Mysteries of the Middle Ages: The Rise of Feminism, Science, and Art from the Cults of Catholic Europe (Hinges of History)

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9780385495554: Mysteries of the Middle Ages: The Rise of Feminism, Science, and Art from the Cults of Catholic Europe (Hinges of History)

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 Western 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. Bursting with stunning four-color art, MYSTERIES OF THE MIDDLE AGES is the ultimate Christmas gift book.

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About the Author:

THOMAS CAHILL is the author of four previous volumes in the Hinges of History series: How the Irish Saved Civilization, The Gifts of the Jews, Desire of the Everlasting Hills, and Sailing the Wine-Dark Sea. They have been bestsellers not only in the United States but also in countries ranging from Italy to Brazil. He and his wife, Susan, also a writer, divide their time between New York City and Rome.

Excerpt. Reprinted by permission. All rights reserved.:

One

Bingen and Chartres, Gardens Enclosed

The Cult of the Virgin and Its Consequences

In the first decade of the twelfth century, a little girl from the Rhineland town of Bermersheim, near Mainz, was offered by her parents as a sacrifice to God. Her name was Hildegard; her parents were Hildebert and Mechthild, a pious knight and his pious, well-born wife. Hildegard was eight years old when she was left for life with an anchorite named Jutta von Sponheim, who lived alone in a cell attached to the abbey church of Saint Disibod. (Disibod was a whimsical Irish monk-bishop of the seventh century who, disappointed at the lack of response to his preaching by his own countrymen, traveled to the Rhineland, became a protégé of the English Saint Boniface, evangelist to the Germans, and founded Disibodenberg, where he seems to have been rather more successful than he’d been in his native land.) Not only does Hildegard’s story embody many of the cultural currents that reached their ebb in her time or soon after; this outwardly obedient daughter, her childhood cut so cruelly short, was destined to become one of the most important women of her age.

Using a living child as a religious oblation was no Christian invention. Greeks and Romans had ancient traditions of chaste priestesses and Vestal Virgins; and in the oldest records of both pagans and Jews we find evidence of “set-asides,” human offerings devoted to a divinity. In the earliest archeological records, these offerings are literal human sacrifices, such as the bog burials of Scandinavia. Jewish tradition yields such offerings in surprising numbers, starting with Abraham’s willingness to sacrifice his only son and continuing through Joshua’s command to his troops to “devote” the people of Canaan to God under “the curse of destruction”—that is,to execute them. In later times, prisoners of war were no longer slain outright, but firstborn males still had to be “consecrated to the Lord” and then “redeemed” by an animal sacrifice that was substituted for them, as happens to the newborn Jesus in the second chapter of Luke’s Gospel. There is even a further echo of Jewish tradition in the offering of Hildebert and Mechthild, for Hildegard was their tenth child—and a tenth of one’s wealth, the tithe of the Hebrews, was consecrated to God.

But none of these grand historical precedents would have impressed an eight-year-old, who must have spent many a lonely, creepy night tucked away in Jutta’s sparsely appointed little hut. Anchorites are no longer an everyday occurrence—I have met only one in my life, and she was nutty as a fruitcake—but in the twelfth century they could be encountered in the neighborhood of many a monastery and even within the close of an urban cathedral. The word anchorite derives from a Greek verb meaning “to withdraw”; and we may best think of them as hermits who lived not in obscure caves but in association with a religious community. Your typical anchorite, though not necessarily a formal member of such a community, was nonetheless part and parcel of its sacred landscape, so much so that she (or he) would normally reside in a small room built into the wall of an abbey church or cathedral, a room with a view, so to speak—a slit or screened window that allowed the anchorite to attend church services but not so large as to make her visible to the merely curious.

The liturgy for the consecration of an anchorite was actually a funeral liturgy, for it was deemed that she was dying to the world and to herself. She was spoken of as already dead and with God in heaven. Her cell was called frankly her “burial chamber,” and, dressed in her shroud, she was directed to sing a verse from Psalm 132: “This is my resting place forever, here shall I dwell for I have chosen it.” The ceremony, attended gregariously by family, friends, and monastic benefactors, must strike us as a ghoulish sort of celebration, often ending with the ritual interment of the anchorite in her cell, from which it was expected that she would never again emerge. Brick was cemented on brick till the doorway to the cell was blocked and only the slit was left, enough for food and other necessities to be passed to her. If the ceremony did not conclude with an immuring, it concluded with a permanently locked door. But because this period is characterized by such variation in custom from one locality to another, we cannot be certain what was done in Hildegard’s case, nor whether the growing girl was permanently locked away in thecustomary single room. We do possess one odd detail that may bespeak a certain mitigation: at least one servant was locked in along with the anchorites. Jutta and Hildegard were, after all, noblewomen and so could not be expected to manage even their much-reduced needs by themselves.

