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review 2017-07-11 00:49
Heretics and Heroes (Hinges of History #6)
Heretics and Heroes: How Renaissance Artists and Reformation Priests Created Our World - Thomas Cahill

One of the most pivotal periods of Western civilization occurred during the Renaissance and the Reformation, to culturally impactful events that overlapped one another across Europe.  Heretics and Heroes is the sixth book in Thomas Cahill’s series “The Hinges of History” highlighting the artists and the priests that changed how Europe viewed creativity and worshipped God.

 

Cahill begins this volume talking about philosophical struggle over the ages between Plato and Aristotle, through it is the fourth time he has discussed this millennia-long debate during the series it allows Cahill to refer back to it in the text and gives the reader a basis to understand its importance during this era.  Cahill continued setting up both the Renaissance and Reformation by highlighting moments during the Late Middle Ages, especially the effects of the Black Death, leading up to and allowed for these two important moments in Western history to occur.  The ‘discovery’ of the New World by Columbus and rise of the humanists begin the look at the titular heretics and heroes that will dominate the book, using both events Cahill shows the changing trends in Europe just before both the Renaissance and Reformation completely change it.  The Renaissance and it’s complete change of artistic creativity of the previous millennium is taken up first through the lives of Donatello, Leonardo, and Botticelli before focusing on its height and sudden stop as a result of the Counter-Reformation in the life of Michelangelo.  Then, save for a brief look at the art of Northern Europe, Cahill turns to the Reformation of Luther and the Catholic Counter-Reformation with brief looks at the Reformed movements and the development of Anglicanism.

 

The entire book is packed with information in a very conversational style of writing which has always been one of the strengths of Cahill’s writing.  As always with a popular history book, Cahill had to pick and choose what to focus the reader’s attention on while covering as much as possible about the subject he’s decided to write about.  While Cahill is pretty successful at hitting the high points and pointing readers looking for information to the appropriate place to look, his personal opinions at times overwhelm the history and themes he’s trying to bring to fore.  All history authors have their personal opinions influence their work; however Cahill’s armchair psychiatry and personal theological arguments that actually have nothing to do with the debate he’s writing about at that moment in the text.  While Cahill’s personal opinions have been in all of the previous books of the series, this volume it seems to not be subtle but almost blatant.

 

Overall Heretics and Heroes is a fine addition to the “Hinges of History” series written in a very readable style by Cahill.  However, unlike the previous books in which the reader was left with wanting more, the reader will be wishing less of Cahill’s opinion and more of actual facts.  Yet even with this drawback and forewarning a reader will find this book very informative.

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review 2017-07-04 21:43
Mysteries of the Middle Ages (Hinges of History #5)
Mysteries of the Middle Ages: And the Beginning of the Modern World - Thomas Cahill

In popular imagination the medieval period is a time of ignorance and superstition, fear and violence, and crushing religious intolerance of anything the Church was against.  Mysteries of the Middle Ages is the fifth volume of Thomas Cahill’s ‘Hinges of History’ series, focusing on the individuals in the High Middle Ages who shaped Western society that we know today.  Over the course of 300+ pages, Cahill sets out to give his reader a new way to look at the Middle Ages.

 

Cahill begins the book not during the Middle Ages, but in the city of Alexandria in Egypt looking at how the Greco-Roman and Judeo-Christian traditions began their long processes of synthetization began before exploring how the Romans became the Italians as a way to differentiate between the Greek East and Latin West for the rest of the book.  Then beginning with Hildegard of Bingen, Cahill makes the reader look at the Middle Ages in a vastly different way by showing the power and importance of 12th century Abbess who would one day be declared a saint then turned his attention to a woman of secular power, that of Eleanor of Aquitaine who held political power in a significant way while also allowing the developing “courts of love” evolve.  This evolving form of culture spread into the Italian peninsula and influenced a young man from Assisi, Francis who would shift this emphasis of earthly love into spiritual love.  The focus of the spiritual then shifted to Peter Abelard and St. Thomas Aquinas who became to emphasis the thoughts of Aristotle over those of Plato in theological discussions while Roger Bacon used Aristotle to begin examining the world around him and thus science that we see today.  Yet the world around those during the High Middle Ages began to influence art and literature in both secular and spiritual ways from the Cathedral of Chartres to the works of Dante and Giotto would have influences even to today.

