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


For the Bach Lover on your list

I wrote this book because I have always loved Bach’s
music and always wanted to know the man who made
it. But I was also drawn to investigate the opposition
of reason and faith. ~ James R. Gaines

“I have just finished a book that I am going to count among my favorites of all time. It is that good. You have GOT to read it.”  After Gene Veith’s emphatic review, I had to read James Gaines’ Evening in the Palace of Reason.  It is the best non-fiction book I’ve read in 2010.

Evening in the Palace follows two trends: first to tether an entire book around a single piece of art, as in Chevalier’s Girl with a Pearl Earring or Vreeland’s Luncheon of the Boating Party; the second to interweave two biographies, á la Plutarch’s Lives or Julie and Julia.  Gaines writes an overview of the lives of Johann Sebastian Bach and Frederick the Great but focuses on a confrontation between the two men and the music that resulted from it.

What Gaines does exceedingly well is to illustrate the difference in Medieval / Reformation assumptions and those of the Enlightenment. 

[A]mong the Enlightenment’s least explicit legacies to us is a common understanding that there is a gulf, a space that defines a substantial difference, between spiritual and secular life. For Bach there was no such place, no realm of neutrality or middle ground that was not a commitment to one side or the other in the great battle between God and Satan.

What most divided him [Bach] from them [the next generation] was their motive for making music at all, of whatever sort.  The new “enlightened” composer wrote for one reason and one only: to please the audience.

[Carol sets up her soapbox and mounts it. The shrill voice emerges.]


There is one and only one way to read this book: that is while listening to  The Art of Fugue Musical Offering (or here or here) while you read. When Gaines brilliantly exposits the complexity of this particular fugue, you must have the notes in your head. Listen while you commute, listen while you cook, listen while you clean. 

I highly recommend this book.  I highly recommend Bach.  Even if you have no musical background, no previous exposure to his music, Bach’s music will seep into your soul and water the parched places. If you love someone who already loves Bach, get him or her the book and the CD.   

We can talk about his brilliantly melodic part writing,
the richness of his counterpoint, the way
his music follows text the way roses follow a trellis,
in perfect fidelity and submission but at
not the slightest sacrifice of beauty.
Finally, though, one comes up against the fact that
the greatest of great music is in its ability
to express the unutterable.

Into Great Silence

How patient are you?  When you go to an art museum do you like to stand and absorb the painting, or catch a quick glance and move on?  How you answer that question will likely determine your response to this film.

I’ll admit it took me four attempts before I watched the almost three hours (2:41) of film.  I finally realized I had to be patient and pay attention. I couldn’t iron and watch, or balance my checkbook and watch, or make cookies and watch. I needed to quiet myself. I had to be still. Once I was properly oriented, I loved this movie.

The Grande Chartreuse monastery in the French Alps is considered among the most ascetic of monasteries.  The monks take a vow of silence (with times to talk allowed at limited times and places).  They live a life of solitude among brothers.  Whether or not you believe this is the best way to worship God, there is much to be gained from joining them for the duration of this film.

The documentary has no voice overs, no background music, no artificial lighting.  The cinematography is exquisite in its simplicity and minimalism.  Sunlight on wood, praying in the dark morning, preparing food, repairing a shoe — all display profound beauty.  The extra-long takes allow time to focus. 

Or, the extra-long takes might put you to sleep.  My son’s only comment as he walked by was “Gripping.” 

But as the film ended, my prominent thought was “Be still and know that I am God.”  I was challenged at how little silence I allow in my life.  Media have brought noises to every corner of our daily living.  I enjoy listening to music, sermons, audio books, my family’s conversation.  But I need more time to listen to the quiet.  An occasional season of silence.

If I was teaching the Middle Ages, this movie would be required watching.  As it is, I would really like to see it again with my husband next to me.  I think we will have to wait to snuggle up on a Sunday evening in January…

The Shield Ring

The Shield Ring is a story of the Vikings and the Normans in the Lake District of England in the eleventh century.  The reader is rooting for the Vikings (for a change!) who keep a secret stronghold from whence they repel the Norman northern onslaught.   Sutcliff weaves the elements–a boy with a harp, an orphan Saxon girl, a sword called the Fire-drake, the Road to Nowhere, intrigue and espionage–into a vivid and vibrant story.

Sutcliff is the master of historical fiction.  Her prose lifts you from your modern surroundings like a hot air balloon. You land in a place and time and culture that is very Other but also faintly familiar.  Sutcliff does not explain every cultural reference; she lets the reader to work it out.  However, when I read Sutcliff, it is always her prose which delights me: her bright shining, shimmering prose.    

