Historian Thomas Cahill is seated in the living room of his Manhattan apartment - books and paintings on the walls, a concert piano behind him. He is discussing a time of visual beauty and literary genius, of break-throughs for women and for individual freedom.
The Middle Ages.
"Of course, there was plenty of ignorance, as there is in every age," he says. "But the advances we associate with the Renaissance -_ in the arts, sciences, education, scholarship, linguistics and even political experimentation - all got under way in the Middle Ages."
He is smiling, relaxed and informal even when discussing the most serious topics during a recent interview. The typical best-selling historian writes of Great Men or epic battles, but the 66-year-old Cahill has become a million seller by telling more thought-provoking stories - the Irish preservation of ancient texts, how the Jews changed our sense of destiny, the egalitarianism of early Christianity, and now, the achievements of the Middle Ages.
Mysteries of the Middle Ages is the fifth of seven planned books in Cahill's "Hinges of Histories." The series does not dwell on tragedy or mourn a lost golden age; Cahill's "Hinges" are the contributions different historical periods have made, what he has called "a narration of how we became the people that we are." In these books - published in Europe and around the world, too - Cahill seeks to lead modern readers inside the minds of those who lived and thought in ways unimaginable now. His subject matter can be as demanding as any found in a college text, but he is also the kind of writer who likens one private correspondence from the Middle Ages as a "letter as full of catty innuendo as the dialogue from an episode of `Desperate Housewives'."
"What academic writers forget is that everyone on Earth buys books for diversion, or entertainment," he says. "Yes, they want to learn things, but they also don't want to be bored to death while they learn those things."
|Historian and writer Thomas Cahill|
His new book begins with a Chaucerian invocation, in ornate Medieval typescript, to join Cahill on a journey through the "solemn and merry mysteries" of those centuries following the fall of Rome and preceding the Renaissance. Characters met along the way include the indomitable Eleanor of Aquitaine, the star-crossed lovers Abelard and Heloise, and the era's greatest poet and literary moralist, Dante.
Despite countless works upholding the Middle Ages, Cahill believes the era's reputation remains as described by another popular historian, the late William Manchester, in A World Lit Only by Fire. The medieval public, wrote Manchester, was "shackled in ignorance, disciplined by fear, and sheathed in superstition," an image numerous books have failed to erase. Cahill counters that the Middle Ages not only gave us lasting art like Dante's Inferno and Chaucer's Canterbury Tales, but people whose lives still seem daring today.
Eleanor of Aquitaine was a woman with a love-life rivalling a movie star's and political achievements worthy of any head of state. The forbidden affair of philosopher Peter Abelard and his young student, Heloise, represented a new kind of romantic attachment, based on individual choice, not family design.
"It's sexual autonomy, or whatever else you might call it. In other words, `I decide what I want to do,"' Cahill says. He has enjoyed commercial success but also has been accused of short-changing scholarship in pursuit of a good story and of oversimplifying complicated ideas. But even those who fault him acknowledge his talents, with The New York Times' Richard Bernstein once writing that "even when his conclusions are not entirely persuasive - they do in places hang on rather slender reeds of evidence - they are always plausible and certainly interesting."
Cahill's interest in history began, however dully, in the classroom. Born in New York in 1940, he had a Jesuit education, immersed in Latin and Greek. He no longer identifies with any specific denomination - "I find churches often get in the way" - but remains a Christian who says his schooling gave him an ideal background for writing about history.
Cahill majored in classical literature and medieval philosophy at Fordham University and received a master's degree in film and dramatic literature from Columbia University. Believing that film-makers "either starve or have rich daddies and connections," he instead became a teacher at Queens College in New York, a decision that enabled him to stay out of the Vietnam War. "I would have gone to prison rather than fight in that war, but I didn't especially want to go to prison," he says.
He first thought of the "Hinges of History" in the early 1970s, but he also had a family to support. He worked as an advertising director, ran his own mail-order publishing house and headed a religious imprint at Doubleday Books.
Writing when time allowed, he shopped around his manuscript for How the Irish Saved Civilization, but says he was turned down by several publishers. Cahill found one taker: Nan A. Talese, whom he met at Doubleday and who has released all of his "Hinges of History" books on her own Doubleday imprint.
"I thought it was wonderful," Talese says of his book. "I did say I thought the title a bit extreme and Tom replied that he did not know how the book would be, but he knew the title was right." Published in 1995, How the Irish Saved Civilization sold hundreds of thousands of copies and was followed by The Gifts of the Jews, Desire of the Everlasting Hills and Sailing the Wine Dark Sea. Cahill says his next two books will centre on the Reformation and then the Enlightenment and rise of modern democracies.
"That would bring us almost to the present," he says. "This (his Middle Ages book) is really the Catholic contribution to the West, the next book is the Protestant contribution and the last book is the secular contribution.
"There's a continuity in Western civilisation, with all the discontinuity. There's a single story to be told. It's full of stops and goes and all sorts of stuff like that, but it still is a unified story in a very interesting way."