Book Review




I felt myself compelled to buy this book Mysteries of the Middle Ages, the Rise of Feminism, Science and Art from the Cults of Catholic Europe, by Thomas Cahill, (Nan. E. Talese/Doubleday, New York, 2006) when I spotted it in an airport bookstore the very first time.


Why? Because it promised to cover everything, and more, that has held me in a state of fascination about the Middle Ages: its heresies and extremes in behavior and belief, and how these things influence us even in our very modern world.

Extremes of interest to me include the grotesque violence practiced in the name of a certain religion, at the very same time that some of the most beautiful visions ever recorded by humans came to mystics rooted in that same religious tradition! In traveling through this territory myself I covered all the major source-topics covered by Mr. Cahill. But he treated some topics better than I did, and did not treat others the same as I did.


Was I right and he wrong in these instances? No, we were seeking different ends and thus lined up available facts differently. For instance, his focus on feminism’s Medieval roots is one we shared, and we treated those sources roughly the same, while his focuses on science and art are two areas I did not pursue, so even though he used sources (certain key individuals’ lives) that I also discuss, we focused on very different aspects of those same lives.


I will go through some of these areas where we approached things differently, and I will point out where he brings up germane material that I did not, and vice versa. I will refer to pages in his book as well as pages on my website in doing this comparison. In every case, the start is the Cahill book's page of interest.

I found Cahill’s introductory material, the 64 pages before his Chapter One, to be quite enlightening. It covers material I had wondered about but not pursued myself. The title of this section is quite amusing but very appropriate to the subject matter covered: “How the Romans became the Italians.” In this section, as throughout the book, Cahill makes reference to current events, in particular he places the conflict in Iraq into a Medieval historical context several times. He does this in each instance in a manner that is quite appropriate, in my view, but I will not dwell on this topic further in this “impressions” paper.



Chapter 1 is where Cahill treats the life of Hildegard of Bingen. He notes her having been a celebrated visionary in her own time, one still popular in our day, but on pages 82-83 wonders why:


Despite the contemporary celebrity of Hildegard, it must be admitted that there is not so very much here of either theological or spiritual sustenance. The visions run on, chapter by chapter, book by book, seldom offering anything more arresting than stultifying orthodoxy and, as in the Solomon reference, something not far distant from pious drivel. Without the intensely colorful illustrations–the supposedly "mystical mandalas” that have lured so many in our day–I doubt that Hildegard would ever have become the toast of spiritual seekers. But we must do a little spadework to search out the secret of her celebrity even in her own day.

Cahill then does this spadework and carries us along. Her criticism of lukewarm churchmen are one count, her contrasting the female spiritual liveliness by contrast to these churchmen, and bringing in the concept that female spirituality is comparable with the sacred enclosed garden, shows why she was (p. 85) especially popular with women of her time. Cahill shows how she overcame the New testament proscription against women teaching men and was sought after for advice by royalty and church leaders alike on his following pages. She supported the reformers in the church of her time. And, once again appealing to women mostly, and to some men, she described her relationship with Christ in terms bordering on the erotic.


The use of erotic imagery to describe mystical experience is something I explore at some depth on this website, but Cahill is satisfied to cover it by citing one of her poems on his pages 95-96 which he exclaims show her to be . . . “a virgin, but no prude, and she makes no attempt to mask or excuse the sex and violence that inhabit her.” She describes her union with Christ in spirit in such a way that Cahill uses these words, words as provocative as hers (p. 97):


Her only defense is the presence of Christ in her heart. A sensation she heightens by reminding herself of his arms around her and the very smell of him, as they couple in his blood. . . . just as the Word of God entered the Virgin Mary, he may enter Hildegard.

To read what I left out, see the book. To read what the rest of Chapter One is about, including its discussion of the meaning of the Cult of the Virgin that became dominant at this time for both art, architecture and feminism, see the book.

Returning to Hildegard one more time, on pages 89 and 90 Cahill recounts how she preached vehemently against the Cathars, and how this anti-heretical activity aided her acceptance in the church. Fine, but the way Cahill describes the Cathars seems a bit shallow to me. He caricatures them, since he is not writing a treatise about this heresy. He correctly describes them in terms of their “anti-physical bias,” that they “disapproved of marriage and normal sexual intercourse” is qualifiedly so, especially for their perfecti, or perfect ones, who were celibate just as Catholic priests were supposed to be, and who administered the rites important to the religion.  Perfecti could be men or women.

