“Mysteries of the Middle Ages: And the Beginning of the Modern World” by Thomas Cahill (Nan A. Talese, 2006)

Mysteries of the Middle Agesstarstarstar

In the fifth book in his Hinges of History series, Thomas Cahill takes on the period of the Middle Ages, going into depth on the important people of the era and what effect they had on the history.  Regardless of the actual content of the book, Mysteries of the Middles Ages deserves an award for excellence in design and layout.  It is one of the most ornate and beautifully designed books I’ve ever read.  As soon as one opens the cover, one is greeted by color and lavish design, colorful photographs and paintings, as well as eye-catching and picaresque fonts, as if it were an illustrated manuscript.

Cahill begins with a somewhat lengthy introduction spending a little too much time on the content of his past books and leading through the centuries up to the fall of Rome and the beginning of the Middle Ages.  He then skips past the “Dark Ages” and jumps to the twelfth century with Hildegard of Bingen.  There is very little mention, and certainly no chapters on the likes of Charlemagne, Alfred the Great, or William the Conqueror, who were all incredibly important people in first setting in motion specific events, ideas, and practices that gave rise to the High Middle Ages and the great strides made therein, as well as creating precedents and standards that are used in today’s modern age.  Subtitling this as “And the Beginning of the Modern World,” is somewhat insulting when only in a small aside does Cahill discuss Muhammad and the birth of Islam in the late sixth century, after spending a quarter of the book on Jesus.

Nevertheless, for what Cahill does spend his time talking about, he does well and thoroughly.  Using a conversational and at times jocular tone, making this a book for the layman, he begins with Hildegard of Bingen and then goes on to Eleanor of Aquitaine, one of the most important women in the history of the Western World.  It is here that Cahill digs into the deep and complex history of the High Middle Ages with the rise of the universities and the growth of science and math and art and the crucial stirrings of what would come to be known as the Renaissance, beginning in Paris, then Oxford, and finally to Italy with Padua, Florence, and Ravenna, concluding with Dante.

While Mysteries of the Middle Ages should not be considered a complete telling of the important people and “hinges” of the Middle Ages, it nevertheless is an excellent book on the High Middle Ages, and some of the important people who made great strides and leaps – sometimes at the cost of their own lives – to help create the civilized and advanced world we live in today.

If you liked this review and are interested in purchasing this book, click here.

Originally written on April 5th 2008 ©Alex C. Telander.