Rating: 3 out of 5.

After the study of people, of humanity, the field of history might be of the greatest importance for the study of the aspiring fantasy author, and especially of the period referred to as the ‘Middle Ages.’  While the genre has trended in recent years to ostensibly explore other time periods – urban fantasy for the modern world, like The Last Raven, or perhaps a Renaissance-type setting like that featured in The Lies of Locke Lamora, or the Victorian setting of The Memoirs of Lady Trent – its general character remains stubbornly medieval, or at least what constitutes medieval in the popular imagination, with a healthy dose of anachronisms.  I am therefore always eager to learn more about that period both for my writing and to temporarily sate my fascination with history, and do so through both nonfiction like The Time Traveler’s Guide to Medieval England and historical fiction like Conn Iggulden’s The Abbot’s Tale, but I will admit to some skepticism before I picked up Mysteries of the Middle Ages.

Technically the fifth installment in Cahill’s Hinges of History series, Mysteries of the Middle Ages stands on its own, and I must say that it is a beautiful book.  The font is apparently based on one created in the early days of printing, the book is replete with photographs, illustrations, and artistry, and it has the best-formatted footnotes I’ve encountered outside of a Terry Pratchett novel.  If there were ever a book where I would recommend the physical copy over the digital simply for the beauty and experience, it would be this one.  That part about the footnotes is of especial significance, which you may not fully appreciate until you’ve read as many books with footnotes and endnotes as I have.  I wish that more books would format their notes the way this one did.

Aside from the book’s physical qualities, the contents were better than I feared.  With a subtitle like “The Rise of Feminism, Science and the Arts from the Cults of Catholic Europe,” I worried this would be little better than a polemic, or one of those alternate ‘history’ endeavors that are only allowed into circles of serious scholarship if they happen to be trendy (like the infamous “1619 Project”).  Instead, I found most of the book to be well-written, well-researched, and scholarly.  It was enjoyable to read, and while I did not learn as much from this piece as I did from The Time Traveler’s Guide to Medieval England, it was still interesting throughout its length.

I would probably give it a whole additional star in my rating were it not for the author’s occasional preoccupation with his thematic elements and modern political commentary.  Cahill seems to have an especial issue with the administration of the second President Bush, and in numerous places disrupts his main narrative in order to proselytize upon such diverse subjects as war in the Middle East and nuclear weapons proliferation.  This is jarring enough, but what truly undermines this text is Cahill’s fundamentally anachronistic and assumptive approach to historical analysis.

A few years ago, I would not have considered myself sufficiently qualified to venture an opinion on a ‘proper’ study of history, but after spending so much time engaging with history in various forms I conclude that the best way to approach history is from its own context, withholding, insofar as it is possible, modern judgements, and more importantly avoiding the temptation to establish cause and effect in circumstances where those labels are impossible to prove and ultimately incomplete.  Cahill’s work is replete with exactly that effort, seeking always to draw lines of causation from his period of study to the modern world and “Western Civilization,” along with the application of modern assumptions to a historical context in which they may or may not be valid.  Most egregious to me were his assumptions about the sexuality of the Middle Ages, including references to Freud, whose work has almost entirely fallen victim to the replicability crisis.

That’s my opinion, though, and you may disagree with me.  Certainly, there are many historians who would argue that the entire point of studying history is to make interpretations, judgements, and applications to the modern world.  Either way, Mysteries of the Middle Ages makes for an eminently approachable piece of historical scholarship, and I suspect the rest of the series would be of similar tone.  So, while I have my issues with Cahill’s book, I don’t think you would be remiss to consider exploring the Mysteries of the Middle Ages.

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