Mysteries of the Middle Ages: And the Beginning of the Modern World (Hinges of History #5)

Mysteries of the Middle Ages: And the Beginning of the Modern WorldMysteries of the Middle Ages: And the Beginning of the Modern World by Thomas Cahill
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

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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The Millennium Bug: Is This the End of the World as We Know It?

The Millennium Bug: Is This the End of the World as We Know It?The Millennium Bug: Is This the End of the World as We Know It? by Jon Paulien
My rating: 2.5 of 5 stars

The world approached the year 2000, the threat of disaster due to a glitch in programming to our technological world was all the rage in the media only to fizzle out. However Jon Paulien’s The Millennium Bug is not about Y2K, but about how Christians—more specifically Seventh-day Adventists—should approach the then upcoming calendar change to 2000 when thinking about the “end times”.

Almost 20 years ago, the world was getting both excited and anxious about the upcoming new millennium. Besides the magically alluring numeral 2000, there were questions about if the change would adversely affect computers causing chaos and to many Christians if this change in millennium would see Jesus’ Second Coming. Paulien examines all the theories surrounding the millennium with the Second Coming and why Adventists with their history of Great Disappointment were even getting infected with “the millennium bug”. Yet while Paulien was informative with all the reasons why the calendar change to 2000 was just artificial especially in light of what occurred leading up to the year 1000, when he turned to what Adventists should concentrate on when thinking about “the end times” a lot of his writing would suggest checking out his a previous book of his on that subject instead of giving complete answers in this particular book.

While this fact was a tad frustrating, Paulien went a long way in answer many question dealing and surrounding various ‘end time’ theories in which millenniums are involved whether dealing with the age of the Earth or when the millennium of Revelation occurs. The Millennium Bug isn’t perfect and in parts a bit dated, it is still a good quick read of information.

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Sailing the Wine-Dark Sea: Why the Greeks Matter (Hinges of History #4)

Sailing the Wine-Dark Sea: Why the Greeks MatterSailing the Wine-Dark Sea: Why the Greeks Matter by Thomas Cahill
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

The foundations of what we call Western culture today seemingly sprung from one place, Greece, yet that is not the entire truth. Sailing the Wine-Dark Sea, the fourth volume of Thomas Cahill’s Hinges of History, examines and explains the structure of Greek society and ideas as well as the reasons why it has permeated so much of what we know of Western culture. But Cahill’s answer to why the Greeks matter is two-fold.

Over the course of 264 pages of text, Cahill looks at all the features of Greek culture that made them so different from other ancient cultures. Through the study of Homer’s Iliad and Odyssey, Cahill examined the Greek’s view of war and honor in their grand war epic then how the same man expressed how the Greek’s expressed their feelings. The contradiction of the Homeric works is part of a larger theme that Cahill explores in Greek poetry beyond Homer, politicians and playwrights, philosophers, and artists. Throughout each chapter, Cahill examines what the Greeks did differently than anyone else as well as relate examples that many will know. Yet Cahill reveals that as time went on the Greeks own culture started to swallow itself until stabilized by the Romans who were without the Greek imagination and then merged with newly developing Christian religion that used Greek words to explain its beliefs to a wider world; this synthesis of the Greco-Roman world and Judeo-Christian tradition is what created Western thought and society that we know today.

Cahill’s analysis and themes are for the general reader very through-provoking, but even for someone not well versed in overall Greek scholarship there seems to be something missing in this book. Just in comparing previous and upcoming volumes of Cahill’s own series, this book seems really short for one covering one of the two big parts of Western Civilization. Aside from the two chapters focused around the Homeric epics, all the other chapters seemed to be less than they could be not only in examples but also in giving connections in relevance for the reader today.

For the Western society in general, the Greeks are remembered for their myths, magnificent ruins, and democracy. Thomas Cahill’s Sailing the Wine-Dark Sea does reveal that ancient Greece was more than that and why a culture millennia old matters to us today. While not perfect, this book is at least a good read for the general reader which may be what Cahill is aiming for but for those more well read it feels lacking once finished.

