The best books about religion, learning, love, and science in the Middle Ages

Richard E. Rubenstein Author Of Aristotle's Children: How Christians, Muslims, and Jews Rediscovered Ancient Wisdom and Illuminated the Middle Ages
By Richard E. Rubenstein

The Books I Picked & Why

The Cloister: A Novel

By James Carroll

The Cloister: A Novel

Why this book?

The Cloister: A Novel by James Carroll (Anchor, 2019) is a gripping, magical novel that dramatizes the connections between the medieval and modern worlds. Father James Kavanaugh meets Rachel Vedette at the Cloisters, the famous museum and gallery in upper Manhattan dedicated to the art of the Middle Ages. He is a parish priest with doubts and worries; she is a Holocaust survivor; and their relationship brilliantly conjures up the forbidden love affair between the medieval philosopher and “rock star,” Peter Abelard, and Heloise, an immensely talented nun. James Carroll, a former priest, is also the author of Constantine’s Sword, a memorable non-fiction book about the history of the Church and the Jews. The Cloister paints convincing pictures of Abelard and Heloise and creatively blurs the line between modernity and religious tradition.    


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The Ornament of the World: How Muslims, Jews, and Christians Created a Culture of Tolerance in Medieval Spain

By María Rosa Menocal

The Ornament of the World: How Muslims, Jews, and Christians Created a Culture of Tolerance in Medieval Spain

Why this book?

This vivid portrait of multicultural tolerance in late-medieval Spain reads like an adventure story and is just as hard to put down. No wonder it has won so many prizes! The book has been controversial from the get-go, since it suggests that the three Abrahamic religions lived together more peacefully under Muslim rule than at any later time. Some critics have said that Menocal paints too rosy a picture, but actually she is careful to show that medieval Spain was not an unblemished success. What really bothers the critics is her demonstration that violent struggles between religious groups are not a result of doctrinal disagreements but of specific social and political conditions. At a time of bitter religious conflict, Menocal’s inspiring story shines like a light at the end of the proverbial tunnel.   


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Christian Philosophy of St. Thomas Aquinas

By Etienne Gilson

Christian Philosophy of St. Thomas Aquinas

Why this book?

Etienne Gilson was the leading intellectual historian of the medieval Church in France, and this is the clearest, most lucid exposition of St. Thomas Aquinas’s thinking that I have read. Perhaps because the Roman Catholic Church has often used Aquinas’s thinking to justify conservative positions, we often forget that he was a world-class genius who radicalized religious and ethical thought in the Middle Ages, and whose work helped inspire later movements of reform like the Vatican II Council. Gilson’s sympathetic treatment of Aquinas restored this understanding of his thinking and helped produce the modern neo-Thomist movement. It is worth reading – and it is readable!


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The Foundations of Modern Science in the Middle Ages: Their Religious, Institutional and Intellectual Contexts

By Edward Grant

The Foundations of Modern Science in the Middle Ages: Their Religious, Institutional and Intellectual Contexts

Why this book?

Edward Grant’s book begins, as mine does, with the medieval rediscovery of Aristotle’s works, but he focuses more intensively than I do on the impact of the new learning on scientific education and discovery. Writing clearly and gracefully, Grant demonstrates that a real scientific revolution began three hundred years before the “Scientific Revolution” of the sixteenth century. Along the way, he has some fascinating things to say about the curriculum of medieval universities and life among the first generation of European scientists. A valuable and enjoyable read.    


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Essays on the Aristotelian Tradition

By Sir Anthony Kenny

Essays on the Aristotelian Tradition

Why this book?

Readers seriously interested in the continuing influence of Aristotle on Western and global thinking will find the short book of Sir Anthony Kenney’s essays both useful and enjoyable. The author, a well-known authority on the history of Western philosophy, Thomas Aquinas, and Ludwig Wittgenstein, writes with panache on a wide variety of topics relevant to Aristotelian thought and modern intellectual and social life.      


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