As usual, this is not strictly a review of Norman F. Cantor’s The Last Knight, The Twilight of the Middle Ages and the Birth of the Modern Era (Free Press, New York, 2004).  It is simply a few of my thoughts and impressions evoked by reading this book.


It was a very good read because it presented insights into what made its primary subject, John of Gaunt, do the things he did. I was amazed at Cantor’s assertion that land-holding aristocrats, like Gaunt, were not unlike the super-rich of our own time in terms of income (equivalent to our modern billionaires) and in terms of not seeking fundamental change in society but working with the world as they find and experience it.


This means, in Cantor’s view, being able to enjoy a luxurious and almost absurdly lavish lifestyle while being served by a professional class that is not bad off, and by a large number of members of lower classes that is not at all well off but ever struggling. In Gaunt’s day peasants and their life-trials were not given any thought by persons at Gaunt's level.  At home he had his functionaries take care that his peasantry was able to work and produce income, but he had no care at all for peasantry elsewhere.


For one example, when on expedition in France to gain battlefield glory, the peasantry were raped and murdered in staggering numbers without a thought by the aristocrats who were allowing their soldiery such sport and plunder.  No wonder France was finally goaded into throwing off this English yoke, no wonder Joan of Arc finally embodied the exasperation of her class and was moved to perform her genuine miracles! (Click to go to my discussion(s) of Joan)


Wars are not conducted that way today, well, some are, but not those carried out by the modern industrialized nations engaging in mechanized and sanitized mass destruction types of wars.  In these types of wars the question of ‘collateral damage’ keeps coming up (especially during and since the Second World War).  Blindness to this damage to others, and focusing only on the damage to ones own,  smacks of the same type of disdain for human life as long as that life can be classed as ‘enemy’ and as long as the collosal-scale killing of modern war is in the furtherance of national and military objectives.  In other words it is nothing personal, and some nations engaged in wars now seem to be genuinely surprised that individuals in obliterated towns take the loss of their family members very personally.  Don't they realize that the 'good guys' won, or at least that their cause was just?  No.  They do not see themselves of their families as 'bad guys,' nor do they recognize the rightness of sacrificing them for some foreigner's concept of a 'just cause.'


Getting back to Cantor's tale: Gaunt’s forays into France were very expensive and accomplished nothing.  Gaunt’s forces were avoided by the French military, the French simply refused to come out and fight, so the English died of plague, ran out of money, destroyed the countryside's ability to support its inhabitants, abused and murdered the lower class inhabitants, and sniffed out aristocrats in hiding to kidnap and exchange for ransom.

Cantor mentions Joan of Arc once at the very beginning when he is painting the canvas into which he will next insert John of Gaunt. On page 3 he simply observes, after describing the opulent lifestyle of the central subject of the book:


Casting a dark shadow, however, was what we call the Hundred Years’ War. It really began in the 1350s and ‘60s. That period was followed by thirty years or so of long truces. The war flared up again the second and third decades of the fifteenth century, to be followed by the ignominious expulsion of the English monarchy’s forces from all but one port city in France. Joan of Arc is alleged to have played a significant role in that expulsion.

Cantor goes on to suggest that the two great motivators for this war were glory and greed. Nothing surprising there.

Cantor goes to great lengths to explain how 'courtly love' and its spread through the aristocracy's support of the missionaries of courtly love, the troubadours, led to an ‘effeminization’ of the aristocracy, meaning that men like John of Gaunt respected and loved women. He even married his mistress to legitimize her offspring. His mistress was the sister in law of Geoffrey Chaucer, a poet whom John supported with a pension and cushy government jobs to allow him to write.


John also endowed Geoffrey’s wife with a pension of her own, perhaps because of his love for her sister, or perhaps they too were an item? One never knows but Cantor, citing someone else’s speculation on this matter suggests it is not a situation that can be ruled out, and it certainly would explain why he saw fit to support her separately from supporting her husband. Geoffrey and Philippa were not getting along and not together much of the time.