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Voices of the Rocks: A Scientist Looks at Catastrophes and Ancient Civilizations

Voices of the Rocks : A Scientist Looks at Catastrophes and Ancient CivilizationsVoices of the Rocks : A Scientist Looks at Catastrophes and Ancient Civilizations by Robert M. Schoch

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

The question on how to view the physical changes of the Earth as well as how and if it effects civilization, dominates the discussion in Dr. Robert M. Schoch’s Voices of the Rocks. Looking through the geological record as well as numerous other sciences, Dr. Schoch puts forwards a different way to look at the history of the Earth and how mankind is affected.

The primary purpose of Dr. Schoch’s book is to propose a different way of viewing how natural laws and processes operate in the universe from the (then) dominate Uniformitarianism and the opposing Catastrophism. The result is a synthesis of the two viewpoints, uniformitarianism with periodic catastrophes which how now become dominate in scientific thinking, however Schoch attaches this synthesis with the Gaia hypothesis that at the time was still be debated but is now being included in larger scientific thought. Although this scientific terminology might seem daunting Schoch writes for the layman who might remember things for high school or college, but isn’t an expert.

Although Schoch’s main emphasis is scientific thought, the subtitle of his book “A Scientist Looks at Catastrophes & Ancient Civilizations” points to the fact that Schoch takes a look at human history as well. Schoch came to fame when he released his geological study on the Great Sphinx that dated it to 7000-5000BCE, much older than the 2500BCE that Egyptologists have dated it. Schoch defends his findings in the case of the Sphinx in terms for a layman but doesn’t go in-depth in detail and terminology as that is not his main purpose in the book. However, Schoch uses his study and the ensuing debate about the progress of civilization and societies to highlight how the rise and collapse of many cultures over time and around the world have been impacted by catastrophic factors both on Earth and from outside of Earth.

While Schoch admits that many of the theories about civilizations and events in Earth’s past are based on his interruption of the evidence proposed either by himself or others who’s work he agrees with, they are an invaluable read whether one agrees with Schoch or not. Yet Schoch also aims at debunking many, some would call them outlandish, theories proposed by von Daniken, Hancock, Stitchin, and many others by the same process of looking at the evidence. Overall while Schoch does incorporate a study of ancient civilizations and societies while looking at his overarching scientific premise, it is more a supporting role.

Overall Schoch’s handles the science very well, his handle on history and societal elements he brings up is unfortunately not so good with many glaring mistakes that even a causal reader will catch. Schoch’s writing style is very fluid and keeps the reader engaged throughout the text, even when his mishandles either history or ancient cultural references. I came to this book with an eye towards the ‘ancient civilization’ in the subtitle in researching for a story I’ve been planning to write for over a decade and while I didn’t get exactly what I was expecting, the scientific information and Schoch relating of his own theories or the theories of other established scientists more than made up for that. Yet I can neither recommend nor warn people way from this book because my purpose for reading is something different from the norm.

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Desire of the Everlasting Hills: The World Before and After Jesus (Hinges of History #3)

Desire of the Everlasting Hills: The World Before and After JesusDesire of the Everlasting Hills: The World Before and After Jesus by Thomas Cahill

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

The hinge in history that has been the central pillar of Western civilization is not a cultural change nor a particular people but one man, Jesus of Nazareth. Thomas Cahill explores the developments of thought before and after Jesus in Desire of the Everlasting Hills through the lens of Greco-Roman and Jewish cultures, his mother Mary, Paul, Luke, Early Christians, and John to reveal how one life both continued and changed the progression of Western thought.

Over the course of 320 pages, Thomas Cahill focused on Jesus of Nazareth as the central figure in the West. However from the outset Cahill makes it clear that the role of Jesus is how others perceived him both during his life and after his time on Earth. While following Jesus during his ministry, Cahill highlighted the essential Jewishness of Jesus’ message and how some considered his message unrealistic while others found hope. After Jesus’ time on Earth, a phrase I must use since Cahill does not state one way or another on the event of the Resurrection save mentioning it, the essence of his divinity was shaped by Paul’s Jewish perspective, Luke’s gentile perspective, and John the Evangelist’s intimate perspective. Cahill’s conclusion is that while Jesus is central to the West, the West as a whole has essentially ignored his teachings but a small few due resulting in the slow but development of the ideas that define Western civilization.

