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!

::     ::     ::     ::     ::

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

The Boys in the Boat

1936-team-on-waterThe Boys in the Boat consumed me while I consumed it. I blew dry my thick mop on the low setting so I could read more of it each morning. For a two week stretch I managed to work the book into every casual conversation.

In short, the book is about rowing, about the University of Washington crew who took the gold at the 1936 OIympics. Daniel James Brown tells the story with skill, weaving the personal and team history of the crew, the craft of boat building, the Nazi propaganda guru, Leni Riefenstahl, together in so spell-binding a way that, even though you know the outcome of the final race, you have to turn the page to find out.

Certain elements of the story were bound to draw me in: Nazi Germany, a motherless child, boating, work ethic, craftsmanship, athleticism. But what captured me the most was the harmony, the heartfelt cooperation, required between the boys in the boat. If you don’t like some fellow in the boat, Joe, you have to learn to like him. The combination of humility and confidence, requisite to a good crew, fascinated me. My husband has built and rowed several duck hunting scull boats in his time. By default (and by interest—his nightly question is ‘what are you reading?’) Curt gets the first feedback from my reading. But there was no way I could simply tell him about the chapter on the art of boat building. I read it aloud and reveled in his comments and appreciation.

Reading in the age of YouTube means that the scenes recreated on page are available to watch on a screen. This short book trailer shows the stunning end of the Olympic finals. (I’m glad that I saw this after I read the book; knowing the back story helped me appreciate the significance that is hard to grasp in the few seconds of the footage.) What a thrill!

As I read I bumped into “old friends”: The Suzzallo Library, Grand Coulee Dam, Fritz Kreisler(how does a world-class violinist get into a book on crew?), Louis Zamperini of Unbroken fame, and Hugh Laurie. Yeah, that Hugh Laurie! If you loved Unbroken, odds are you will like The Boys in the Boat.

It’s called “swing.” It only happens when all eight oarsmen are rowing in such perfect unison that no single action by any one is out of synch with those of all the others. It’s not just that the oars enter and leave the water at precisely the same instant. Sixteen arms must begin to pull, sixteen knees must begin to fold and unfold, eight bodies must begin to slide forward and backward, eight backs must bend and straighten all at once. Each minute action—each subtle turning of wrists—must be mirrored exactly by each oarsmen, from one end of the boat to the other.  160

This and That

DSC_8975Perhaps if I can unravel some random thoughts, I might then clean my house.

End-of-life discussion: We recently had a conversation with a group of informed friends which has shoved its way into the front of my thoughts every day since. One book referenced was Jennifer Worth’s (of Call the Midwife fame) memoir In the Midst of Life. I want to blog about it once I’ve corralled my thoughts. Before that talk, my husband and I sat down to each fill out an Advance Directive, thinking we could accomplish this task in twenty minutes. Whoa!! We are different. Those ADs still sit on my desk….

Survivor: We’re having lunch with my mom’s brother, my one remaining uncle, next week. He is sensible to the position he holds, as repository of family lore, and is actively sending me photos and information. He exudes good cheer and laughter, turning a pun, teasing himself, loving life. When we talked on the phone this morning, he was preparing to plant potatoes.

Hunger Games:  Curt’s co-worker really wanted Curt to listen to HG so they could talk about them. In a throwback to the early days of marriage, we have cleaned up the kitchen (or not), turned the lights off, sat on a comfortable chair in our living room, and listened to a few chapters each night.

Later one night, we enumerated the allusions to the Roman Empire. Curt then said one word: Panem. But he thought he was saying: Pan Am.
I, thinking how fun it was to have pillow talk in Latin, replied et circenses.
Huh? a perplexed husband.
Bread and circuses, I expatiated.
You said “bread”, I said “and circuses.” You know! Rome! Entertain the masses.
Babe, I thought the city was Pan Pan American, or something.
And the laughter from that exchange was propelled me through the week.

