Saturday, July 05, 2014

Book Review (#61 of 2014) Civilization of the Middle Ages by Norman Cantor

The Civilization of the Middle Ages: A Completely Revised and Expanded Edition of Medieval History
I learned too much to write about in detail from this sweeping book of Western European history from the Roman Empire to the Renaissance. It's a 5-star book. It begins with a brief look at the development of the Roman Empire, and how Romans adopted previous Mediterranean ideas. Cantor repeatedly returns to Greek and Roman works on philosophy and political science and their importance in the development of Western European institutions, both from the beginning and later when they were "rediscovered" and translated into Latin during the Rennaisance and had to be reconciled with theology by people like Thomas Aquinas. Platonism vs. Stoicism vs. Aristotelianism. Platonism was hugely important in the development of Western thought.

Cantor also briefly examines the development of Judaism to understand roots of Christianity.
Judaism differed from Platonism in that Judaism made no differentiation between body and spirit. (This has important implications for Christians who embrace covenant theology.)

The book often reads a lot like the History of the Christian Church Podcast on iTunes. You can't understand the development of Western civilization and government without understanding the development of the Church. Cantor includes brief summaries of the early theological schisms and the development of the Pope as the leading political force in the declining Roman Empire. Christians today may not appreciate the importance of people like Boniface, who evangelized the Germans and established important monastaries, and Patrick who evangelized the Celts. Monastaries in early medieval times preserved Greek and Latin literature, and contributed economically to their societies. (For more on this I recommend Rodney Stark's Victory of Reason). However, in later medieval ages (and today?) monks forsook labor and commerce, as well as literature and study. Once secular universities were developed, monasteries no longer provided any role as far as the preservation and development of knowledge. Eventually, universities formed outside of the traditional monastic system of education. Monastaries no longer served the purpose of education and preserving culture, so there was a shift into becoming orders of soldiers fighting the Crusades on behalf of the Church-- the Knights Templar, the Hospitaliers, etc.

Of course, there is the recurring topic of the importance of Augustine in medieval thought. Cantor seems to understand many of the philosophical and some of the theological debates rather well. As some commenters point out, he errs in some details but the breadth of topics covered is such that it can be forgiven.

Cantor purports that the Byzantine Empire gave civilization "nothing" outside of some architecture. However, he lauds Justinian's efforts and legal code; perhaps he is referring to Byzantium before and after Justinian.

From the book, I learned about the history (what little is known of it) of the Goths. Ostrogoths had no codified legal system, pantheistic superstition determined guilty and innocent. I also learned about the Carolingian dynasty and its importance in the development of later France.

I found the reform movements within the Catholic church interesting, particularly Pope Gregory XII's reforms. Highly critical of kings and lords, he pushed for one of the first social justice movements and centralized power with the papacy while also undermining it. But what was being handed down by the Popes had to be understood within the Italian context-- which was one of weak kings and very little respect for them. Therefore the comments would not be received well by clergy and laity in Germany and England with strong kings (Henry, William the Conquerer, etc.). William the Conquerer's reforms and contribution are also covered along with the English vestiture and the ramifications of the Norman conquest .

The Crusades might have been successful at defending Jerusalem as a Latin state had it garnered the full resources and attention of European monarchs, but it did not.Cantor makes the Crusades seem more as a minor sideshow than any major world-changing event.

Throughout the 1100s there was no uniform or formal legal system, every region had a mixture of feudal tradition mixed with Roman law and other forms. As trade and cooperation developed, and currency, greater formality in the legal codes had to be developed. When the Justinian Code was "rediscovered," it grew great interest and helped the development of western European judicial code.

One interesting point that I was unaware of is interesting is the development of thought after works of Plato and Aristotle were "rediscovered" and translated into Latin, which didn't occur widely until the 11th century. The Church then had to (re-)address Aristotelian philosophy as Muslims and Jews had already been doing for centuries. Cantor explores the development of philosophy in Europe and its contribution to religious thought, including the Cult of Mary that sprung up in the 11th century and maintains a strong hold on areas of Europe today. 

This allows Cantor to pivot into Jewish life in the Middle Ages, including their role as lenders. Cantor examines Jewish religious though at this time, including Maimonedes' scholarship.

One weakness of the book is the lack of insight into the daily life of a peasant in the Middle Ages. Their home, work, agriculture, tools/technology, and culture. It is a broader view particularly looking at what we know from written records of the educated class and macro-view historical development. Venice is about as far east as the detailed part of the history gets, no attention is paid to Central and Eastern Europe. Cantor also does not give much information about what exactly various clergy critical of the Vatican and advocating for reforms were exactly preaching, such that they were able to gain large groups of followers. Likewise for some of the heresies that were deemed dangerous enough to be rooted out violently. That would have been helpful to understand. Cantor does outline the doctrinal disputes of the Cathar heresies and the persecution contributed to some fervor of the Inquisition.

Interestingly, pre-reformation church leaders like St. Francis pushed for a Gospel that could be related to the masses rather than the Latin-educated literate or clergy. The "bourgeois" classes wanted a religion that was practical to their everyday life and rather inspiring rather than purely liturgical. Hence the writings and teachings on Jesus transformed into much of the form that we might see today-- one of a more loving and interpersonal self-sacrificing savior than just an icon on the wall that might be revered and doctrine recited about.

Cantor pays much attention to the importance and controversial nature of Aquinas' contributions.

Eventually, the book covers the divergence in the governance and ideas in the various West European countries and societies, and it becomes a little more difficult to follow. The advancement of various political reforms in their national contexts is highlighted; the importance of the Magna Carta really comes into view when you look at the great sweep of history leading up to it. Cantor closes with a look at "Renaissance culture."

Oddly, he closes the book with a list of modern films that he thinks covers the spirit of the Middle Ages well. It is ironic because a few of them are not set in Europe. I've seen Alexander Nevsky, which is on his list, but that movie is very Russian and Russia gets no mention in the book.

I give this book 5 stars and recommend it. Worth your time and attention. I recommend reading Justinian's Flea and The Victory of Reason as supplements.

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