well as entertaining…Mr. Cahill’s book is a gift.”
New York Times

“Cahill’s clearly voiced, jubilant song of praise to the gifts of the Jews is itself a gift—a splendid story, well told.”
Boston Globe

Praise for How the Irish Saved Civilization

“Charming and poetic…an entirely engaging, delectable voyage into the distant past, a small treasure.”
New York Times

“Cahill’s lively prose breathes life into a 1,600-year-old history.”
Boston Globe

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Product Details

  • Series: Hinges of History
  • Hardcover: 368 pages
  • Publisher: Nan A. Talese (October 24, 2006)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0385495552
  • ISBN-13: 978-0385495554
  • Product Dimensions: 9.2 x 6.5 x 1.3 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 1.6 pounds
  • Average Customer Review: 3.6 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (60 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #222,986 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

Customer Reviews

Top Customer Reviews

Format: Hardcover
As tempted as I am to give this book 3 stars, 2 stars is closer to rating the whole.

First, this book is for the novice. If you're more than a little familiar with medieval European history, you'll find nothing new here except Cahill's sometimes quirky interpretations of people and events. For some, these interpretations alone will be enough to revisit Hildegard, Abelard, and Eleanor of Aquitaine. Those who've read full length biographies of the main "characters" or the Durants' Story of Civilization or even Freeman's Closing of the Western Mind may want to skip this volume.

The point of Cahill's Hinges of History series seems to be "if you think history isn't fun and relevant, think again." I have a soft spot for such ventures so Cahill starts out in the plus column with me. I enjoyed "How the Irish Saved Civilization" for what is was, pop history meant to whet but not satisfy the appetite. Approach this volume with that in mind and you will likely enjoy it. I found numerous points of disagreement with his "theories" - the rise of feminism, for instance, hardly began with Eleanor!

Unfortunately, Cahill goes off the rails in the introduction and in the conclusion. In the Intro Cahill praises Italy's anti-death penalty stance and then detours to tell us about his "friend" who was on Texas's death row for a crime "he probably didn't commit", was a great guy and was ultimately executed and isn't modern day America wrong wrong wrong about the death penalty. This left me asking two questions: 1) huh? and 2) why doesn't Cahill write a book and tell his friend's story instead of shoehorning it into the Middle Ages?
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Format: Hardcover Verified Purchase
The Los Angeles Times reviewer says: "Thomas Cahill takes us on an intoxicating journey through medieval Europe." Intoxicating it may be, but is it true? A competent historian does not look at another period through the spectacles of his own biases, but attempts to place himself within that period and understand it for itself. "Intoxicating" as his story may be, Cahill fails this prime test of a competent historian.

Cahill engages in a transparent attempt to impose his strongly-expressed personal political and religious biases onto a period that he caricatures rather than understands and which, in many ways, he derides. He selects particular personages of the period that agree with his own particular modern values (note the subtitle: "The Rise of Feminism, Science, and Art from the Cults of Catholic Europe") and then skews the evidence to support his personal view of those personages.

For example, Cahill describes St. Francis of Assisi as a "hippie" and as more favorable to Eastern Mohammedanism than Western Christianity. The sources of the time, however, indicate that St. Francis personally accompanied the Fifth Crusade (1217-1219) and attempted to convert the Mohammedan leader Sultan Malek-el-Kamil, saying, "We have come to preach faith in Jesus Christ to you, that you will renounce Mohammed, that wicked slave of the devil, and obtain everlasting life." In fact, it doesn't seem as if St. Francis particularly cared for Mohammed!

Cahill evinces an obvious bias against any medieval figure who does not share his own views. Such figures as Hildegard von Bingen, St. Francis of Assisi, and Peter Abelard are "good guys," but Cahill calls one of the most highly regarded and influential figures of the period, St. Bernard of Clairvaux, a "sham saint.
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Format: Hardcover
This book disappoints on so many levels that it is nearly pointless to catalog all of it's faults in brief, but I'll give them a quick try.

Starting with the title, "Mysteries of the Middle Ages"... catchy isn't it, makes you think of DaVinci Code and wonder what those "Cults of Catholic Europe" were up. Guess what, you'll never find out, not in this book.

What this book is instead is a quirky basic general survey of what historians call "The High Middle Ages" or the "12th Century Renaissance" written by a non-professional historian. Cahill doesn't discuss any 'Mysteries' whatsoever (that I can remember reading anyway) and instead devotes his attention to giving vaguely humorous depictions of some medieval personalities. Unfortunately the author suffers from a limited attention span and constantly digresses, and bears a very apparent grudge against most degreed 'professional' historians, and an outright hatred of Republicans and President George Bush that colors every chapter he writes.

Yes, you did not misunderstand... the author regularly interrupts his commentary on some medieval event to make sarcastic comments about a modern US President! The author does this CONSTANTLY. Italy good = America (especially Texas) backwards and immoral. Yawn.

This is not history - this is just social revisionism with a specific political agenda. Avoid this turkey!

I recommend instead any of the books by Charles H. Haskins "The Renaissance of the 12th Century", etc, or other more recent works by C. Warren Hollister or Malcolm Barber.
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