Follow the threads and look what you find: I’m slogging through Stephen Ambrose’s Eisenhower Volume II: The President. Confused, I needed to differentiate the Dulles brothers: Foster Dulles—the DC airport is named after him—was Ike’s Secretary of State, and his brother, Allen Dulles, was head of the CIA. I’m forever curious about famous people’s children. Foster Dulles’ son, Avery Dulles, (1918-2008) was a Jesuit priest who has piqued my interest. His farewell “speech” (read by another because of his loss of speech) includes these words:

Suffering and diminishment are not the greatest of evils but are normal ingredients in life, especially in old age. They are to be expected as elements of a full human existence.

Well into my 90th year I have been able to work productively. As I become increasingly paralyzed and unable to speak, I can identify with the many paralytics and mute persons in the Gospels, grateful for the loving and skillful care I receive and for the hope of everlasting life in Christ. If the Lord now calls me to a period of weakness, I know well that his power can be made perfect in infirmity. “Blessed be the name of the Lord!”

E. Goudge’s Island Magic

0848813421When Hope at Worthwhile Books reviewed Elizabeth Goudge’s first novel, I wanted to read it.  The setting is St. Pierre, the capital of Guernsey, a channel island between England and France. Island Magic quenches two of my current fascinations: island culture and late 19th century rural life.

André and Rachell du Frocq are barely eeking out a living on a farm called Bon Repos (“Good Rest” or, as I like to translate it, “Sweet Tranquility”), a place that comes with a benediction written on stone outside the farmhouse:

Harbour and good rest to those who enter here,
courage to those who go forth.
Let those who go and those who stay forget not God.

The characters of André, Rachell, their five children, Grandpapa, and the stranger Ranulph— who is taken in after a shipwreck—, are vivid and unique; they linger in my thoughts days after I finished the book. Among the five siblings are a humanitarian, a poet, a failed academic, an adventurer, and a joyspring.

The story is sad and yet not without hope. The children have individual minor tragedies, they also have the confidence and security of being part of a bustling family. The tension resides between husband and wife as they begin to think about conceding failure at farming. The stranger’s assistance is helping the bottom line, but brings more marital conflict.

Typical of Goudge, there is a fairy element in the story. Themes of faith, bitterness, the value of beauty, hard work, service, gratitude, grief and sacrifice make the story shimmer. One point of the plot beggars belief. Of course I can’t identify it without giving away part of the story.

Rarely—and happily— I come across a sentence, with which I can fully relate, and about something I’ve never before seen in literature. Island Magic delivered! This is used to be me!!

How thankful she was for her one great gift—the gift of making her nose bleed at will.

Here is a great Christmas quote:

Christmas Day at Bon Repos was something terrific. The du Frocqs took the whole of December preparing for it and the whole of January recovering from it.

Goudge’s mother was a native of Guernsey; summer visits to the grandparents were part of Goudge’s childhood. Her final thoughts on island living in this book are a bit idealistic, but they reflect some of the necessities of interpersonal relationships in a closed society.

You can’t be an individualist on our Island. There’s so much magic packed into so small a space. With the sea flung round us and holding us so tightly we are all thrown into each other’s arms—souls and seasons and birds and flowers and running water. People understand unity who live on an island. And peace. Unity is such peace.



For All the Tea in China

How England Stole the World’s Favorite Drink and Changed History

Tea met all the definitions of intellectual property: it was a product of high commercial value, it was manufactured using a formula and process unique to China, which China protected fiercely; and it gave China a vast advantage over its competitors.

Robert Fortune was a plant hunter sent to China by the East India Company to steal tea plants. He shipped them to Great Britain’s greatest possession, India, where they would be grown, giving England its own source of a precious commodity, thus bringing the price of tea down and making it available to England’s citizens.

This is a fun book on many levels: 19th century, England, China, espionage, horticulture, tea and opium.

I listened to the audio book, read by the author. I found her voice a bit off-putting. I have found few audiobooks read by authors that I’m crazy about. My interest lagged at times. This is the kind of book which required close attention: unfamiliar place names and era, scientific, political and economic considerations of a complex subject. I listened to several discs more than once to keep up with the details.