But where Cahill steps into error, in my never humble opinion, is where he interprets the discouragement of normal sexual relations to mean they favored the anal variety, which is loosely associated with the last name in this list of a related heresy by name Bogomils, Bulgars, or Buggers, according to Cahill’s page 90. In fact their religion taught that the ordinary believer could marry, if they desired, but not by the Catholic rite which had become a sacrament by this time. The ordinary believer could have sexual relations, either within or outside a dedicated or marital relationship, but procreation was discouraged (but not prohibited) since it led to the further entrapment of souls into this world which was run by an inferior deity.


The buggery charge was Catholic libel more than known fact, in my opinion. On pages 45-46 Cahill rightly takes to task those who believe Dan Brown's The DaVinci Code to be factual.  It is a great fictional thriller I thoroughly enjoyed reading.  In particular, he is very critical of those who feel that Christ and Mary Magdalene had progeny, he calls this notion "fantasy lacking the least historical support.” Well, again in my opinion, that wording describes the 'buggery' charge leveled at the Cathars precisely.  It is a libelous label Cahill blithely passes on. All you have concerning the Cathars (they lost the crusade mounted against them, so they did not get to write history) is their conquerors' libels to go by, and though that may be genuine historical libel, it is not necessarily historical fact.

Cathars felt themselves to be the only true Christians, and venerated the Gospel of John. They saw the Catholic Church as the church of an inferior, oft-times evil, deity that created the world to capture spirits in flesh and torment them.  What an appropriate and historically accurate way to describe the peasant life experience! They themselves, the Cathars, worshiped the true God as described in the Gospel of John. If they lived well and received the ‘consolamentum’ rite from a perfect one (one of the perfecti) before death, they would not come back to live again on earth. If they died without this rite, they could live up to seven lives on earth. But still, in the very end they would be saved. It was thus a more hopeful religion than the dominant one with its eternal hell for these ‘heretics.’

I describe them on my website in sympathetic terms because although they were “anti-physical,” they spent their time making each others’ lives as comfortable as possible, rejecting the feudal class distinctions maintained in the name of God by the Catholics, and women could be officials among them, achieving their highest rank of perfecti.  This is what led to their popularity among women, especially, and among suffering peasants, in my opinion. They were a threat to the very heart of Medieval, feudal, Catholic society. They caused believing noblemen to work their harvests side by side with their peasants. Their mutually supportive approach to society, communitarian in practice, reminds me of what I found most appealing about my decades as an active participant in and contributor to modern day Mormon society. I like these Cathars and the way they supported each other and cut across class distinctions, but found their theology very uncomfortable. Same with the Mormons.

Speaking of class distinctions, I was surprised that Cahill made a point of Hildegard’s class conscious views. Cahill was correct in making this observation, and supports it well on pages 98 and 99, and to me it helps explain some of her fierce and active verbal attacks on the Cathar heretics in her area, whom, Cahill observes on page 90, were rounded up and burnt not long after her anti-Cathar verbal crusade.

Speaking of crusades, in a note on page 166 Cahill offers criticisms of the crusades, especially the Fourth which ended up destroying fellow Christians in Constantinople and the ones after the Fifth:


After the Fifth Crusade, the crusading ideal, such as it was, was corrupted even further as popes began to call for “crusades” against heretics in France and Spain.

After mentioning the roundup and burning of Cathars in Hildegard’s territory with only implicit condemnation on page 90, at least here Cahill shows explicit disapproval of the practice of hunting down heretics en masse.

Returning to the theme of Hildegard’s regard for social status (see page 98) Cahill makes this contrasting observation about Hildegard and Dante concerning their very different ideas on human equality later in the book (page 298) when he observes this about whom Dante meets in the hereafter, where it is ‘as if:’


. . . All are brothers and fellow servants, all earthly titles and social differences are ultimately meaningless. Dante, democratic townsman and impoverished wanderer, possesses far greater insight into the human condition than cloistered Hildegard was capable of.