While Cahill’s analysis and themes are a thought provoking read, I did have some serious issues. The first is the same as in his previous book, The Gift of the Jews, which is in some of Cahill’s interpretation and subsequent logical construction of his evidence whether through scripture or an analysis of non-Biblical sources to weave his thesis. The second is partially related and that is Cahill tries to weave a middle course between Jesus as man and Jesus as divine without really take a stand either way. While objectivity can be commended, the book read as a Christian trying too hard to look discuss Jesus from a secular point of view.

Regardless of one’s view of Jesus of Nazareth, no one can deny that he is the central figure of West. Thomas Cahill attempts to bring forth Jesus through the view of those around him and how they interpreted his life and teachings. While Desire of the Everlasting Hills is not a perfect book, it is thought-provoking in viewing Jesus of Nazareth back in the first century AD and into today’s increasing secular society.

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The Mystery Knight (ASOIAF- Dunk & Egg #3)

warriors-1The Mystery Knight by George R.R. Martin
My rating: 5 out of 5 stars

Political intrigue and mystery are the essence of the third Dunk and Egg novella, “The Mystery Knight”. George R.R. Martin exposes the reader to the historical reality of the reign of King Aerys I as Ser Duncan ‘Dunk’ the Tall and his squire (Prince) Aegon “Egg” Targaryen stumble into a wedding and tournament full of supports of the Blackfyres and mysterious individuals.

The story begins soon after the events of The Sworn Sword, Dunk and Egg stumble upon various lords and hedge knights headed to the wedding of Lord Ambrose Butterwell to a daughter of Lord Frey of the Crossing. Not wanting to pass up a good meal, Dunk decides to go to the wedding and later to enter the tourney under a mystery knight moniker. However, Dunk isn’t the only one under a moniker as is the case with Ser John the Fiddler while another knight, Ser Glendon Ball, claims the name of a famous Blackfyre supporter. However, behind all this pomp and mysterious characters is a fantastical plot to take advantage of the hatred to the Hand of the King Lord Bloodraven and put a Blackfyre on the throne.

The Mystery Knight is the first of the novellas in which magical elements seen in the main books series are seen as well as two characters, one very well-known and the other just recently introduced. From the outset, this novella is very well paced and the growing mystery around the entire wedding of Lord Butterwell only increases the tension that Dunk and Egg find themselves. In the history of Westeros, Ser Duncan the Tall and the future Aegon V Targaryen are two of the most well known figures of recent memory and with the events of The Mystery Knight they leave their second big impact on the political landscape.

The Gifts of the Jews: How a Tribe of Desert Nomads Changed the Way Everyone Thinks and Feels (Hinges of History #2)

The Gifts of the Jews: How a Tribe of Desert Nomads Changed the Way Everyone Thinks and FeelsThe Gifts of the Jews: How a Tribe of Desert Nomads Changed the Way Everyone Thinks and Feels by Thomas Cahill

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

The moment, or hinge, in history that a changed occurred to allow Western civilization possible is the primary focus of Thomas Cahill’s The Gifts of the Jews. Over the course of less than 304 pages and the scope of two millennia of Jewish history from its birth with Abraham to their return from exile, Cahill examines the evolving birth of a new worldview that was entirely different from what had been thought before.

The focus of Cahill’s book is the beginning of Western civilization, which to him is a change in mindset on how to view the world and the reason was the Jews. Before getting to Abraham however, Cahill looked to what had come before, the “cyclical” worldview and culture of Sumer in which he went out of. With this in mind, Cahill emphasizes how big a step Abraham’s journey at God’s direction was. Then throughout the course of the book, Cahill examines step-by-step the development of the “processive” worldview that the Jews were exhibiting for the first time from successive revelations of God and the development of individuality in language and philosophy, but most importantly the role of justice in society.

Cahill’s argument is very compelling, as was his discussions on the Epic of Gilgamesh and the various Biblical individuals and their actions. Yet the problem I have with this book is with some of Cahill’s interpretation and subsequent logical construction of his evidence whether through scripture or an analysis of non-Biblical sources to weave his thesis. For example some of the evidence Cahill uses to date the Exodus is erroneous by misinterpretation of both Biblical and non-Biblical sources, yet that is only of several examples I could have given.

Yet while Cahill’s interpretations aren’t the best part of this book, his argument that the Jews brought forth a new worldview that would lead to Western civilization is compelling. Because of that, The Gifts of the Jews is worth a close read as it describes the first and most significant hinge of historical change.

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