Wednesday, April 28, 2010

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Book Review; Thomas Cahill, 'Mysteries of the Middle Ages', 317 pages.

And the Beginning of the Modern World.

by Ferdinand III




There is much to like about Cahill's writings. He is a former professor and full-time writer, who has published best sellers on various topics from histories of the Irish and Jews, to the wine dark sea of the Ancient Greeks. I have read all of his major works – called by Cahill 'The Hinges of History' or how the modern world was in part formed. This is an obviously vital topic in a world rife with Eco-Cult madness, the intolerant violence of Islam with its endemic jihad; and the wearying cry of more state power and governmentalism.


Cahill's 'Mysteries' has a lot to recommend it. It is witty, full of facts many of which I encountered for the first time, and novel in its attempt to structure a general dialogue of the development of the poorly-named 'Middle Ages' and 1000 years of European history, around personalities, starting with quite improbably ancient Alexandria. Cahill's basic argument is that the West grew out of Greco-Roman inquiry fused with Christianity. Thus he starts his journey in the ancient world's richest and most intellectually vibrant center – Alexandria, and shows how the 3 main streams of Western consciousness argued, debated, fused, fissured, and realigned our collective cultural consciousness. He also selectively isolates key people to help us explain the rise of feminism, artistic achievements, and science which only occurred, in their modern form, in the Western world.


The demerits however, outweigh the positives, if one is truly interested in a medieval history. Cahill leaves out almost everything. Missing are the Reconquista; Islamic Jihad; the Crusades; medieval economic development; the rise of the urban center; the Merovingian-Carolingian-Ottonian empires; the creation of modern commerce and capitalism; medieval law which was in many cases more advanced than the centralized Roman Law of the Enlightenment; the plague; the Avars; the Mongols; the Vikings; the development of Normandy which had an enormous impact on all of Europe; and the hundreds of inventions from eye-glasses to the stirrup which dominated this period. It is a very sketchy claim indeed by Cahill, to propose that his book helps explain the 'mysteries' of feminism, art, and science, without going into detail on the above.


I tend to agree with Ingrid Rowland who reviewed this work in the New York Times – a publication very sympathetic to Cahill's modern Leftism which he openly avows in his book, marring its purpose:

“These personal comments, an important element of Cahill’s style, serve, as noted above, to forge a bond with the reader, but the technique can also be treacherous. A book about the Middle Ages necessarily takes a long view of history; comments about George W. Bush whose presidency must end by 2008, carry a built-in expiration date. A call for the reform of Catholicism from within will strike Protestant readers as very old news indeed. The scandal of priestly sexual abuse calls for Cahill’s most tragic eloquence rather than raw invective. In short, every author, whether novice or veteran, needs an editor who takes no prisoners.”


All true.  Cahill inflicts his own  wounds through a too narrow focus, and sophomoric rants.  An editor would have been quite handy indeed.


On the positive side one can list some notable elements of information which are quite fascinating. One example is when Cahill correctly identifies the Jihadic nature of Islam, though he does not spend any time investigating the Arab and Islamic attacks on Europe which for 400 years, impoverished the Continent through the reduction of population; slavery; ransom; pillage; war; and the conquest of North Africa, Spain, parts of Italy and many West Mediterranean islands. But at least Cahill gets the broad outline right, “Islam began as a warrior religion bent on worldly conquest. The followers of Islam, the brainchild of a (probably illiterate) camel driver named Muhammed, gained their initial prominence by raiding caravans and claiming territory. This religion was first spread by coercion, not conversion” [p. 181]


All true. Yet Cahill cannot help himself – on the very next page he rants on like a BBC commentator about the disgusting avarice of the Western white man, invoking lies and distortions with no proof and no historical knowledge: “On the other side, the genial Islamic toleration of (and even interaction with) Jews and Christians in Muslim Spain, the bloodthirsty cruelty of the crusades, the West's indifference to disenfranchisement and economic suffering in Muslim (and especially Palestinian) lands, the West's bottomless greed for oil, America's mindless war in Iraq..” [p.182]


None of the above can be supported and all are easily dismissed by anyone with primary analytical skills and historical knowledge. This paragraph amongst many others renders the book unreadable and at times redundant.


Cahill spends a lot of time on interesting creatures such as Hildegaard the 12th century Nun and Bishopress; Eleanor the 12th century Queen and lover of most of European gentry; Dante; and a varied assortment of many church figures and popes. His most impressive array of argument and insight is when he recounts the life and importance of Europe's first modern scientist – Roger Bacon; the moral revolution of St. Francis in the 12th century; the production of Giotto, the 14th century artistic genius; and the life of Dante which inspired the Divine Comedy. These are areas of brilliance and candor and offer the reader a glimpse into the 12th to 14th centuries that should shatter the illusion of a 'Dark Age' for the curious reader. Europe was no poor backwater from 500 AD to 1500 AD but a thriving, contradictory, energetic and confident society which did indeed as Cahill argues, gave us feminism, higher art, and science.


But there are too many missing pieces. The subtitle 'the rise of feminism, science and art...' is apt, since Cahill tries to limit his inquiry to those three branches. But none of these offshoots of the 'middle ages' can be divorced from the general saga of the period. It is all mixed in together.  The rather subjective citing of individuals to explain this 1000 year period; and the personal rants of a committed leftist, severely limit and damage what could have been a very good work.