Recommended for history buffs, tea enthusiasts, and science lovers.


I enjoy participating in Semicolon’s Saturday Review of Books.

I Know, Let’s Talk About Hormones


Ah, you know…hormones. At my age, I hear this all the time. I say it myself. It’s the reason we are hot, the reason we are cold, the reason we are wet, the reason we are dry, the reason we can’t sleep, the reason we can’t wake up.  Many women my age feel like a hostage to hormones.

If you need to take back your body, you will find much to consider in this book. Stanton addresses diet, exercise, stress, supplements, and, most importantly, bioidentical hormones. The book’s design and writing is about as exciting as a Wikipedia article. But the content is helpful.

Bioidentical? Huh? This neologism describes a “hormone [which] is exactly the same as a hormone made by our bodies.”  This is different from conventional hormone replacement therapy.

And we have just tripped off the path of traditional medicine onto the scenic bypass of alternative medicine. In other words, (lean close to me so I can whisper) the FDA hasn’t approved bioidentical hormones.

Yes, there is controversy. Google “bioidentical hormones” and you will dance your way into the debate.


May I tell you my story? Purely anecdotal evidence, but it’s my anecdote. 

I’m not a physician, but I’m a pretty good reader. When the hot/cold/wet/dry problems began—roughly seven years ago—, my most pressing problem was an utterly deflated outlook on life. I woke up, took a shower, and wanted nothing more than to go back to bed.  Stanton discusses this in a section delightfully titled NOT YOUR MOTHER’S MENOPAUSE. 

Initially, many women notice they have less energy or zest for life.
They don’t get as excited about things that should matter,
or just don’t have the energy to do things they used to enjoy.
One day follows another, but none of them brings much joy.
They might notice themselves getting irritable or exploding
for reasons that, in retrospect, seem ridiculous.


My respoonse to problems is to read. Shoot, my approach to life is to read. I looked through the lenses of both traditional and alternative medicine, searching for some sense. Across the spectrum, three words flashed: diet and exercise. No one argued with basic stuff like drinking more water and taking a walk. And I firmly believe that so many problems we blame hormones for can be corrected with real food and real movement.

I work for a compounding pharmacy; I am an accountant and cannot pronounce the drug names. But, we have a library of books and CDs (where I got Hormone Harmony) that we lend out to physicians and customers. I took John Lee’s What Your Doctor May Not Tell You About Menopause. When I read parts aloud to my husband, he dismissed it as rubbish. But one Sunday afternoon, we listened to Dr. Lee speak and his words filled us with hope.  “Let’s do this,” Curt said, although all the “doing” was mine. So I began using an over-the-counter bioidentical progesterone cream. 

Because of my symptoms, my doctor had urged surgery as a solution. Well. He hadn’t urged surgery, but I’ve been longing to pair up that delicious pair of words. The big H. Take it out and be done with it. It made sense to everyone but me. I acknowledge that I have issues: my mom died immediately after a minor gynecological surgery. I wasn’t hysterical, but I refused to consent to a hysterectomy, to use another phrase I’ve tasted these many years.

It wasn’t a shazam! solution, but I made progress with progesterone. I knew my OB/GYN would raise his eyebrows when I disclosed this bit of information. “I think you are wasting your money,” were his words. I decided to push back. “Are you telling me not to use bioidentical hormones? Because I want full cooperation between us; if you say to stop I will either stop or I’ll find a different doctor.”  I respected him and don’t believe in doing stuff—medically speaking—behind my physician’s back. He shrugged and relented.

After a few years, I did my own experiment. I stopped the progesterone. The hot/cold/wet/dry symptoms came right back. That convinced me, and I continue on, with over the counter progesterone (which doesn’t require an RX to buy). Ideally, one should take a $150 saliva test that tells exactly what your hormone levels are. A physician or nurse practitioner uses that data to prescribed an individually formulated compound prescription for you.

If you are curious, click on the link above and use the Look Inside! feature. If you type “frequently” in the search, you’ll be able to read a large part of the the FAQs.