Mysteries of the Middle Ages : The Rise of Feminism, Science, and Art from the Cults of Catholic Europe
From the bestselling author of How the Irish Saved Civilization, a fascinating look at how medieval thinkers created the origins of modern intellectual movements.
After the long period of decline known as the Dark Ages, medieval 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, from the entry of women into professions that had long been closed to them to the early investigations into alchemy that would form the basis of experimental science. 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-acclaimed historian Thomas Cahill brilliantly captures the spirit of experimentation, the colorful pageantry, and the passionate pursuit of knowledge that built the foundations for the modern world.
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March 04, 2008
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Excerpt from Mysteries of the Middle Ages by Thomas Cahill
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,