This is a big difference between Dante and Hildegard, true, and I am firmly on Dante’s side, he is almost a Cathar in this respect!  But I really do like Hildegard, everyone is a mixed bad of good and bad, she was a wonderful visionary in spite of her orthodoxy, a gifted artist in picture and song, and a gifted organizer of women’s religious communities. As Cahill notes, she broke the yoke placed on women in several distinctive ways: she advised royals and clerics and she taught in public, even in churches!  And, as Cahill explains on page 99, if we were more familiar with the society Hildegard was a part of, we would understand her feelings about the Divine recognition of the role and importance of the nobility.

It is because she was such a gifted visionary, orator, musician and teacher that she rose to a prominence heretofore closed to women in her society. This is why she is featured as a forerunner of feminism in the book. That is wonderful and very true and correct. Yet, in my opinion, Cahill fails altogether to mention what I believe to be a genuine women’s movement operative at this time. This movement involves the organization of lay, yet religious, women into houses and collections of houses that came to be called Beguinages. Beguines were free to take temporary vows and live in community with their sisters, and leave again when they chose, and come back again if they chose. It was therefore a third avenue open to women, who otherwise faced only the two “m” choices (‘mariage ou maur,’ marriage or wall – meaning a convent).

It is from this movement that some of the most beautiful revelations ever recorded in the Christian milieu originated, in my opinion. My opinion takes many pages, of course, and constitutes the most popular piece on my entire website (click here to go there).

But in fairness to Cahill, he apologizes at the end (p. 309) for leaving out many major peoples, movements and events from this rather tightly focused story. Leaving out the Beguines and their contributions to nascent feminism, and leaving out the heretical women mystics and their claims to being empowered directly by God without clerical intercession, is leaving out a lot that became modern day feminism, which is simply the claim of there being an essential equality between the sexes in this world and there being no preference based on sex in God's domain either.




Let’s return to Cahill’s denunciation of the Dan Brown novel The DaVinci Code on page 46 where he states that the Catholic hit-men in the book are . . . “straightforward anti-Catholic libel.” I don’t disagree. However, I believe many believing Catholics might be thinking the same thing about Cahill’s pages 314-316 where he takes this church to task for its protection of its pedophile clergy. Although I liked almost all of Cahill’s references to the modern day (his views on the Iraq war and on the stockpiling of nuclear weapons, for examples), I thought this discussion was a bit out of balance even if essentially true.


Out of balance in this sense: my dedicated, believing Catholic friends decry this pedophilia and don't deny it is a very real and very serious problem.  But they continue to be devout Catholics.  They explain that their worship in the 'mass' gives them an experience of unity with God.  The mass is a 'mystery' that goes right back to the time Cahill writes about.  It is a mystery, or sacrament, that has survived basically unchanged except for language and having the priest face in a different direction, for much more than a thousand years. There is undeniable power in such worship, my informants tell me, and I believe this is true for them even though I do not believe.  My point is that the Catholic church is not just about pedophilia.



The next time I got real excited reading Cahill’s book was when he cited . . . “the great medievalist C.S. Lewis”. . . on page 121 in the context of courtly love, and makes Lewis' point that courtly love was in essence a celebration of adultery. Well, most certainly that is what it was for many. And Cahill describes on several gripping pages around this citation from Lewis the debaucheries of the life at a typical court.  His descriptions are perhaps accurate in some, or many, instances. But his picture is C.S. Lewis’ highly prejudiced picture, Lewis firmly believed that The Religion of Love was a heresy, plain and sure. Now let’s be fair to Cahill, he does criticize Lewis after praising him, on page 323:


For my money, C.S. Lewis’ chapter “Courtly Love” in The Allegory of Love, A Study in Medieval Traditions (Oxford, rev. 1938) remains the best short treatment of courtly love in English, even if I tend to the opinion that the cult of the Virgin Mary had more to do with the origins of courtly love than Lewis would allow.

Cahill allows that it is not entirely clear how much courtly love literature influenced behavior and vice versa on this same page, good! I have written, again at great length, about courtly love, and come away with a very different take on the topic.  That it was of Occitanian origin, the land of the Cathars, was no accident. Here, in courtly love's stylized ideal, may be a way to celebrate the power of sexuality without engendering offspring. The troubadours that sang the songs of courtly love originated from this same area, and as Cahill points out, Francis of Assisi (pp. 157-159) and Dante (p. 291) both learned their poetic style and even the content reflecting love’s outpourings from that same source.


