Mysteries of the Middle Ages: The Rise of Feminism, Science and Art from the Cults of Catholic Europe - Thomas Cahill Mysteries of the Middle Ages is history told through biography and anecdote. While it covers grand themes, as the title implies, it does so in an immediate, small scale way that makes the transitions of time more accessible to lay readers (i.e.: me).

I picked Mysteries up somewhat by chance; I was reading Ken Follett’s Pillars of the Earth, and wanted to supplement my meager knowledge of the period. Originally, I passed this over because it was too expensive at my local Borders (it has full-color illustrations on nearly every other page), but I’m happy to say I found a copy at a quarter of the price at a used shop. Not that this has much bearing on the quality of the book, but I thought that the event was fortunate so it contributed to my interest in it.

Lucky for those of us not well-versed in the slow crawl (or backslide) of history from the relative enlightenment of ancient times to the Dark Ages, Cahill starts with early Greek thinkers and progresses through the ages with representative figures to illustrate each shift in thought. From Aristotle and Plato, he moves on to the grand Medieval figures like Hildegard, Eleanor of Aquitaine and Thomas Aquinas, sprinkled liberally with famous stories like that of Heloise and Abelard.

Cahill writes in a conversational style that suits the nature of the book in many ways; it’s not intended to be comprehensive, but it skims over the relevant figures and movements to paint a large scale-portrait of several hundred years of tumultuous history. I doubt there are many other history books that manage to name drop Saint Francis of Assisi and Sex and the City within the same 300 pages, but at the same time, some of his references to modern pop culture and politics are jarring rather than helpful. Cahill is not the most objective historian I have ever encountered; sometimes, he can be surprisingly snarky in his observations, particularly those concerning religion.

Speaking of religion, this book was very useful in clarifying a few historical concepts of Catholicism that have always bothered me. Very early Christianity was a nihilistic religion; everything relied on the swift approach of Judgment Day and the Church’s philosophies show this quite clearly. I have always wondered when the shift occurred between the “End Times” religion of early believers, and the much more worldly concerns of the later incarnation of the Church. Cahill uses various people and their writings to illuminate the progression of thought that generated a shift in perspective from a philosophy of negativity (the Earth is an evil, disgusting place) to one more positive (the Earth is not perfect, but we must improve it for the time we are here).

Cahill follows the progress of science by tracing the presence of Aristotelian thought through the ages, pointing out the works in which it emerges and proving that, despite our conceptions of Medieval thinking and religious fanaticism, observational and secular thinking was always lurking below the surface, emerging into the light from time to time in the works of people like Roger Bacon. While Cahill can be accused of belittling religious thought from time to time, he is at least fair when considering points like how our misconception that Europe in the Middle Ages was populated by crazy "flat Earth" believers is inaccurate.

Art, on the other hand, seems to follow an opposite path from science, becoming more expressive because of religion rather than in spite of it. Cimabue and Giotto are Cahill’s primary examples, and their work contrasts strikingly with the stiff ikons of Byzantine art, which were descendants of Greek formalism. I also learned an interesting tidbit in the section on art; I never knew that the word “iconoclast” comes from the destruction of religious icons by a cult of religious fanatics that believed the Muslim practice of non-representative art was the foundation of their military success.

As far as tracing art and science through the ages, the book is very good. Feminism is a little sketchier; just because two prominent female figures emerged near the same time doesn’t mean feminism suddenly took root. At the same time, some women have always fought against the constraints of their time, so it’s really hard to say where “feminism” as we know it really emerged and the examples here are as good as any.

So there was a fairly even blend of good information and pointless proselytizing in this. Cahill could have written a much better book had he decided to omit his tangential tirades concerning modern day events and his personal take on religious thinking. They aren't terribly long, but they disorient the reader from the narrative and cause you to question his objectivity as a historian, which in turn makes you doubt the validity of his observations concerning the actual subject at hand.

I have been working on this review throughout my progress in the book and have been impatient to post it, so I will be adding more once I see what conclusions Cahill draws to tie everything together.