Wednesday, February 07, 2007

Thomas Cahill Book Review

I just finished reading Thomas Cahill’s Mysteries of the Middle Ages: The Rise of Feminism, Science, and Art from the Cults of Catholic Europe. While this is an engaging title, it leaves much to be desired at the end. The author writes well enough. It is written for a popular audience, and he can even be quite witty. Not only that, but his wit often includes some insight worth pondering. For example,

For Romans, liturgy was not a mystical end in intself. What the Greeks called Sacred Liturgy, the Romans called missa (or mass) after the deacon’s last words, “Ite, missa est” (Go, you are dismissed). If that sounds to you as if their main interest was in getting out of church as soon as possible, you wouldn’t be so very far from the truth. Public Prayer is not an end in itself, only part of the Christian life . . .

That passage gives sample of his wit, and how he tries to interweave it with his beliefs about the differences between the ‘Can do’ Romans and the ‘Mystical’ Eastern Orthodox. So I have no real complaints about his writing style, but simply his ability to prove what he desires. He also includes many side bar comments that are both funny and interesting.

He attempts to show the rise of feminism, art, and science from the church by giving us biographical chapters on important individuals. And while he was moderately successful in showing how Abelard and Aquinas brought about a renewed interest in Aristotle, which led to questions about what is reality, which led to alchemy, which was the beginning of science, he fails in his other objects. He does show, through the life of Francis of Assisi, Dante, and Giotto a change in art, it was hardly a rock solid case. And worse was his attempt to show the rise of feminism. He merely gave accounts of two women, Hildegard (a mystic nun) and Eleanor of Aquitaine (Queen of France and later England). While I admit their biographies were interesting, and they may have gone beyond the accomplishments of many women in the field of theology and politics, I failed to see the connection to the Cult of the Virgin Mary he wished the reader to discover. Sadly, that was the beginning of the book as well, so it starts out very disappointing.

Cahill has an entire series on the growth of the modern world from the ancient one. This was the fifth book in the series, but despite more interesting titles like How the Irish Saved Civilzation, I do not think I will be reading the rest of his works. The book is good as long as you do not want him to prove his case laid forth in the sub-title.

I should also note that Cahill takes an evolutionary view of religions, the Bible, and would be in fundamental disagreement with many Christians about the source of their religion. He seems to think that anti-catholicism has distorted our understanding of history, but he would not make a good catholic considering his views on the pope and who wrote the Bible. Do not look for Cahill to be making orthodox arguments about religion in this book.