To me, it is Francis and Dante we ought to look to, to see the epitome of courtly love’s expression, and not spend too much time peeking into the private rooms where damsels were willingly entertained by their illicit lovers. That is why tabloids exist, as Cahill himself notes (but I forgot to mark that page).

On page 121 Cahill observes, enigmatically, that:


What we can claim without cavil is that both the pious worship of the Virgin and the adulterous worship of the lady of the manor were connected to the general rise in the status of women during this period. If it is not, on the face of it, evident how widespread adultery can be connected to the social advancement of women, it will be, once we have examined the special rules for adultery invented in the courts of the twelfth century.

Cahill then takes the reader to another favorite subject of mine, but one of which I have read but not written, and that is the flowering of the courts of love originating in the Languedoc and spreading largely with the rise of Eleanor, Duchess of Aquitaine, into her roles as queen of France and then of England. Cahill tells this story in some detail and it is a very good and balanced look at this family and its influence and its remarkable, and remarkably tragic, history (see pages 125-153).


Cahill, in this telling of this family’s story, tells of the troubadour influences on and sponsorship by this family. But where Cahill largely fails me is in not making the connection between the place of troubadour origin and the Cathar recognition that men and women could both serve God as ministers and perform sacred rites recognized as valid by God. It was another reason that Cathars were considered heretics: their perfect ones could be and were both men and women. Is it a coincidence that the flowering of respect for women had something to do with the flowering of The Religion of Love that Lewis rightly recognized to be the core heresy in courtly love? This is my opinion, of course, and I am no historian, only a reader of other historians’ works.

Cahill makes an error, in my judgment, in citing Andreas Capellanus on page 125 as the source we should look to for the rules of courtly love. Capellanus was a priest, of all things, which he lets be known when he concedes that courtly love often results in physical intimacy which is displeasing to God. Yet he says that if a nobleman can’t contain himself he ought to rape a peasant girl, but never in his moment of ecstasy ought he to show weakness and mention love, the love of a nobleman is reserved for a noble woman. I despise Capellanus and his anti-egalitarian (feudal) attitudes, and see him as a bastardizer of the best that the ideal of courtly love had to offer, which is the ability to gain and remain being in a state of love. (It gave me pleasure to see that Cahill himself, on his page 323, used the word “doggerel” to refer to Capellanus’ writings.)

The ideal of courtly love is to strive to live in a non-self-seeking state of love. When in that state, the noblest knight has the strength to always side with right and protect the powerless in the mythic tales of courtly love. Mythic tales that are powerful, because they also illustrate the pitfalls that lie along the ways of ideal courtly love, pitfalls introduced by our very humanity and its weaknesses and passions. But troubadours took these failings in stride, after all, their tradition was the Cathar tradition, not hung up on sexual purity and virginity as the Catholic tradition they were stealthily and successfully invading with their Religion of Love in my view of history (perhaps history as it should have been, but I do believe I am on to something in making my synthesis as I do).

I would see the cult of the Virgin as an expression of courtly love placed into the Catholic belief framework. It is a result of the invasion of the ideals of courtly love into Catholicism, in my opinion. But in making this statement, alas, all I have is my impressions and wishful thinking to go by, I am no expert on this nexus of two seemingly incompatible, yet strikingly similar, ideals. On page 119 Cahill ventures that the rise of the Cult of the Virgin before and during the time of Hildegard, and its flowering in her general vicinity more rapidly than elsewhere, had something to do with the greater powers held by women in Germanic and Celtic realms than in Greco-Roman culture. Maybe so, but this also makes me recall his observation that Cathars were rounded up in this area after Hildegard’s preachings against them, and burnt. If, as I claim, the Cathar heresy, troubadours, and courtly love were all related, this could be the spark that set fire to these same Germanic and Celtic peoples’ imaginations and they began to venerate their Lady in stone and words and include her in their worship.

There is much in Cahill’s treatment of Eleanor of Aquitaine that I had not realized before and that I found very valuable to know. The fact that Bernard of Clairvaux despised her (pp. 130-131) makes me think he was on to her core heretical leanings, although he also generally hated women and especially one as powerful as Eleanor (p. 131).




