Cahill readily reduces the Middle Ages into easily understandable and assimilatable bites. He begins in Alexandria at the close of the Classic era prior to the long yawn of the Dark Ages. Cahill likes to smash historic personalities into one another. As he did with Patrick and Augustine in How The Irish Saved Civilization, Cahill provides shave biopsy profiles of the antipodal pagan philosopher Plotinus and Clement of Alexandria, parsing the latter’s laughable etiquette for pious Catholics in the context of the Classically-trained Clement answering the more laughable positions adopted by the apocalyptic Encratites and smug Gnostics. He does the same with Ptolemy and Euclid, and this is just in the introduction.
The book is divided into broad cultural subjects addressing religion, the arts, the sciences, and the geopolitical world of the period. Cahill first discusses the conversion of religious Rome into secular Italy - rubbing Constantine, Gregory, and Augustine of Hippo together is catch fire. Cahill then addresses the advent of feminism as manifest in the life of Hildegard von Bingen and the rising “cult of the Virgin.” Then Cahill turns his attention to, on the surface a much different woman, Eleanor of Aquitaine.
Sandwiched in between these two dominant women is the discussion of the polar opposite Francis of Assisi and Bernard of Clairvaux, the former considered “one of two or three greatest men to have ever lived,” and the latter, not of that rank. Cahill’s portrait of Francis is equally as empathetic and enduring as he assigned Patrick in How The Irish Saved Civilization. Cahill’s organic descriptions of these saints can make the reader proud of being the same genus and species as Francis and Patrick. Cahill completes his homage to Francis thusly,
- At the end he asked to be stripped of everything, even the bed on which he lay, and to be laid naked on the floor. ‘I have done what is mine,’ were his last whispered words to his companions. ‘May Christ teach you what is yours to do.’ Larks sang and flew in circles above the house where he died. As Francis had always noticed, they are the birds who, ‘are friends of the light.’
And that is how romance became prayer.
The author never fully leaves Francis, instead rubbing the ascetic, anarchic peasant monk against the Dominican revolution known as Thomas Aquinas at the University of Paris. But before addressing Aquinas, Cahill introduces Abelard and his principle muse Aristotle (also Aquinas’) as a balance to Augustine’s Platonism in his earlier book.