Wednesday, September 16, 2015

Review: Mysteries of the Middle Ages by Thomas Cahill

Mysteries of the Middle Ages: The Rise of Feminism, Science and Art from the Cults of Catholic EuropeMysteries of the Middle Ages: The Rise of Feminism, Science and Art from the Cults of Catholic Europe by Thomas Cahill
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

It has been SO long since I've reviewed any books. I stalled on this one, so I thought I could start back up here, and chip away at them. And suddenly, I understand why I went on hiatus for so long.

Mysteries of the Middle Ages tells of an era of history shaped by the Catholic Church and its influences. Its premise is how the modern world owes so much of its culture to the Church. While it does put down some compelling evidence, I'm unconvinced that it's as positive as the author seems to think.

Cahill does go into a lot of history that textbooks leave out. He gives the past texture, gives historical figures motives and contributing factors that turns history into an actual story. The narrative is generally entertaining. This is one of those narrative non-fiction books that generally works. It feels factual and real, at the same time as it carries the reader along.

Well. Mostly factual. I'm no religious or historical scholar, but I'm fairly sure he misrepresents the Islam faith and its proponents. Badly. He gives a stereotyped, one-dimensional characterization that falls flat after he fleshes out so many other historical details. I also disagree with his assertion that the Catholic Church led to women's rights, because Virgin Mary. But then, he views female power as only happening within male power structures, rather than being its own entity.

There are also places where the book drags a bit, as Cahill goes into great detail about a person whose significance isn't apparent until the very end of the chapter. I would've had to be an art major, I suspect, to care about the level of detail put into the chapter about Giotto di Bondone, for instance. I would've liked to learn about his influence, rather than the nitpicky details about his life. The same holds true for Peter Abelard, whose love life is discussed in the same level of detail I'd expect from a soap opera.

Overall, this book is a good starting point for people looking for ways to approach the Middle Ages. Like many entertaining non-fiction books, it lacks depth and authority, but gives a reader some good places to start looking for more information. The book's strength is in its readability and in the texture the author gives the distant past. I would recommend this book to anyone studying the period, provided it wasn't their sole reference.


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