Civilization of the Middle Ages

Civilization of the Middle Ages

by Norman F. Cantor
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Civilization of the Middle Ages by Norman F. Cantor

Now revised and expanded, this edition of the splendidly detailed and lively history of the Middle Ages contains more than 30 percent new material.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780060925536
Publisher: HarperCollins Publishers
Publication date: 06/03/1994
Series: Harper Perennial
Edition description: Reprint
Pages: 624
Sales rank: 496,438
Product dimensions: 7.82(w) x 5.28(h) x 1.45(d)

About the Author

Norman F. Cantor was Emeritus Professor of History, Sociology, and Comparative Literature at New York University. His many books include In the Wake of the Plague, Inventing the Middle Ages, and The Civilization of the Middle Ages, the most widely read narrative of the Middle Ages in the English language. He died in 2004.

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Chapter One

The Heritage of the Ancient World

I. Politics and Society

Medieval history is generally regarded as extending from about A.D. 300 to 1500. European medieval civilization was not produced by any one event or series of events, but by the absorption by western Europe of certain ways of life, ideas, and religious attitudes that had prevailed for many centuries in the Mediterranean world. These ideas and values were pulled northward into western Europe-into northern France, southern England, northern Italy, and the Rhine valley-and in the process, certain aspects of Mediterranean culture were adapted and changed. (It is perhaps even more significant that many aspects were not changed.) Before the Middle Ages, then, there was a Mediterranean culture and society that was adopted and absorbed. An understanding of that civilization is essential to an understanding of the medieval world.

The culture that was eventually absorbed by medieval western Europe made its first appearance in the Mesopotamian Tigris-Euphrates valley late in the fourth millennium B.C. and perhaps a little later in the Egyptian Nile valley. That is the point where civilization began, if we define civilization primarily as structured society, organized government, and specialized economy over a large area. Men were no longer all herdsmen or all hunters; they became kings, priests, soldiers, farmers, or craftsmen.

The earliest civilized communities of the ancient Near East were dominated by a small, self-sustaining aristocracy as early as 3000 B.C. The nobility, or elite, of these Egyptian and Mesopotamian societies controlled nearlyall the economic resources of these societies. One of the noble families became the ruling dynasty. From the same families and from the ranks of the bureaucrats who served the monarchy were drawn the priests who controlled the temples. Thus the ideology of the ruling religious group sanctioned the prevailing government and social structure.

In these early societies there were, in essence, only two social groups, or "classes" (to use a term that has been central to historical thought since the nineteenth century). One class was the elite: the aristocratic group that controlled both rural and urban wealth and dominated the religious institutions, the government, and the bureaucracy. The other class was a mass peasantry, who may or may not have been slaves, but in any case were bound to till the soil in the interests of the ruling elite. We have no reliable statistical information about these early societies--indeed, it is difficult to give social statistics for any period before the late Middle Ages--but a safe estimate would be that the elite comprised 5 percent of the total population. The vast majority of the population, somewhere around 80 percent, belonged to the peasantry.

In the cities of the ancient Near East, particularly in Mesopotamia, where there were few large urban centers like Babylon and Ur, an urban working class of artisans comprised perhaps 10 or 15 percent of the population of the whole state. Even in these ancient societies there was a merchant class, maybe 2 percent of the total population, whose function was to engage in international commerce and to serve as adjuncts or assistants to the aristocracy. The merchants played an important role in the economy, but they had scarcely any more political or social power than did the peasants.

It is said in the Hebrew Bible that the Hebrews were slaves unto Pharaoh in Egypt. The point here is that almost everybody was a slave (legally or empirically) unto Pharaoh and unto a small elite. It could be said, indeed, that these were one-class societies; only the aristocracy had any real consciousness of its identity, its rights, or its destiny. The aristocrats held a monopoly of power, learning, and culture, and they alone had a sense of their special and privileged place in the world.

In the long run, the existence of this intensely elitist society in the ancient Near East was of enormous importance to the history of western civilization. At late as 1700, the prevailing European social system was still one in which vast power, the greater part of landed wealth, and the prime control of political life belonged to the hereditary landed aristocracy. In the social history of premodern western civilization--whether the modern era is designated as beginning in 1500 or in the eighteenth century--a series of aristocracies perpetuated the control over the resources of society held by the ancient Near Eastern elite. It is a history in which successive challenges were made on moral and ideological grounds to the aristocratic control of society and its resources. Obviously, there is a substantial pattern of change and development in premodern social history, and these changes are highly significant and deserve close examination. Nevertheless, the factor of continuity--of the perpetuation down to the modern industrial world of a one-class social structure, or, in another phrasing, of the domination of a landed aristocracy--is one of the fundamental facts and continuing conditions of the history of western civilization.

