Turning Points in Medieval History

TurningPointsTurning Points in Medieval History
Professor Dorsey Armstrong, Ph.D.
The Great Courses
Audio download $34.95 when on sale
If the course is not on sale, check back – the sale price will come around again

This course is different from most produced by the Great Courses. The vast majority of courses are created on video with appropriate accommodation made for those of us who listen via audio. Turning Points in Medieval History, of the other hand, is strictly audio. I liked that because I had no concern about missing any images.

Professor Armstrong discusses twenty-four turning points in the medieval world. She suggests that there are four kinds of turning points.

  1. An immediate turning point that is recognized as such at the time.
  2. A decisive event in itself whose impact was felt beyond the initial event.
  3. A turning point whose effect was most strongly felt years or even centuries later.
  4. A turning point that was seen as such at the time, but which really changed little.

Armstrong discusses the fall of Rome, the rise of the kingdom of Al-Andalus in what is now Spain, the Norman Conquest, and other similar medieval events. She uses a James Burke “Connections” style of presenting these events, describing how unrelated events and circumstances often converged to create these turning points.

Dorsey Armstrong is my current favorite Great Courses instructor, and Turning Points in Medieval History is fascinating listening.


talking to someone who gets it

Yesterday’s Gospel lectionary reading was the story of Mary’s visit to Elizabeth, Luke 1:39-45.  When we read in Luke about that journey we don’t think much about it.

quoteIn those days Mary set out and went with haste to a Judean town in the hill country,  where she entered the house of Zechariah and greeted Elizabeth.

Tradition says that that Mary and Elizabeth were somehow related, perhaps cousins. But as Pastor Kathleen pointed out yesterday morning, this was an extraordinary, probably unheard of, journey. First, Mary was likely a teenager. Luke 2 tells us that Joseph went from Nazareth in Galilee to Bethlehem for the census. So Mary must have been in Nazareth with her husband Joseph when she set out. As the quote above tells us, Elizabeth and Zechariah lived in the hill country of Judea, outside of Jerusalem, in the South of the former united kingdom of Israel. Remember that Galilee is in the North, in the region then still known as Israel. That would have been quite the journey for Mary. Fifty miles at least, Kathleen said. And as she pointed out, not only did Mary not have a driver’s license, but there weren’t any cars then anyway.

So why, Kathleen asks, after hearing from the angel the news that she we would be giving birth to the Messiah, would Mary have made such a journey when she no doubt had relatives in Galilee to whom she could talk, and probably a BFF or two there as well. Kathleen suggests that Mary wanted to talk to someone who would “get it.” The much older Elizabeth conceived in a miraculous manner as did the young Mary. Elizabeth would get it.

Kathleen went on to say that we all need someone to talk to in our lives who will get it. I’m fortunate to have people in my life I can talk to who will get it. My wife Terry, certainly. Definitely my spiritual director. My brother and sister-in-law for certain things and my dad for others.

I hope you have that person or those people in your life as well.


Sacred Music Friday: O Come, O Come, Emmanuel

Clare College Choir, Cambridge


remembering Dennise

I was not expecting to be writing a second remembrance within the same month, but here I am doing exactly that.

Our holiday letter to my long-time friend Dennise was returned “Not deliverable as addressed — Unable to forward.” An email I sent to her did not bounce, but searches on Facebook and LinkedIn turned up nothing. I hesitated doing a Google search, because of what I feared the result would be. But I did do a Google search.

My fears were founded. In the top ten results were at least three obituaries. I didn’t try to count. Opening two of those obituaries confirmed it was the Dennise that I knew. (How many people with that name spell it with two n’s?)

It turns out that she died in November 2014. Now I know why I didn’t get her usual comprehensive and creatively-written holiday letter last year.

Dennise and I were hired as technical writers at about the same time but completely independently of each other in 1995 at a company called Verity, which no longer exists. We shared an office until we moved to new facilities where our cubes were right next to each other. As it turned out we shared many of the same values spiritually, and we stayed in touch, however intermittently, after I left Verity in 1997.

