Revisiting Medieval Civilization

I read and loved this book about 15 years ago. In a rare act of courage and rationality, I decided to sell it, a proclamation of shelf reclamation. Because, you know, when would I actually read these 624 pages again? Just opening the book and noting my penciled responses ushered in delight and rediscovery, then gnawing regret. I knew I had to pull some long nights and re-read it one last time. And get as much in my commonplace book before the deadline to mail it.

Rereading Civilization brought back all the best parts of home schooling and banished from memory the days of despair, inadequacy, frustration, exhaustion. What I loved was learning history, reading literature, connecting dots — the enlivening of a formerly dead subject.


Cantor, a Jewish historian from Winnipeg (Winnipeg is a delectable collection of syllables you have to repeat aloud ten times), is a winsome writer. The Civilization of the Middle Ages has been a bestseller for decades because his writing is both interesting and accessible.

I got a sense of the wide sweep of history, but reveled in descriptions like this:

Despite his scholarly achievements, Augustine was no armchair theologian. As a priest and as bishop of Hippo (a fairly poor, undistinguished, and remote town in North Africa), he was deeply involved in the lives and the problems of his flock. What Augustine said about people and God came not only from his multicultural background but from his profound commitment to the needs and troubles of people. This is a rare combination at any time, particularly within the church, whose scholars have usually been cloistered from the life of the community.

One other quote, fodder for thought:

One can posit this rule: The more important your family as the shaper of your life, the more medieval the nature of a society.

There is a bonus in the back. Ten movies that portray the Middle Ages. And *you* can access this list, including his commentary, free! Here’s how: click on the link above, which will take you to Amazon. Click on “Look Inside!” In the box under “Search Inside This Book” type in *film* (don’t type the asterisks). Click on page 567. Or you could check out my previous blog post on Medieval Movies.

Ironically, writing this review made me want more Cantor. I just ordered In the Wake of the Plague: The Black Death and the World It Made and I’ve added Inventing Norman Cantor: Confessions of a Medievalist to my wish list!

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The book is chock full of fun facts. Here are some that made it into my journal.

10th century technological advances:
the horse collar,
the stirrup,
water mills,
saw mills
and lateen sails.

The average 11th century knight was 5’3″.

Vassal comes from the Celtic word for ‘boy’.

Three power blocks:

Both Constantine and Justinian I came from Balkan peasant stock.

The year 400 – at least 80% of the population
never moved more than ten miles from where they were born.
Year 1050 — 80% didn’t move more than
twenty miles from their birthplace.

Photo credit: Wikimedia Commons


7 thoughts on “Revisiting Medieval Civilization

  1. Another gem and ideas for book fodder…LOVED “a proclamation of shelf reclamation”. This was so good I read it outloud to Rahn! Thank you. I need to resurrect my Commonplace book.

  2. Someone out there in the world will be receiving a book that belonged to you, with penciled responses included?! What! I wanna be that person. XoxoxoX

    • So I’ve read this blog to Rahn. He had strong thoughts!!! “I was inspired by everything except her foolish and irrational act of selling that book. I will pay double the price for the book and her notes. I am glad her acts of ‘courage and ratrionality’ are rare. Because they are in my opinion foolish and irrational. What other books is she willing to sell that has her notes in them? Why not build another shelf?” There you have it–a passionate speech from an otherwise calm & sage man.:-)

  3. I’m simply amazed that you spent several days rereading 600 pages! I just couldn’t do that! I love your fun facts! That made me think of something I learned when teaching the Middle Ages about travel: To travel a particular distance, one could cover it in one day by ship, ten days by horse, or twenty-four days by foot. I’ve always like those random bits of info!

  4. I’ve see the first three movies in that list and they’re so good that I’m eager to see the rest now. Half my book wishlist has come from you — are going to be my movie ideas person, too?

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