There has been a revival of interest in G. A. Henty’s books; I have a bookcase full, myself.  But if I had a choice between a Henty and a Sutcliff, I would take Sutcliff every time. 

It was a curlew that they were watching now, a curlew at his mating flight, weaving, it seemed to Frytha, a kind of garland of flight round the place where his chosen mate must be, among the heather.  He skimmed low over the ground, then suddenly swerved upward, up and up, hung a moment poised on quivering wings, and then came planing down, his wings arched back to show the white beneath, skimmed low again, and again leapt skyward.  And all the while he was calling, calling; a lovely spiral of sound bubbling and rippling with delight.  But his whole dance, undulating, floating, swerving, with always that flash of underwing silver on the downward swoop, was a dance of sheer delight.  p.16

Another Sutcliff review here.

Finished Kristin Lavransdatter

Previous posts on Kristin here and here.

I just finished the last page of the last book in the Kristin Lavransdatter trilogy.

I read the first book in one day, the second over a few weeks and then bogged down in the third.  I think the third book was difficult because Kristin was reaping the results of decisions made in her youth.  The hot/cold relationship with her husband went mostly cold/cold.  Kristin watches as her boys follow in the sins of their father or their mother. She sees herself in her sons and begins to understand what it is her own parents went through.

It didn’t exactly make for jolly fireside reading. However, the insights I knew would be there compelled me to pick it up and finish.  Revived, I marveled again at the powerful prose which  distilled everyday emotions into their essence.

In her father’s soul there had dwelt somewhat else besides that deep, sweet tenderness.  She had learned, with the years, to understand it — her father’s wondrous gentleness came not therefrom that the saw not clear enough the faults and the vileness of mankind, but that he was ever searching his own heart before his God and bruising it with the repentance for his own sins. p.224

I find myself wanting to loan my copies out to this friend and that; and yet, simultaneously, wanting to hold on to the books so these sentences are at my beck and call.

I think of my friend Btolly who loves her cow when I read this:

She went to the byre herself to help in the milking.  It was ever pleasant to her, this hour when she sat in the dark close in to the swelling cow-flank, and felt the milk’s sweet breath in her nostrils. p.20

…and my friend Tanabu Girl, who learned Latin with me from Magister Dilectus and now teaches it:

And the year Björgulf and Nikulaus were at Tautra cloister with Sira Eiliv, they had sucked–so said the priest– at the breasts of Lady Knowledge with fiery zeal.  The teacher there was an aged monk, who, busy as a bee, had gathered learning his whole life long from all the books he could come by, Latin or Norse.  Sira Eiliv was himself a lover so wisdom, but, in the years at Husaby, he had had little chance to follow this bent towards book-lore.  For him the fellowship with Lector Aslak was like sæter-pasture to starved cattle.  And the two young boys, who, among the monks, clung to their home-priest, followed, open-mouthed, the two men’s learned talk.  And brother Aslak and Sira Eiliv found delight in feeding the two young minds with the most delicious honey from the cloister’s bookshelves, whereto brother Aslak himself had added many copies and excerpts from the choicest books.  Soon the boys became so skilled that the monk had rarely need to speak to them in the Norse tongue, and, when their parents came to fetch them, they both could answer the priest in Latin, glibly and without many slips. p.138

Oh, if you have a thoughtful reader on your list, especially–but not necessarily–a young woman, these books would be a wonderful gift.

I gave the new translation  to my sister Dorothy for her birthday.  I’m eager to talk with her about it.  I am ready to read the trilogy again in that translation in 2008.

Kristin Lavransdatter.

In the top three of the best books I’ve ever read.

Medieval Movie Roundup

Back in March, I wrote about a list of films with a medieval context.  Here are reviews of the ones we watched, our favorites listed first.