I did not realize that Limbo came about because of the contemplations of  Thomas Aquinas on the fate of the unbaptized, whether infant or pagan, and that it may be dying a slow death as the necessity of baptism as a prerequisite for salvation is being downplayed (p. 130, p. 228). The reference on page 228 is in the context of Dante sneaking some pagans into heaven, and I did not realize until reading this book that this was considered his only near-heretical notion in the Divine Comedy.


Of course Cahill’s claim on page 228 that Dante is “unquestionably orthodox, in fact Thomistic, in his theology” brought a big grin to my face since I think he was a masterful inserter of The Religion of Love, in full flower, into the Christian thinking about gaining salvation. It was his devotion to his beloved Beatrice, a denizen of the heavens, after all, that cleansed him and prepared him for the ultimate revelation, coming face to face with God.

And what is so orthodox about Thomistic theology? On page 210 Cahill notes that this priest undid the pessimism and focus on corruption in the material world that was foisted on Christendom by Augustine. He, and his followers, moved . . .


. . . the Christian worldview away from its previously pessimistic meditations on material corruption and human depravity and toward a worldview that was happier, more incarnational, and more appropriately Judeo-Christian.

I cited that statement because to me, after grinding partway through a book on Thomas Aquinas by Matthew Fox, this sums up the whole point of Fox’s book. It is the only book I have ever tried to read on Aquinas, and perhaps it was about as fat as Aquinas was purported to be. Try as I might, I could not find an exact correspondence between the words Fox cited from Aquinas and the meaning Fox saw in those words. So I found it amusing that Cahill says, in the words above, exactly what Fox, to me, was trying to say.


Somewhere in Cahill’s book (again, I failed to mark the page) he mentions this book by Fox, and opines that it is more Fox than Aquinas, with which I would agree except now that Cahill has distilled Aquinas’ message into these three lines, capturing the essence of what Fox calls “creation centered spirituality,” I see that Fox was on the right track, it was just a track I never could follow in his book. (That book, by the way, is Matthew Fox's Sheer Joy: Conversations With Thomas Aquinas on Creation Spirituality [Tarcher/Putnam, 2003]).  (The "lead in" line on is amusing: "Psychologist Carl Jung once confessed that he "took a dive into St. Thomas but did not feel refreshed afterwards..."  Sorry, but I felt the same way about Aquinas' thought even after using Fox's distilled version, but thanks to Cahill I see that Fox was right in choosing this man's writings to illustrate a lighter and more positive Catholic outlook on life and the world.)



There are several more large topics in Cahill’s book that I appreciate learning from. I have a new respect for Peter Abelard, whose love story with Heloise I tell on my website in a highly stylized and condensed form, and about whose love affair with Heloise there is a recent book of note that I enjoyed reading very much, but whose theology was never something I wanted to invest time into studying. Cahill brought me up short when he declared that Abelard made no bones about two things that he could not abide in his Catholic religious tradition, the notion of original sin and the atonement.  The atonement is the forgiveness of sin by those sins having been paid for by the shedding of the innocent blood of the Son to satisfy the demands of his Father. I was struck deeply by the courage displayed by this man in making such declarations.


Cahill describes Abelard’s teachings on page 198. It is a nuanced, but powerful, description you will have to see for yourself.

Cahill’s story of Heloise and Abelard is very well written and full of details that sounded familiar from my previous readings, but some that I had forgotten. That story is told on pages 199-206.



Cahill’s account of Francis of Assisi is extremely well written and full of historical insights that are well worth considering again today, especially Francis’ role as an international peacemaker. Cahill makes this connection for us in his very insightful discussion of the crusades.  Of course Francis is one of my favorite subjects on this website also, in the context of my discussion of nascent feminism in the Middle Ages, and in the context of courtly love.

The last major subject I want to comment on is Dante. Cahill’s description of the man’s life is very well done and full of information that, as in the case of Heloise and Abelard, I remembered but had forgotten. Cahill tells of a complete family reunion at the end of Dante’s life, and this was news to me. I thought only his daughters rejoined him at the end. Nicer ending in Cahill's version, and he has done his homework, so I'll accept his ending.

