A prodigiously gifted popularizer of Western philosophical and religious thought spotlights exemplary Christians in the High Middle Ages.
In this fourth of a projected seven-volume series, “Hinges of History,” Cahill (Sailing the Wine-Dark Sea, 2003, etc.) takes issue with the stereotypical depiction of the 12th to early-14th centuries as the superstitious Dark Ages. To be sure, he criticizes the period’s kings and most popes for spreading authoritarianism and corruption. But he reminds us that the period also saw Greek natural philosophy intertwine with Christian “incarnationalism,” which, by seeking God’s truth in human form, revived natural science and produced greater artistic realism in depicting the body. Especially important to these trends were “enveloping, energizing” misfits such as Peter Abelard, Thomas Aquinas, Francis of Assisi, the painter Giotto, the friar-scientist Roger Bacon and the mystic/nun Hildegard. Like another one of these heroes, Dante, Cahill consigns certain of his own contemporaries into a rhetorical hell, notably George W. Bush, for waging “imperial war” in Iraq, and Pope Benedict XVI, for inattention to priest sexual abuse scandals while serving as John Paul II’s chief doctrinal advisor. At worst, his underscoring of contemporary relevance lapses into breeziness (e.g., Eleanor of Aquitaine was a “smart cookie”) and the intellectual parlor game of “What Would So-and-So Do?” (Dante would have been a UN supporter). But Cahill describes Italy’s landscape and people with the same kind of brio that enriched the treatment of his own ancestral country in How the Irish Saved Civilization (1995). Writing of Padua, for example, he notes, “the city boasts some of the largest and best proportioned piazzas in Italy, as well as a twisting fantasy of domes and towers.” The author also excels at underscoring the era’s defining icons, such as images of Madonna and Child that revealed “the innovative Christian sense of grace, no longer reserved for the fortunate few.”
Not an original scholar, Cahill serves as an irresistible guide: never dull, sometimes provocative, often luminous.