A Knights Tale

This was the last one we watched and, hands down, the favorite of the males of the house.  It corresponded with our reading of the Canterbury Tales.  It is goofy, predictable, and anachronistic (the opening scene has medieval crowds doing the pound-pound-clap to Queen’s We Will Rock Them).  But it was fun and funny.  Chaucer is a clever character we meet walking down a path buck naked (from the back) because he has gambled his clothes away.  Brief nakedness and all, it was one of only two movies which did not require fast forwarding through scenes.  Guys and gals will enjoy this. ☺☺☺☺☻


(pronounced ron or rahn)  This is King Lear in a Japanese context.  It is a big movie, epic, and captivating.  If you have read King Lear you must watch this.  If you haven’t read King Lear, you’d learn the story in a beautiful setting.  Like most of the movies on this list, the pace is slow.  There were some incredible horses galloping down the mountain sequences that almost match the scope of LOTR.  We FF through one scene. I recommend this for drama, cinematography, acting, and exposure to medieval Japanese culture. ☺☺☺☺☻

The Name of the Rose

Sean Connery, a period piece, a mystery…this was a stark, beautiful movie.  I had read Umberto Eco’s book a few summers back so I knew what to expect.  It may be harder to comprehend without that background.  I was very grateful for the tip to FF through a kitchen scene.  My trigger finger was ready.  It appeared without much warning.  Besides that, some viewers might not want to see dead bodies in vats of liquid or at the bottom of a cliff.  There are several dead bodies in this mystery.  ☺☺☺☻☻

The Seventh Seal

The cinematography in Ingmar bergman’s 1957 film reminded me of an Ansel Adams photograph.  Not just because they are both black and white: the play of light and shadow, the focus of the camera let you know a master was behind the lens.  You must be a patient viewer to get through this snail pace, contemplative film.  A bogus miracle worker has some funny lines, i.e.  “Whichever way we turn, our backside’s behind us.”  In one sense I was glad to have watched this just because it is a classic.  ☺☺☺☻☻

Black Robe

This movie combined highly excellent and ghastly elements together.  I could not recommend it.  The cinematography and music are glorious.  Sweeping vistas and  long distance river shots with full orchestra scores provided moments of sublime pleasure.  But it was not worth all the other stuff you had to wade through. Every time the camera was inside a tepee was reason to FF.  And the message of the movie bothered me.  The missionary was a bungling, ignorant fool.  The mission was a failure.  The final scene of death and misery seemed to underline a hopeless, nihilistic scorn.  ☺☻☻☻☻

Kristin Lavransdatter – Mistress of Husaby

The second book of the Kristin Lavransdatter trilogy is really the anatomy of a marriage.  Sigrid Undset sculpts an realistic profile of a difficult marriage.  Kristin has to face the weaknesses of her husband; eventually, with the help of her father no less, she sees some of her faults.  Early on, she compares her daily life with that of her parents.  There is a contrast in the orderly manner in which her folks carried on their affairs and the reckless neglect that has been the M.O. of her husband’s estate.  Studying the three marriages in this book (Kristin’s, her parents’, and her sister’s) would be fodder for some great discussion.

Which makes me wonder: how much of an issue is housekeeping in a marriage?  Not just sweeping the floor and doing laundry, although it includes that; but, how do we reconcile different approaches, different mindsets to work and leisure? 

In the first section, The Fruit of Sin, Kristin struggles with the guilt of her sexual immorality and disloyalty to her parents.  She embarks on a solitary pilgrimage, walking twenty miles by herself to the Archbishop, who can give her absolution.   When she arrives at the cathedral she ponders the architecture.

Human beings had never compassed this work of their own strength – God’s spirit had worked in holy Öistein, and the builders of this house that came after him.  Thy Kingdom come, Thy will be done on earth as it is in heaven – now she understood the words.  A reflection of the glory of God’s kingdom witnessed in these stones that His will was all that was fair.  Kristin trembled.  Aye, well might God turn in wrath from all that was foul – from sin and shame and uncleanness. (snip) The singing cut into her like a too strong light. (snip) The undeserved mercy broke her heart asunder; she knelt, crushed with penitence, and the weeping welled up out of her soul as blood flows from a death-wound. (pp 100-101)

In a parallel scene her husband takes a risky, solitary trip on foot to Lavran’s estate and seeks to make peace as well as make amends with his father and mother-in-law.  We see in Erlend a man who can charm and persuade, a fearless warrior who leads men into battle, but a man who finally lacks self-control.  Undset does such a good job of showing strengths and weaknesses: in Erlend, in Kristin, and in their marriage.

“You must have known it yourself, Erlend – a thicket of briers and thorns and nettles had you sowed around you – how could you draw a young maid in to your side and she not be torn and wounded and bleeding –” (p.87)

The rest of this book is not driven by plot as much as character development.  Kristin and Erlend have seven sons.  As Kristin’s marriage struggles wax and wane, the love between her father and mother becomes deeper and more secure. 

