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MYSTERIES OF THE MIDDLE AGES: And the Beginning of the Modern World is the fifth book in your Hinges of History® series and this volume begins the series' exploration of the modern Western world. Why does the modern world begin with the Middle Ages? What time period, exactly, are we talking about?

"The Middle Ages" is a wishy-washy term, first established by Renaissance humanists of the sixteenth century, who thought highly of the classical (or Greco-Roman) age and very highly of themselves in what they called the modern age. These humanists looked down their noses at everything that had gone on in the middle period between the classical age and themselves. Till fairly recently their prejudice was accepted by most scholars. But now, we are coming to realize that many of the things we consider characteristically modern – the gradual emancipation of women, university life, modern philosophy and science, realistic art, and even something as seemingly unmedieval as the separation of church and state – got their start in these so-called Middle Ages.

The Middle Ages are generally thought to run from the Christianization of the Roman Empire under Constantine in the early fourth century to Columbus's first voyage of discovery in 1492. The first part of the Middle Ages, often called the Dark Ages and running into the eleventh century, was dealt with in How the Irish Saved Civilization, the Introductory Volume to The Hinges of History®. By the end of the eleventh century, however, an increase in scholarship, commerce, and the size of cities set the stage for a flowering of culture in the twelfth, thirteenth, and fourteenth centuries. This flowering, a true renaissance that is now referred to as the high Middle Ages, is the subject of Mysteries of the Middle Ages. By the mid-fourteenth century, however, the Black Death cut short this flowering and gave us the century and a half known as the late Middle Ages.

Some readers might assume they already know about the Middle Ages – that it was one big muddle of knights, lords, castles, and ladies with a few poor peasants toiling endlessly in homespun robes. In other words, not much important going on until the Renaissance. But your new book is full of surprises about the Middle Ages. Can you tell us about some of them?

I want to make sure there are still some surprises left for my readers to contemplate when they get to reading the book itself.

One surprise I might mention here is the rise of realistic art. Classical art was realistic in the sense that human anatomy was well understood. But only in the Middle Ages are the questions asked: What would it have felt like to be this or that person, to have such-and-such an experience? What would it have looked like? Here the physical and anatomical are combined with the psychological and the subjective to give us for the first time realism – in the modern sense – in both the plastic and the dramatic arts. The first great exponent of this new realism is the painter Giotto, whose pictures were so realistic that people of his own day often mistook the painting for reality, for "the very thing itself," as Boccaccio tells us.

One of the central ideas of MYSTERIES OF THE MIDDLE AGES is that the modern feminist movement has its roots in early Catholicism. Most people would be surprised by that idea. In fact, they might even go so far as to posit exactly the opposite given some of the current teachings of the Catholic Church. What are they missing? And can you talk a bit about the discrepancy between what medieval church leaders may have intended vs. what their followers did?

Religious practices often grow beyond the limits that their originators set for them. The cult of the Virgin Mary is a good instance of this. The desire to worship Mary in popular devotion came not from priests but from ordinary people, mostly women, and was at first only reluctantly allowed by the clergy. But as the cult grew in scope, many priests began to endorse it enthusiastically. Still, they could hardly have intended that the central placement in the church of an image of the Virgin – an ordinary woman with a child – would encourage a gradual rise in the status of women, a rise exalted enough for us to find in it the beginnings of modern feminism. This woman in the center of the church helped bring about an age of powerful abbesses, like Hildegard of Bingen, and powerful queens, like Eleanor of Aquitaine. It may even have triggered the beginnings of the romantic (and adulterous) poetry of the Courtly Love tradition – certainly not a development favored by medieval bishops!

You also credit early Catholic Europe with advancing art and science. But didn't art and science really begin with the Greeks? Aren't you giving Catholics too much credit?

To call the people of the Middle Ages Catholics is a bit of a misnomer. They were Western Christians. Only after the Reformation can we speak properly of Catholics (and Protestants) in our contemporary sense. But in the popular mind the medievals will always be Catholics.

The Greeks certainly gave us our respect for – and even obsession with – measurement and accuracy. And this obsession drives both our science and realistic art. But Christianity added something new, something the airy ancient Greeks could never have dreamed of: the orientation toward finding truth in flesh, because "the Word was made flesh" – that is, God became human in the person of Jesus Christ. This central truth of Christianity is the driving force that makes sense of all the best things in the medieval world, because it gave the medieval world a passion for human experience, a passion to look for ultimate truth even in the material world, a world the Greeks looked down on.