Dennise was, if you believe in such things, an old soul. She was at her core a pagan, and she joyously celebrated the Winter Solstice. But she loved the liturgy at Grace Cathedral in San Francisco and the values the institution stood for. She also loved the Christmas Eve Midnight Eucharist there. Meanwhile I was at the time moving from Religious Science to the Episcopal Church. We had many interesting conversations, both in person and via email.

I will miss Dennise. Let light perpetual shine upon her.


NPR’s Book Concierge

NPR has done it again. They have published their Book Concierge for 2105. This is the third year they have done this, and it is a very cool tool.

Along the left navigation they have a list of categories. Here is just a sampling:

  • Staff Picks
  • Biography & Memoir
  • Cookbooks & Food
  • For Art Lovers
  • For Music Lovers
  • Identity & Culture
  • Mysteries & Thrillers
  • Nonfiction
  • Rather Long
  • Rather Short
  • Seriously Great Writing

You can select the categories in any combination you like, and the page displays the results. For example, you could select:

Staff Picks — Cookbooks & Food  or
Biography & Memoir — Seriously Great Writing or
For Art Lovers — Rather Long

As I said, very cool. Check it out.


The Fellowship

TheFellowshipThe Fellowship: The Literary Lives of the Inklings: J.R.R. Tolkien, C. S. Lewis, Owen Barfield, Charles Williams
Philip Zaleski and Carol Zaleski
Farrar, Straus and Giroux (June 2, 2015), 657 pages
Kindle edition $16.99, Amazon Hardcover $22.08

Whew! This was a slog.

The print edition of the The Fellowship is 657 pages, although the notes begin on page 512. And while the book is heavily annotated, there are no links to the notes in the Kindle edition, so accessing the references real time while reading on my iPad Kindle app was virtually impossible, and I didn’t try. Of course, even if you read the print edition you would have to keep one finger in the notes at the back to keep up.

While the Zaleskis have created a comprehensive reference work here, it was more detail than I needed. Still, there were some interesting bits. While it is widely known that Lewis lived much of his life with “Mrs. Moore,” the mother of his close friend who was killed in battle in World War I, it turns out there was, in fact, a Mr. Moore. Where he was or what he did is not explained, presumably because the Zaleskis were not able to unearth any information. Though it seems that both Lewis and Mrs. Moore complained regularly about Mr. Moore not doing whatever it was he was supposed to be doing. Then there was the fact that Lewis’s marriage to Joy Davidman, his love late in his life, was a pragmatic matter related to her illnesses.

Likewise, there is a lot of interesting information about the what it took for J.R.R. Tolkien to complete The Hobbit and the Lord of the Rings. The short answer: a lot. And although Lewis’s older brother Warnie’s name is not mentioned in the title, he was in fact an integral part of the Inklings group, which met regularly and shared their work with each other.

I think that I would have been better served reading the well-regarded The Inklings: C. S. Lewis, J. R. R. Tolkien and Their Friends, which, though out of print, is readily available as a used book from Amazon and no doubt other sources.

Still, I now know a few things that I didn’t when I began the book.


Year C

When we start the new liturgical year with Advent, I am always a couple of weeks behind in realizing that we are moving from one year to the next in the three-year lectionary cycle. It hit me just last week that we have finished Year B, the year of Mark, with its brevity and Jesus in conflict with the authorities, and we have now moved on to year C, the year of Luke.

I like Year C. I like Luke. Luke has little of the harshness of Matthew, and overflows with compassion. Jesus is always having a meal with someone, somewhere.

Luke contains the Song of Simeon and the passage in which he tells the criminal, “today you will be with me in Paradise.” Luke contains the Emmaus Road story, even if we don’t get it in our Year C lectionary readings.

I’m happy to be in Year C.