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Hildegarde, Heloise and Eleanor

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

Cahill is determined to redeem the Middle Ages from the likes of William Manchester (A World Lit Only By Fire) and Mark Twain (A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court). On the contrary, Cahill writes

The reputation of the Middle Ages for thuggish cruelty is largely (if not wholly) undeserved.

which I find a bit of a relief, since I much prefer the Middle Ages of Brother Cafael to the Middle Ages of Torquemada. When Cahill cites Hildegarde of Bingen as proof of the rise of feminism in the Middle Ages, you might raise a skeptical eyebrow. When Cahill then proceeds to point out that Heloise and Eleanor of Aquitaine were contemporaries of Hildegarde, you begin to wonder if perhaps he might be onto something. It’s easy to jam all these centuries together and label them as brutal, ignorant, misogynist and diseased (see any high school history course), but then, Cahill rightly points out, how do you explain Hildegarde, Heloise and Eleanor? Giotto? Dante? Roger Bacon? Chartres?

Lively prose and a wealth of contextual savvy combine to make this a quick read. There is lots of detail about life as it was then lived

The insoluble medieval problem in the face of such a company was sanitation. Plumbing was unknown; and the tradition of public bathing, though as much a part of the Greco-Roman heritage as plumbing had been, had perished beyond Byzantium. Because individual bathing in a copper basin in a drafty castle could lead so easily to chill, then to fever an death, kings and queens seldom bathed more than once a month, those with neither washerwoman nor ewerer at their command scarcely more than once or twice a year.

Saint he might have been, you could smell Francis of Assisi coming long before you saw him.

Cahill isn’t shy about using the present to illustrate the past, either

Yes, the Bush/Blair invasion of Iraq was an immense blunder engineered by adolescent fantasists, ignorant of cultural realities. But no one, whether Bush or bin Laden, has the right to blow up innocent civilians…Islam began as a warrior religion bent on worldly conquest…

When Francis of Assisi joins the Fifth Crusade

…the Mediterranean had become, in fact, a Muslim sea, its African and Asian coasts entirely dominated by the Crescent.

Francis, in fact, meets in person with Sultan al-Malik al-Kamil, nephew of Saladin himself, he who booted Richard the Lionheart out of Palestine once and for all. The saint proselytizes the sultan, to no avail, and Francis takes his admiration for the five-times daily Islamic call to prayer back to Europe where it becomes the three-times daily recitation of the Angelus. Who knew?

I particularly enjoyed the footnotes, which are in this case sidenotes, with illustrated letters. For example

[imagine an illustrated lower case b here] In the ancient world, women never addressed large crowds, not only because their opinions were unsought, but because there were no public address systems, and the unaided casting of the voice to a large crowd, especially in the open air, present insurmountable difficulties to most women…The late Romanesque and Gothic cathedrals of the Middles Ages, because they were echoing sound boxes, gave women their first opportunity to address large meetings.

Again, who knew?

In the next to the last chapter, Cahill parallel’s Dante’s Inferno to our own time with startling aptness, but the last chapter is reserved for a polemic against the Catholic Church in its present pedophilic incarnation, although said polemic feels more heartbroken than accusatory. From the Scrovegni Chapel to the Ryan Report, lo, how the mighty have fallen.

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2 thoughts on “Hildegarde, Heloise and Eleanor

  1. Dana, I just attended the Desert Nights, Rising Stars Writers Conference and came upon you unexpectedly. The session I planned to attend was standing-room only, so I found myself in the mystery writers chat (sorry). I write YA and have never read a mystery book unless you count The Westing Game.

    I absolutely fell in love with you. You were (and most likely still are) insightful, funny, and down to earth. You were my favorite speaker of the whole conference. I’ve just picked up your first Kate book, even though it’s not my typical read. Nice.

    So thanks. Just wanted you to know that you have a new fan, and that’s based entirely on who you are as a person, and not (yet – I haven’t started the book, but I’m hopeful) on your writing.

    Andrea Ring

    Like

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