John’s support of Geoffrey tapered off with time, Cantor suggests it was because John began to sense something subversive in the later Chaucerian writings. Those later writings began to focus on the experiences, sensibilities, and lives of more common people, classes of people that John had never bothered being worried about or wasting thought on. According to Cantor, Chaucer was a key to steering the society of that time into the Modern Era where societies do concern themselves with the lives of their lower classes.  Perhaps John saw this and sensed it might erode his world's structure, given the several peasants’ revolts experienced at about this time, and given how one of John’s estates was destroyed by rampaging peasants.


Although he did not take an active part in finding and punishing the rebels, which was done by the king's forces, this attack on his property and his being very aware of how he was a focal point of peasant hatred, still would not cause him to be very interested in the lives of commoners as human beings worthy of a second thought or worthy of a major poet’s attention.

Although Cantor suggests that being aware of ones’ poorer citizenry is a dividing theme between the Middle Ages and the Modern Era, he does point out that this does not really translate into substantive changes being made in societies, changes designed to improve the lot of the poorer classes. The modern attitude, just as in Medieval times, is that the poor will always be poor, a few may rise out of their poverty, typically through education or an  exceptional mind and personality, but they are the exception and not the rule.


In modern societies a safety net is all that is typically thought to be needed to keep the poor from slipping into inhumane conditions in terms of nutrition or health, and even that safety net is a continual target for cost cutting by the well off who are elected to public office.  Witness the decade that passed between raises in the minimum wage in the U.S., a small raise politically opposed by some of the wealthiest men in the country.


Capitalism needs and breeds socio-economic hierarchies. So do other schemes that have claimed to be egalitarian, but in fact just replaced one aristocratic elite with another, and, Cantor observes, then create oppressive police states to keep themselves in power.

Cantor, in going through some of this type of discussion at the end of the book, makes the point that even today there is change occurring in all societies. Societies cannot be kept from evolving. He also makes the point that even though there are great economic and social inequalities in modern industrialized societies, the fact that they are now all tending toward being or becoming relatively open, rather than highly controlled, will allow these societies to survive much longer.

Religion’s role during the time of John of Gaunt is well described by Cantor as being supportive of the feudal status quo. Those who own the land and rule do so because God arranged that it should be so. The Church was itself a large landowner living off serf labor, so how could it be otherwise? This all changed during the revolt against Rome by Henry VIII, but that was past John Gaunt’s time even though there were cracks in the Catholic monolithic hold on society even then (Wycliff and the Lollards were early Protestants in essence).

In Cantor’s last chapter he answers a question concerning how a grandson of John of Gaunt may have, using arguments of his time, answered the question that was beginning to bother some in the Church: is the slave trade out of harmony with Christian teachings or ideals? Henry the Navigator, grandson of John of Gaunt, went into slave trading in a big way as did other English (and Dutch and Portuguese and others’) aristocrats.

Cantor’s hypothetical answer, based on arguments of that time were disturbingly familiar to me from having lived in the South of the U.S. during the time of segregation. The answer was that it was OK with God, since Saint Paul was OK with slavery, and Jesus said nothing against it even though it was prevalent in his time and it was part of the Law of Moses that he sought to either add to or fulfill and for which he either feigned or had genuine respect.


Cantor did not explicitly throw in this Mosaic-law allowance of slavery.  But it is an important point that the law of Moses included provisions for the mistreatment of foreign slaves if needed to control them.  Cantor simply  emphasizes that as far as we know, Jesus never commented negatively on slavery, which was part of the Torah, the first 5 books of the Old Testament with which he was quite familiar.  Slavery was also an important aspect of Roman society, hence Saint Paul's admonishment for a believing slave to continue to serve his master and not seek freedom because of his new faith's making all men (and women) equals in Christ.

Then, in the words that may have been written by Henry the Navigator,  come the racist statements of that time about darkness indicating a less- pure humanity, and blackness being the mark of Cain, meaning they were inferior beings marked by God for rule and use by others, according to scripture itself. Finally the idea of miscenegation was apparently as reprehensible to the English then as it was in my youth in the South of the U.S. where many states had laws forbidding interracial marriage involving blacks. Preserving what remained of purity of blood, at that time and even into recent times, was a big deal.  I get really irritated by these reference to 'blood' as if a person's character is somehow related to the 'purity' of their lines of descent from some great ancestor, be it a royal or a divine ancestor. As a peasant, I have to object to this having any meaning at all.