The idea was to serve God by permanent prayerful retreat from the world. However bizarre this may sound to modern ears, we probably all know a few people whose apartness (or even madness) might be better served if such a socially approved role were still available. Though often represented as a period of repression, heavy with superstition, the Middle Ages offered—at least in religious roles—more options than are now allowed. I doubt that a frail suppliant, plainly dressed and with a distracted air, approaching a bishop today to say that God had instructed her to build a cell into the wall of his cathedral and to carve in that wall a small window from which she could hear mass, as well as the canonical hours, would receive a warm response. But in the Middle Ages such social oddities were welcomed and assigned a place of honor. While the rest of us went about our worried lives, they prayed for us continually, speaking always to God on our behalf.

The masters of the Middle Ages had, of course, another, less public motive for honoring anchorites. The batlike monks of the Prologue who terrorized the citizens of Alexandria might have been politically useful to the patriarch, but as time went on such mobs, vociferous, usually illiterate, became a religious plague. They could not be appeased by compromise; they were rabble-rousing extremists, unswervingly certain of their rectitude. Their implacable attitudes gave bishops, as well as other public men in charge of social order, terrible headaches. How were they to be quieted? By being brought under the bishop’s control, by being made subject to his rules and approval.

Every monkish mob was incited by a leader, often a desert hermit cherished for his holy ability to live apart from society, eating locusts, whipping his body, gifted with extravagant visions. The word monk derives, in fact, from the Greek word monos, meaning “alone, lonely, solitary.” In the rudimentary beginnings of monastic life, all monks were hermits, and only gradually did they unite in loose association with one another. Bishops began to invite the most influential solitaries to take up more conventional habitats, closer to human society and more readily subject to episcopal pressure. Monks and nuns, monachi and monachae, were made to write constitutions by which their communities were to be governed. In time, such constitutions came to be submitted to a bishop for his approval.

In the West, Saint Benedict, Italian founder of the Benedictines, became in the early sixth century the great constitutionalist, his Rule the standard by which all subsequent monasticism was judged. The monk’s life was utterly subject to his dictum Ora et labora (Pray and work). No rabble-rousing, please. Let anarchy be not so much as mentioned among us. In time, obedience, tranquility, and constructive employment—building, farming, herbal medicine, relief for the poor, succor for the sick, hospitality to wayfarers, manuscript copying, and (in the case of a gifted few) original writing—not vision, came to rule the Christian West. The Benedictines, in addition to vows of obedience, chastity, and community of goods, took a vow of stability, which meant they could not leave the monastery grounds without their abbot’s permission. Even prayer was measured out at appointed hours. No moment of the monk’s day or night belonged exclusively to him. The bishops, who—thanks to the barbarians—had quite enough on their plates, required such a church, where everyone, even a visionary hermit, could be counted on to play an assigned role and to stay within prescribed limits.

No one had done so much to spread the fame of Saint Benedict as Gregory the Great, who was himself a Benedictine monk and had written Benedict’s Life. By Hildegard’s day, even an abbey like Disibodenberg, originally a foundation of Celtic spontaneity, had submitted to the Rule of Saint Benedict. In the abbey church, the monks sang the canonical hoursa—as did all Benedictines from Britain to Bohemia—and from a lancet opening in the choir wall a single female voice united with theirs in chant. One day, a pure child’s voice joined in, inflecting the Latin words precisely, ascending gloriously and certainly to the subtle rhythm of the music. In their choir stalls the monks shivered with emotion: it was the voice of the child anchorite, the noble Hildegard.

We know little of what went on in Jutta’s cell, but we know the results. Under the older woman’s tutelage, the child learned to read the Book of Psalms in Latin and to sing the psalms of the monastic hours, the church’s Divine Office, while accompanying herself on the expressive ten-string psaltery, a sort of dulcimer plucked by hand.Throughout her life Hildegard’s Latin remained odd, at moments an almost private language. But her grasp of the principles of musicology was remarkable, eventually impelling her to compose her own chants, unusual in sound and singular in subject matter.

Beyond the Book of Psalms, Hildegard’s adu...

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