Christopher Frayling (1995)

A fascinating dive into the structure of the Middle Ages, a period often regarded as a uniformly dark cipher. Fraying focuses on four topics: the origins of Gothic architecture; the evolution of the idea of heresy; the conflict between church and reason; and the cosmology of Dante’s The Divine Comedy. If these choices seem eclectic, they’re both carefully chosen and intricately related to the complete story of the period.

Most fascinating for me was the description of the arguments between Peter Abelard, the man who almost singlehandedly put the University of Paris on the map, and St Bernard of Clairvaux, about the place of reason and inspiration in religion. They were both what we would now regard as religious men, but their radically different views on religion’s place and relationship to thought cut the the heart of many modern debates as well. Similarly, the chapter on Dante simplifies and structures what can otherwise be a difficult book to access.

The theme that runs through the book is the similarities that appear between the Middle Ages and the modern world, best captured by Umberto Eco in saying that we have never really left Middle Ages behind. Certainly a book like this makes much more clear the intellectual debt we still owe to the period, as well as how many of the questions raised then remain live even now.

4/5. Finished Friday 1 November, 2013.

(Originally published on Goodreads.)