Even religious speech in the late nineteenth century and even the twentieth, outside the Southern U.S., by religious people aghast at slavery, sometimes made much of this mark-of-Cain business, and many described marriages between blacks and whites as being seriously offensive to God. The roots for all this nonsense go back into the Middle Ages it seems, and from there can be traced back all the way to the tribal notions of the ancient Israelites which were no different from the tribal notions of their neighbors or anyone else in that world.


Almost all hunting-gathering and tribal societies we know of raided their neighbors and were raided by their neighbors for slaves, for sacrifice victims, or for augmenting the gene pool. The Law of Moses explicitly allowed making a captured woman slave a wife and prescribed a humiliation-and-control ritual to make her compliant over a month’s time. I suppose when it came to a black slave owner reading scripture for guidance, there was some worry that this provision might be seen to be potentially applicable, so the mark-of-Cain idea was brought in to show there were scripturally based exceptions to even this scriptural allowance. I discuss this scriptural allowance of cruelty and the allowance of stripping a captured woman of her identity to make her a 'wife' while in slavery critically, to say the least, on this web site (click here to go there).


Is it any wonder that there are those among us who still give thanks for the radical idea, brought over from England somewhat after John of Gaunt’s time, as Cantor mentions, that church and state should be, and should steadfastly remain, firmly separated?  I know there are religious persons who feel this hard line of separation is all a very big mistake.  They talk of the U.S. as being a 'Christian' nation.  There is also a lot of talk of making one language the U.S. official language and punishing those who do not learn English by not giving them access to services.  Not learning English is very limiting if one resides in the U.S.  But what I see is not people having the welfare of the immigrants in mind, instead I see people having various shades and hues of the same ideas that motivate the ethnic-cleansers of our time.  These separationist ideas are innocuously framed for now, but they scare me.  What they appear to say, to me is: "you are welcome here as long as you try very hard to become like us and don't make us notice you as being different because that threatens us if there are many of you."


One of the things in Cantor's book that gave me pause was that starting with Henry the Navigator, John of Gaunt's grandson, the idea was born that white people were destined by God to rule all other races.  I see that idea still alive and well today and reflected in the 'Christian nation' and 'English only' rhetoric in the U.S.  It is also, of course, reflected in the conduct of several recent wars.  It is also reflected in the fears of those who see U.S. society changing in real time all around them, with Hispanics and Blacks and Asians becoming more numerous on the American scene daily.  It is also an attitude alive and well in Europe, of course, and I love the mixing up of nationalities that is happening up under the European Union concept although I know some who fear these changes and lament the inevitable loss of national identity.  Some European nations were rather homogeneous societies, not unlike very large tribes.  Those in these societies who fear or lament change haven't yet grasped that diversity in society is good, both religiously and culturally, it gives us more to love than carbon-copies of ourselves.  It enriches our life experiences to come to know people from other backgrounds than the one we were born into.


Finally, it is my opinion that the world of Caucasian dominance some of us were born into was never engineered by God to begin with, nor is it sustainable by human effort except at an extremely great cost.  Embracing the changes is the right thing to do.  Love ought to be extended to all, not fear and the violence it spawns.  Rumi, the Islamic ecstatic poet of the twelfth century, who loved his Christian wife, said it correctly: one's inner relationship with God is far more important than being a 'good' member of some religious group (click on the poem to go to the page it was taken from on this site):


OK, just for fun, on the same page I quote a similar idea from the Spanish Sufi sage Ibn 'Arabi (click on the poem to go to the page with lots of sayings from these exceptional human beings):

I am sure that a hundred-thousand years from now, if there are still humans around, none of the current races, ethnicities or religions will matter, perhaps they will be studied as academic curiosities, but even that is not for sure.  Will there still be diversity?  I hope so.

Go Back to Book Reviews Page

Go to Thoughts Page

Go to ThoughtsandPlaces.Org Home Page