After the long period of cultural decline known as the Dark Ages, Europe experienced a rebirth of scholarship, art, literature, philosophy, and science, and began to develop a vision of society that remains at the heart of Western civilization today. By placing the image of the Virgin Mary at the center of their churches and their lives, medieval people exalted womanhood to a level unknown in any previous society. For the first time, men began to treat women with dignity, and women took up professions that had always been closed to them.
The communion bread, believed to be the body of Jesus, encouraged the formulation of new questions in philosophy: Could reality be so fluid that one substance could be transformed into another? Could ordinary bread become a holy reality? Could mud become gold, as the alchemists believed? These new questions pushed the minds of medieval thinkers toward what would become modern science.
Artists began to ask themselves similar questions. How can we depict human anatomy so that it looks real to the viewer? How can we depict motion in a composition that never moves? How can two dimensions appear to be three? Medieval artists (and writers, too) invented the Western tradition of realism.
On visits to the great cities of Europe - monumental Rome, the intellectually explosive Paris of Peter Abelard and Thomas Aquinas, the hotbed of scientific study that was Oxford, and the incomparable Florence of Dante and Giotto - Cahill brilliantly captures the spirit of experimentation, the colorful pageantry, and the passionate pursuit of knowledge that built the foundations for the modern world.
"The author wears his erudition lightly and leavens his writing with reader-friendly anachronisms....The result is a fresh, provocative look at an epoch that's both strange and tantalizingly familiar." (Publishers Weekly)
"A prodigiously gifted populizar of Western philosophical and religious thought spotlights exemplary Christians in the High Middle Ages....Cahill serves as an irresistible guide: never dull, sometimes provocative, often luminous." (Kirkus Reviews)
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the dark ages illuminated
It is so much fun to read a book where there's a fairly routine need to stop and look up a word. Cahill's approach to history is so lively and intellectual (at least for this old brain) that I feel entirely enlivened just realizing I read the book. To highlight several illustrious historic figures (Francis of Assisi, Hildegard of Bingen, and Dante Alighieri--to name a few)instead of using a linear way of covering the same ground is brilliant, not to mention fresh and stimulating, both.
But the most startlingly moving section of the book for me was his short Postlude, "Love in the Ruins" in which he describes in a heartbreaking way, how the Catholic church has so hideously betrayed its mission by its current wave of scandal. Although it might seem odd to find such a treatise on the way the Church has 'handled' the pedophilia crisis in a book about Medieval times, it is incredibly fitting--because if it were not for the Church, Cahill points out, Western Civilization as we know it would not exist.