In Between

Of the Middle Ages, medieval men and women knew nothing. Of the notion so familiar to us, the existence of a sort of middling period of history stretching from the decline of Rome to the movements we know as Renaissance and Reformation, their minds were totally innocent. They failed to apprehend either the discontinuity of their own age with the classical past or to foresee the disjunctions that lay in the future. We ourselves, of course, tend to take altogether for granted the hallowed practice of dividing European history into “ancient,” “medieval,” and “modern,” to accept it even as almost a deliverance of nature. It is far from being anything of the sort. It postdated the centuries we are accustomed to calling “medieval” and it was spawned, in fact, by the love affair of Renaissance humanists with the great achievements of the classical past. After a lapse of more than a thousand years shadowed by “the triumph of barbarism and religion,” they congratulated themselves as having succeeded at long last in emulating those achievements. But that way of conceptualizing the unfolding of European history has the distorting effect of lumping together in a single, long-drawn-out period, and in incongruous and dismissive juxtaposition, the distinctive (and shifting) political, economic, intellectual, cultural, and religious formations of more than a thousand years. As a result, and as our knowledge of these centuries has deepened, this entire established way of dividing up European history has come to take on the appearance of a cumbersomely Ptolemaic system calling for an ever-increasing number of enabling epicycles to keep it functioning at all. Nonetheless, and while we await the advent of a definitively Copernican dismantler, we all remain stuck with the traditional periodization and with the notion of “the Middle Ages.” Of that notion, accordingly, we have to do the best we can to make coherent sense.

As he worked to put together this stimulating and handsomely presented book, Thomas Cahill was clearly (and ruefully) conscious of that fact. At several points he interrupts his narrative to confess disarmingly that he finds the Middle Ages to be “a great jumble,” and that it would be misleading to try to present it as any sort of “seamless garment.” Instead, he portrays his own effort in this book as involving, rather, the “sewing of a gigantic quilt, full of disparate and even clashing remnants.” The description is an accurate one, and, as a result, this work lacks the unity, cohesion, and force of How the Irish Saved Civilization, the first and most successful volume in his ambitious Hinges of History series to which the present volume is the most recent contribution. There is a sense, in this case, in which the whole is less than the sum of the disparate parts, and that sense is deepened by the oddly cumbersome title, redolent of the work of some dysfunctional committee. Nonetheless, the “remnants” on which he has chosen to focus are striking and colorful ones, and the quilt image is accurately evocative of Cahill’s own preoccupation throughout the series with telling “the story of the great gift-givers, those who entrusted to our keeping one or another of the singular treasures that make up the patrimony of the West.”

In the course of the book, then, Cahill moves to acquaint the reader with a series of striking figures, from that “honorary” church father Philo Judaeus, the leading intellectual of the great, late-antique Jewish community in Alexandria, via Pope Gregory the Great (in this book, the only member of the higher clergy to meet with the author’s approval), to Hildegarde of Bingen, Eleanor of Aquitaine, Abelard and Héloïse in the twelfth century, and thence, in the thirteenth, fourteenth and fifteenth centuries, to Francis of Assisi, Thomas Aquinas, Roger Bacon, Giotto, painter and architect, and Dante Alighieri, greatest of medieval poets. The mood evoked-and it is intensified by the handsome and well-chosen illustrations-is basically that of the Middle Ages conjured up by writers of the Romantic era. The narrative is illumined, as it were, by “storied windows richly dight, / Casting a dim religious light.”

Cahill is not writing for the specialist. His target is the interested general reader and his challenge is that of mediating to that reader material that is often quite recondite and demanding. Here, as in his previous books, he does so with great skill. He writes engagingly and he is blessed with the enviable gift of being able, in small compass and in accessible fashion, to convey a good “feel” for his chosen “gift-givers”-saints, thinkers, artists, leaders-without altogether betraying their inner complexity. This is no small achievement, and the reader will accordingly find in these pages, lucidly and attractively presented, rich intellectual and emotional nutrient, and much fodder for thought. Any reader still locked into the old view of the medieval centuries as constituting nothing more than a protracted age of darkness will be greatly enlightened.

That said, the medieval specialist will doubtless be tempted to cavil about Cahill’s particular choice of figures to dwell on. Hildegarde of Bingen, a colorful and intriguingly eccentric personality, may well be fashionable at the moment, but is she really important enough to warrant devoting a tenth of the entire book to her? Significant innovator though he was, is not Roger Bacon something of an odd choice to “represent” medieval Oxford? This was the university, after all, that nurtured, in Duns Scotus and William of Ockham, two of the three leading philosopher-theologians of the entire Middle Ages (with Thomas Aquinas, of course, being the third). But, then, it would surely be churlish to do too much second-guessing about the hard choices the author must inevitably make in a book on the Middle Ages that runs to little more than three hundred fifty pages.

A similar diffidence is not called for, though, when it comes to sharing some other critical reactions. In his effort to reach out and render accessible to the reader material that could easily come across as dull, alien, or forbidding, Cahill is often highly creative in his deployment of analogy and imaginative in his choice of illustrative literary texts. Sometimes, when he strains too much, his style falters and his feeling for language becomes less assured. “By Zeus, how’s that?” he interjects in one place. And in another: “But, hey, not everybody was a philosopher.” And, along the way, the seas, alas, become “dolphin-torn,” the mysteries “merry,” Hildegarde of Bingen “a loose sister,” Eleanor of Aquitaine “a smart cookie.” Medieval ecclesiastics who fail to meet with his approval are rendered as cartoon-like figures readily susceptible of being brushed off, for example, as “a sham saint” (thus Bernard of Clairvaux) or as “one of the vilest men ever to sit on the throne of St. Peter” (thus Boniface VIII). Following this last trajectory, and perhaps most unfortunate of all, Cahill permits himself the luxury of punctuating his account of things medieval with ill-judged, anachronistic, and self-indulgent rants about our present ecclesiastical discontents. Those discontents, God knows, are real enough and certainly worthy of ventilation-but preferably in some form other than a sourly discordant appendage to a book lauding the glories of medieval civilization.

Published in the 2006-10-20 issue: 
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Francis Oakley is president emeritus of Williams College.

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