The Rise of Feminism, Science, and Art from the Cults of Catholic Europe
Nan A. Talese/Doubleday, $32.50, 368 pp.
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...