What exactly do you mean when you describe early Catholicism as a cult? That's a pretty loaded word in modern times, bringing to mind dangerous extremist figures like Charles Manson and David Koresh.

I don't believe I do. Rather, I describe first-century Christianity as a sect, "a hunted, marginal sect" of Judaism, which is what it was to begin with. The great question, which I deal with in the Introduction, is how this insignificant sect of a decidedly minor religion came to establish itself as the dominant faith of the late Roman Empire. It is a fascinating story, fraught with mystery. It is really the story of how the ancient Romans – those cruel, crucifying, blood-thirsty chaps – turned into the Italians, people who love to sing, eat, and make love.

I use the word "cult," not in the contemporary meaning of a secretive, unhealthy sect, but in the ancient meaning of a form of worship. Both the cult of the Virgin and the cult of the Eucharist served as catalysts for many of the most important innovations of the Middle Ages.

We meet many fascinating historical figures in MYSTERIES OF THE MIDDLE AGES, from Hildegard of Bingen to Dante Alighieri. Is there any single person in your book that you feel exemplifies the idea of "the great gift-givers" of the Middle Ages?

Though I would say that Giotto and Dante are my personal favorites, each of them a great storyteller in his respective medium, I would also admit that Francis of Assisi is almost certainly the greatest of all medieval figures. In some ways a difficult, maybe even a pathological, man, Francis nonetheless had the most lasting impact not only on his own time but on ours. His invention of the Franciscans and of the gentle, humble, life-loving, world-restoring, always-blessing Franciscan way of life is almost certainly the most important innovation in the history of Christianity after the life of Jesus himself.

Not only this, but Francis was, as his biographer Donald Spoto calls him, "the first person from the West to travel to another continent with the revolutionary idea of peacemaking." He sailed from Italy to North Africa to meet with the sultan and bring the age of the Crusades to an end. He almost succeeded – and would have, had it not been for a curial cardinal who was certain of victory against the Muslims. Of course, he went down to defeat amid terrible loss of life. The lessons in this tragic story are almost unbearably contemporary.

You promised readers that in this book you would touch upon the question of Islam. How does Islam figure in the Western world in the Middle Ages and how does that history bear upon current events? You've said in the past that Islam was not a major source of western sensibility. Is this still true today?

Though Islam is on everybody's mind these days, it has never exerted extensive influence over Western sensibility. The shared history of Christianity and Islam is almost entirely a history of people speaking and understanding at cross-purposes to one another. Could we ever get beyond this unfortunate state of affairs? We could, and Francis of Assisi shows us how.

MYSTERIES OF THE MIDDLE AGES looks different from your other books. It's heavily illustrated throughout with color photographs. Why?

The Middle Ages were visual, perhaps the most visual age in all of world history. They demand a highly visual book if the reader is to come to a true appreciation of their deeper meaning.

Your last chapter takes on the modern Catholic Church. What are your criticisms and what would you like to see changed? Why did you include this chapter?

I have no quarrel with the Catholic Church, if one takes the church to mean its people. My quarrel is with the higher clergy – the bishops, archbishops, cardinals, and popes – who have hijacked the church for their own purposes and deformed it to such an extent that if Saint Peter, the humble fisherman and friend of the outcast Jesus, were to rise from his tomb beneath the papal altar in the Vatican basilica and come upstairs to look around and listen in, he would have no idea that any of this was in any way connected to him – and even less so to Jesus! The people must take back their church from these imposters.

Since Mysteries of the Middle Ages concerns the magnificent Catholic contribution to Western sensibility, it seemed to me essential that I also acknowledge the contemporary failure especially of American Catholicism in the face of the priestly pedophilia plague and its episcopal cover-up.

Can you tell us what the next volume in the Hinges of History® series will be about?

Each volume of the Hinges of History® is intended to be read with pleasure and even surprise; it is not a series of academic obligations. Thus, in the past I have refrained from talking about the books to come, as if I was creating a syllabus. But now that there are just two volumes left to write, I imagine many readers can see where I am headed. So I will come clean: Volume VI will treat the Renaissance and, especially, the Reformation, thus tracing the Protestant contribution; Volume VII, tracing the secular-revolutionary-democratic contribution, will begin with the Enlightenment and go to . . . Well, I think that's enough to say, for now.

Click here to read the previous Q&A where Cahill intervivews himself, posing the most difficult questions hurled at him during his book tours.