It is natural to wonder how the Near Eastern aristocracy came to gain its dominant position, but it is not a question to which any certain answer can be given. Literacy did not begin in Mesopotamia and Egypt until the late fourth millennium B.C., and in the first written records the aristocracy had already emerged and the forms of government and social control had already been established. Historians speculate that these societies assumed their fundamental structure during the so-called prehistoric (i.e., preliterate) period--that is, somewhere around the middle of the fourth millennium B.C. However, we can only guess from archaeological evidence at the process by which the aristocracy came to dominate society, and although the evidence is substantial and has been carefully examined by scholars, it provides only an approximation of the truth at best. Archaeologists work with material objects, and the process of prehistorical social change has therefore been established according to the materialistic bias. They are bound to attribute social changes to alterations in the means of production because their evidence only discloses such alterations. Artifacts alone, without written records, cannot reveal great changes in human values or ideological upheavals that may have determined social change. Some historians have postulated a great intellectual revolution, some tremendous shift in human consciousness, behind the emergence of the first ancient civilizations, but in the absence of written records, this explanation can be no more than a happy guess. Civilization of the Middle Ages. Copyright © by Norman F. Cantor. Reprinted by permission of HarperCollins Publishers, Inc. All rights reserved. Available now wherever books are sold.

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Civilization of the Middle Ages: A Completely Revised & Expanded Edition of Medieval History 3.7 out of 5 based on 0 ratings. 6 reviews.
Gregor1066 More than 1 year ago
Ties together all the information I have learned from the other books on the Middle Ages I have read. Reading the critiques of the book, particularly regarding religion, I can only wonder if I am reading the same book. The Middle Ages was a time that Western Civilization was nothing but the Church and it was the Church that held it together. This book filled in many gaps for me regarding the dealings between the Royal Class and the Pope as well as the politics behind the "partnerships" described. Cantor not only ties the various areas of the emerging Europe together and how they interacted between each other, but also how the Church helped in the formation of powerful rulers as well as undermined others. Overall, I enjoyed the book and as I previously stated, it really helped tie previous readings together while reinforcing the power of the early church and its influence on Western Civilization. Would recommend buying it for ones history library.
book-lover-in-MO More than 1 year ago
This is a comprehensive reading of a very busy time period. It is in sequential form as much as possible and very easy to read. I have my dictionary close-by as the word choices are not in my everyday vocabulary, but nevertheless, it is an easy read. Mr. Cantor does an excellent job of tying together how different regions of Europe were separate but slowly becoming interconnected as time goes by. I have learned more from this book than any other I have read on this subject.
Guest More than 1 year ago
Being a graduate student in medieval and early modern European history, I have found Dr. Cantor's text to be an excellent resource for the study of the Middle Ages. While some of his theories(particularly his arrogant, classicist, and historically incorrect theory as to the conversion of Ireland) are worth criticism, on the whole his book of inestimable worth and is of great assistance to scholars, students, and the masses alike.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Guest More than 1 year ago
Readers who have a copy of Professor Cantor's 'Medieval History' are better served by it than this supposed revision and update. One comes away from this book with the impression that, stored on computer, its predecessor was simply pulled apart at places so that new and, alas, half-digested materials could be dropped in. The lack of rewriting, and proof-reading, shows. Boethius, for example, is introduced twice; Mohammed's knowledge of Judaism and Christianity is evaluated twice; and Cantor's two evaluations of the character of 12th-century convents (the word 'nunnery' is long out-of-date) are directly contradictory. One also has the impression that preparation of the new materials was farmed out to graduate students in medieval history who, straying into the fields of ancient history and New Testament studies, found themselves hopelessly out of their depth. The theory of Paul's invention of Christianity, for example, with an apocalyptic Jewish preacher named Jesus as its figurehead has long been abandoned, as has his authorship of the Pastorals. In a similar vein is the apparent urge to identify the western or Latin church as the 'Catholic' church centuries before there was any such thing, viz., in contrast to those churches which eventually came to identify themselves as 'Protestant.' The ucritical presentation of Ambrose of Milan as late antiquity's premiere bad boy is also, one would like to think, hardly representative of Professor Cantor's usually shrewd eye. Finally, there is the equally uncritical embrace of two theses of current historiography, viz., that the only motive for all actions is the pursuit of power and that women have, in all times and all places studied by western history, been victims. I had really expected more insight into the value of recent work, critical evaluation of it, and integration of both into a book of this sort from a teacher of Cantor's standing.
Guest More than 1 year ago
This is a useful book if you wish to learn about midieval times but it is not the best Norman F. Cantor book that I have read.