 

Although Cahill readily admits that he could have and wanted to discuss more individuals from a wider swath of Europe, he does an adequate job in showing that the Middle Ages were not what the popular view of the time period was believed to be.  Cahill several times throughout the book emphasizes that the Middle Ages, especially from the 12th to the early 14th centuries, were not a time of stagnate culture that the humanists of the Renaissance began calling it.  However, Cahill’s asides about Islamic culture as well as the Byzantines were for the most part a continuation of centuries-long mudslinging or a product of today’s ideological-religious conflicts and ironically undermined one of his best arguments, the role of Catholicism in shaping Western society.  Cahill’s Catholicism was that of all the individuals he wrote about, who were Christians, not the Church and its hierarchy that over the course of the High Middle Ages became a point of embarrassment to both lay and cleric alike.

 

Mysteries of the Middle Ages shows the beginnings of the synthesis of the two strains of Western society, Greco-Roman and Judeo-Christian, that Thomas Cahill has built up to in his previous four books.  As a popular history it very well written, but its flaws of modern and centuries old prejudice undercut a central theme Cahill was developing and wrote about at the end of the book.  Yet I cannot but call it a good book to read.

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review 2017-04-27 23:57
The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire (Modern Library Volume 3 of 3)
The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire, Volume III (Modern Library) - Gian Battista Piranesi,Edward Gibbon

The finale volume of Modern Library’s three-volume reprint of Edward Gibbon’s The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire covers chapters 49 through 71 of the author’s vast magnum opus.  Beginning with the Iconoclast controversy in correlation with rise of the Vatican and Holy Roman Empire in the 8th century and ending with a description of the causes and progression of the decay of the city of Roman in the 15th century, Gibbon relates in detail the political, martial, social, and theological developments in both Europe and the Middle East ultimately led to the end of Byzantine Empire with the fall of Constantinople to the Ottomans and the state of the city of Roman at time of the Roman Empire’s complete end.

 

The majority of the 22 chapters deal with the rise of Islam and the resultant political and martial effects that would ultimately determine the fate of the Byzantine Empire.  Although beginning with the Iconoclastic controversy that began the schism of the Christian church as the bishop of Rome rose to power in the West, Gibbon used those developments to launch into how Islam rose in Arabia then spread across not only areas once under Roman control but also their long-time Persian rivals in the aftermath of the reconquests of Heraclius.  While detailing the internal struggle within the Caliphate period, Gibbon reveals how Emperors attempted to combat this new faith and military force to increasing little effect has time went on.

 

The thorough retelling of the numerous political changes throughout Asia that affect the fortunes of the Byzantine Empire shifted the focus away from the ‘Roman’ world to locations as far east as China, but revolutions of people in these areas would play into the fortunes of Constantinople.  Also playing into fate of Byzantine was the barbarian Christian West that the Emperors called for aid not only from kings but the Pope as well.  Unfortunately the resulting Crusades and mercenary arms that went East would inflict a mortal wound to the Empire in 1204 thus beginning a centuries long death spiral that only lasted as long as it did because of internal revolutions with the growing Ottoman Empire until 1453.  This dreary recounting of the end of Byzantium is mirrored by Gibbon in his recounting of the history of the city of Rome itself throughout the Middle Ages until the fall of the New Rome in the East.