…all other love is but as an image of heaven in the water-puddles of a muddy road. (p.139)

And she tried to shut out from her mind all care for things wherein she could take no hand.  She would only think of those matters in which she could do some good by her carefulness.  All the rest she must leave in God’s hand.  (p.167)

For in her soul sin still had its being, as the root-tissue of the weeds is inwoven in the soil.  It flowered and flamed and scented the air no longer, but ’twas still there in the soil, bleached, but strong and full of life. (p. 281)

I haven’t finished the trilogy yet and I’m ready to begin re-reading it.  I have read the older Charles Archer translation.  Next time I’ll read Tiina Nunnally’s 1997 translation.  There are other Sigrid Undset books on my list. Another new author to explore.  Sigh.  Life is good.

Cahill, Again

Thomas Cahill is on a mission.  In his series, The Hinges of History, he is telling the story of Western Civilization in the context of gift giving. 

But history is also the narratives of grace, the recountings of those
blessed and inexplicable moments when someone did something    
for someone else, saved a life, bestowed a gift, gave something     
beyond what was required by circumstance.                                   

After his books on the Irish, the Jews, Jesus of Nazareth, and the Greeks, Cahill turns to medieval history.  He focuses on the story and influence of a few people:  Hildegard of Bingen, Eleanor of Aquitaine, Francis of Assisi, Abelard and Héloïse, Thomas Aquinas, Chaucer, Giotto and Dante.  

Cahill’s Mysteries is very accessible, an easy to read book classified as pop history.  Without becoming too facile, he employs non-academic words, current idioms, and recent events in his writing: calling the Franciscans the first hippies, comparing earlier Islamic-Christian conflicts with the 9-11 attack by bin Laden and the war on Iraq. 

To name a child Astralabe [speaking Abelard and Héloïse’s love child]     
was to suggest that he was destined to be a very modern (and starry)       
trendsetter. It brings to mind the avant-garde rock musician Frank Zappa,
who named his daughter Moon Unit.

The book contains many rich, colorful illustrations and photographs, especially of the art he reviews.  His style of footnoting is my absolute favorite: on the same page on a side column in a slightly smaller font.

The biggest blunder of this book is its title.  There are no cults in the book and the mysteries invoked in the title are intended to denote a sacramental wonder.  The subtitle doesn’t work at all.  At the end of the book Cahill looks at the current state of the (Roman) Catholic church.  I sense that a love for the (his?) church is the motivation for pages of text on the current priestly pedophilia crisis.  He argues for optional celibacy (married clergy, I think) and popular election of clerical positions which are now appointed.

I don’t think Cahill has ever matched the quality of work he did in How the Irish Saved Civilization.  I am grateful to have read Mysteries for two particular reasons:  His resounding recommendation of Kristin Lavransdatter; and his last two chapters on Dante which have primed my pump for reading The Divine Comedy

But I am thankful that I didn’t buy this book.  One read through was enough.


Fishing, Octaves and Chesterton

An Afternoon Fishing, 1917
Nikolai Bogdanoff-Bjelski
Art Renewal Center

Ah, the joys of boyhood!  I had been thinking of donning a docent’s cap and explaining some stuff I’ve learned about late medieval art; but when I saw this print it shouted “Summer!” “June!” “Boys!” and medieval art faded away.

☼     ☼     ☼

Words are simply delicious.  Yesterday I was reviewing intervals with one of my piano students.  When we came to eighths I said, “You rarely hear the term eighths; normally we say octaves.”  She sucked in her breath, eyes as big as stop signs, and repeated, “Eighths – octaves!  Like octagon!  I. never. knew. that. before.”   Cha-ching!!

☼     ☼     ☼

More from Thomas Cahill, a hat tip to GK Chesterton: 

The introduction of Chesterton’s Ballad of the White Horse
will no doubt strike some readers as irrelevant, since it is
an early twentieth-century, not a medieval work;
and the incident Chesterton gives us–
Alfred’s vision of the Virgin–
has no historical basis.
But for me, as in my earlier recommendation
of Kristin Lavransdatter,
there is here a genuine evocation of the feeling and fabric
of the High Middle Ages that is worthy of our attention.

☼     ☼     ☼

Off to clean my house today.  Those gooky corners of my windows.  The dusty bookshelves.   The scuzzy underneaths.  Nothing says “I love you” louder to my husband than walking into a fresh, clean house; that is, walking into his own house and finding it fresh and clean. 

O Holy Spirit, descend plentifully into my heart.
Enlighten the dark corners of this neglected dwelling
and scatter there Thy cheerful beams.

~   Augustine