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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 ...
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.
1. Why did future generations characterize the Middle Ages as a time of destruction and ignorance? Who was served by that depiction? Which progressive aspects of this period were the most surprising to you?
2. The author attributes the rise of powerful women during the Middle Ages to the Madonna’s central place in religious culture. How did perceptions of the Madonna shape the notion of the ideal woman during this era?
3. What similarities exist between the ways Hildegard of Bingen and Eleanor of Aquitaine used their power? How did the politics of church and state mirror one another during the Middle Ages?
4. What was Hildegard’s guiding premise in her written exchanges with authority figures in the Church? How did her mystical visions seem to affect her tenacity? How would modern-day Roman Catholicism respond to a nun like her, or to an unconventional believer like Francis of Assisi?
5. How might European history have unfolded if Eleanor had ruled, rather than Henry (and later, Richard)? Would she have created an atmosphere of greater or less political stability?
6. What does the story of Abelard and Héloïse indicate about the changing concept of love during the Middle Ages? How does this couple compare to the ideals of courtly love also flourishing at the time? Were Héloïse’s views on marriage realistic or idealistic?
7. What contemporary fallout does the West experience today as a result of the Crusades? Why was Francis of Assisi’s approach to diplomacy–to sail to Egypt and meet with the Sultan al-Kamil in person–both rare and futile during the Middle Ages?
8. How was Francis able to findso much universal beauty in the world, as evidenced in “The Canticle of the Creatures,” while nature was dealing his health such horrific blows? How did humanity’s understanding of the natural world change during his lifetime?
9. How would you characterize the scientific inquiries spurred by figures such as Roger Bacon? What can be learned from Thomas Aquinas’s attempts to reconcile mystery and reason, or faith and facts? In what way do the intellectual pursuits of the Middle Ages speak to twenty-first-century quests for knowledge?
10. Do the chapters on medieval art indicate that art captures and preserves the way a community perceives the world, or does art change (even control) the way a community perceives the world? What is the significance of the fact that art turned realistic, particularly through the vision of the Florentine painter Giotto?
11. What were your reactions to the book’s numerous photographs of medieval art and architecture? Do the artists and artisans seem to share a common definition of beauty?
12. What do Dante’s poetry and life story tell us about the medieval understanding of God? What did Dante himself try to tell us about earthly concerns versus eternal ones, and the quest for peace?
13. What do the book’s maps demonstrate about the role of land in the power struggles of the Middle Ages? On a smaller scale, which regions were more culturally permissive (did communities flourishing along the Rhine differ from those along the Seine)? What are the contemporary effects of these geographic shifts occurring centuries before?
14. The intermezzo, “Entrances to Other Worlds,” provides a portrait of an early form of globalization. In what ways did religion and commerce intersect at that time? Were there any secular realms in business then?
15. Mysteries of the Middle Ages begins and ends with reflections on classical civilization. How did medieval societies respond to these legacies? From the death penalty (see the author’s note regarding Dominique Jerome Green in the book’s introduction) to the church scandals described in the postlude, how does the twenty-first-century world respond to the legacies of the Middle Ages?