Fresh off of taking 3 years to finish my previous book, I managed to get through this last one in about a month. Part of that is me spending more time reading. Most of it is going from a 1000 page small print biography to a 300 page large print book with lots of pictures and side notes.
For those unfamiliar, Mysteries of the Middle Ages is part of the continuing “lynchpins of history” series by Thomas Cahill. Previous editions in the series include How the Irish Saved Civilization, The Gifts of the Jews, Desire of the Everlasting Hills, and Sailing the Wine Dark Seas. Of these I have only read the Irish book, which was very enjoyable. As one who enjoys those points in history where a singular event can determine the course of a people, I was looking forward to this book.
With that lead in, I was a little disappointed. It wasn’t a bad book. To the contrary it contained a number of interesting bits of trivia. Many facinating details about well known figures like Thomas Aquinas, plus the stories of lesser known personalities like Peter Aberland, Hildegard, and Eleanor of Aquitaine. One of the more interesting chapters had to to with the rise of the “modern” university, and how the study of the Christian sacrament gave rise to modern science.
What disappointed was the disjointedness of the book. There was no flow. At one point the author even realizes this, and states to the reader that the book is all over the place because that’s the way the Middle Ages were. While I don’t disagree, it would’ve been easier to group certain themes together, or made more of a point of how the stories he picked related to each other. The overarching theme he tries to tie through the book is the persistant philosophies of Plato and Aristotle, and how the pendulum swings back and forth between them. How the focus changes from the heavenly/ideal to the worldly/accessable. And the fact the western world is, and always has been, basically a Greek creation.
Another irksome aspect is the author’s penchant for interjecting his personal politics. He does it very openly and honestly, and does not try to sneak it in by selective fact selection or narrative manipulation. The first time he did it in the book, I was actually appreciative of the method he used. But then it happened again. And again. And again. When someone picks up a history book, they don’t do it because they want to be preached to about modern policy.
At the end of the book, the author lays out a list of characters he would have loved to talk about but didn’t have the space. But the book wasn’t that long, and had very large print (at least in paperback). He could have easily included these peoples’ stories and still had a very readable book. And he couldn’t have excluded them because they fell outside the non-existant storyline.
All in all, not a waste of time. But in the end it felt much like a dark comedy that the trailers make to look like a regular comedy. When you watch the movie, even though it’s good, it’s not what you expected so you come away feeling overly critical.
Next on the reading list, James Madison and the Struggle for the Bill of Rights. I’ll get back to you on that in 3 years, give or take.