Where Cahill irritated me just a little was when he discussed Dante’s daughter entering a convent and taking the name “Sister Beatrice.” Cahill says of this name-choice (p. 302) that it


. . . suggests an unusual closeness to her father and an understanding of his singular psychology, rather than any slight to her mother.

To me it means simply that she understood the Religion of Love and the personification of Divine Love in the most popular poem of that time, her father’s. Sure if she disliked her father she would not have chosen the name, but like her father she was a poet in choosing this name, taking upon her a symbol as a mantle. Francis of Assisi would have understood such a gesture.

Until I read this book by Cahill, I had not realized how deferentially and respectfully I had written about Francis of Assisi on this website. Cahill is also respectful, but at first reading on pages 188-189 I thought he was being critical of the miracles claimed about Francis. I thought he was saying that the stigmata were not real but were a part of the hagiographical inventions that followed his life.


Looking at this part of Cahill’s book again, however, shows me he is essentially saying the same thing that I have said about these miracles, which I have no trouble believing have a basis in fact, although they were certainly embellished with time and retelling.


One miracle I really like which Cahill does not mention specifically is the roses blooming in Winter story. Do I really believe that when he and Clair went their separate ways for good, roses actually burst into bloom behind them in the depth of Winter? No, but what a marvelous way to suggest the power of courtly love’s ideal! These two who were deeply in love, thought it best to separate so they could each fulfill their life visions.  As they parted their love-energy was released to empower themselves for their lifes’ journeys. Deeply symbolic and ‘true,’ but not a literal statement of 'fact.'  The Medieval mind was nuanced to a degree many of us do not appreciate, as Cahill suggests (p. 189):


Did medieval people think these things actually happened? They might well have considered such a question beyond answering and would instead . . . have invoked “the extraordinary beauty of truth.”

But because we do not think the way they did, we often misunderstand them.

Cahill mentions the love relationship between Francis and Clair once on pages 252-253 and characterizes it as “a mighty friendship.” Cahill mentions Francis’ having to follow God’s commission but also feeling the desire “to take a wife, know fleshly intimacy, and love the children of his body.” Nicely said. In my treatment of Francis’ life I make a similar point but am not very respectful of the ruthless treatment he metes out to his own body and to his followers when these desires appear in himself or them.

Cahill’s treatment of Dante’s masterwork spends all its time in hell and purgatory and teaches many lessons about Dante’s times which are quite interesting and instructive. As already mentioned, Cahill believes that Dante was “unquestioningly orthodox” except in his allowing some pagans into heaven (p. 288). Soon thereafter comes the story of Paolo and Francesca, the doomed lovers eternally tossed around the outer circles of hell. Cahill tells this story well and opines (p. 291) that Dante faints at seeing their fate and hearing their story, and then strangely says not another word about it because he has both written the type of love poetry that catalyzed their fall and had participated in similar passion-sharings himself. Good points, both. Dante's reaction must have been something like "There by the grace of God go I" . . . .

Cahill gives a nice introduction to both Purgatory and Paradise, and then suggests the reader pursue the rest of Dante’s masterpiece on their own using the resources he recommends. He does cite the closing vision of Dante on page 300 to whet the reader’s appetite.


This serves Cahill’s purposes in this book, but I see a lost opportunity here to feed the reader the delicate last few interactions between Dante and Beatrice that prepare him for, and then suddenly leave him alone to experience, 'The Presence,' as described on Cahill’s page 300. Those last few interactions, and then Dante finding himself suddenly alone with God, to me, are the epitome of the revelation promised by the Religion of Love that Dante epitomizes and Lewis despises. Was Dante “unquestioningly orthodox” or was he the creator and thrower of the javelin that thrust the Religion of Love into the very heart of Christianity? I vote for the latter view in the links provided above.

Cahill wrote a very good book full of penetrating insights, many of which are quite useful for our understanding of our own time.

As Cahill laments on page 309, the middle ages are so vast a territory that he was forced to pick and choose from among a very large list of topics. He did good. There are just a few places where I felt he could/should have done a little more so that he would more completely cover my pet topics.


Would he then also have reflected my pet prejudices regarding those topics?  That is not likely, and spouting my pet prejudices is why I maintain some of the above-linked content on this website.  If my prejudices were commonplace and found in books like Cahill's, I wouldn't bother writing web pages about them.  Go read the book, you will like it.  I did.


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