 

This finale volume of Gibbon’s life consuming work revealed the struggle of the Eastern Empire of Byzantium to continue against a succession of Islamic powers and its ultimate demise thus completing the fall of the Roman Empire.  Yet in retelling the eventual fall of Constantinople, Gibbon paints a huge picture for the reader about how events both near and far away from the Bosporus affected the fortunes for both good and ill of the New Rome.  And in recounting the history of the city of Rome throughout the Middle Ages, a reader sheds a tear with Gibbon about the loss of the monuments of both Republic and Empire due to the necessity or vanity of the people of Rome after for the fall of the Western Empire.

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review 2017-03-25 04:08
Of Giants: Sex, Monsters, And The Middle Ages - Cohen Jeffrey,Jeffrey Jerome Cohen

This incredibly dense read would not have been finished had it not been on a required reading list for my class on monsters in Medieval literature. Each chapter required intense concentration in order to understand the complexities of Cohen's observations in relation to the psychology behind beasts and the society who created them.

 

Cohen goes into great detail on the pre-history of England, how colonization fed the imagination of many, and as a result tales of giants came about in order to illustrate the invasive forces unleashed upon the British Isles. Gogmagog and his herd of kin are examples of this prodigious influence; ultimately the giants are killed, allowing the Christian man to rise above the militaristic enemy, offering a symbol of hope and representing the new England that would rise from the ashes that is subjugation (and the fact that England did in fact recover to become a powerful country is indisputable).

 

Perhaps the least convincing elements of Cohen's collection of essays was his inclusion of Freudian psychology, in particular his focus on phallic imagery as a means of expressing masculine dominance in England's pre-history, but drawing penises is hardly an antiquated way to show how territorial men can be-- it's rather a familiar habit of men even now. In short, there were many fascinating points although some seemingly based on conjecture and some questionable psychoanalytic psychology.

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review 2017-03-08 02:33
The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire (Modern Library Volume 2 of 3)
The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire, Vol. 2 - D.J. Boorstin,Gian Battista Piranesi,Edward Gibbon,John B. Bury

The second volume of Modern Library’s three-volume reprint of Edward Gibbon’s The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire covers chapters 27 through 48 of the author’s vast magnum opus.  Beginning with the reign of Gratian and ending with the reconquests of Heraclius in 628 A.D., Gibbons relates in detail the political, martial, social, and theological developments that saw the ultimate split of the Roman Empire, the fall of the West, and the continuance of Roman tradition in the East centered in Constantinople before glancing at the lives of the next 60 emperors of Byzantium over the next 600 years.

 

The deterioration of the Rome picks up with the reign of Gratian and his eventual overthrow leading to the unification of the Empire under Theodosius the Great before its finale split with the inheritance of his sons and then their successors over the next 50+ years.  Throughout the era of House of Theodosius, the various barbarian tribes made inroads into the Western Empire which included two sacks of Rome itself by the Visigoths and Vandals, as the long ineffectual reign of Honorius and his successors allowed the Empire to slip out of their fingers.  In the vacuum arose the genesis of future European states such as England, France, and Spain while Italy declined in population and political cohesion as the Pope began to fill not only a religious but political role.

 

The Eastern Emperors in Constantinople, unlike their family and colleagues in the West, were able to keep their domain intact through military force or bribes to turn away.  The bureaucratic framework established by Constantine and reformed by Theodosius was used to keep the Eastern Empire thriving against barbarian incursion and Persian invasions while creating a link to the Roman past even as the eternal city fell from its greatness.  Yet as the Eastern Emperors kept alive the Roman imperial tradition while continually orienting it more towards Greek cultural heritage, the internal conflicts of Christianity became a hindrance to social and imperial stability leading to rebellions of either a local or statewide nature or allowing foreign powers to invade.

 

This middle volume of Gibbon’s monumental work is divided in two, the first focusing on the fall of the Western Empire and the second on how the Eastern Empire survived through various struggles and for a brief time seemed on the verge of reestablishing the whole imperium.  Yet throughout, Gibbon weaves not only the history of Rome but also the events of nomadic peoples as far away at China, the theological controversies within Christianity, and the numerous other treads to create a daunting, yet compete look of how Rome fell but yet continued.

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