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The Cantorbury Tales

The Middle Ages, that period of European history stretching from the fall of the Roman Empire, around the year 500, to the time of Columbus, has left a heritage of institutions and images in the modern world, on both sides of the Atlantic. Representative bodies such as Congress and Parliament, the Anglo-American legal system, the idea of the corporate town, and the university all descend directly from innovations of the medieval period. We can look around us and see Gothic architecture in churches and on campuses, and Arthurian legend in movies and computer games. But a period of the past does not lie like a corpse on the mortuary slab, unmoving and naked to the observer’s eye. The past has to be created by the active work of selection, representation, and animation carried on by those who specialize in the task—in our society that means historians. What Norman Cantor has done is to write a book about the historians of the last hundred years who were responsible for creating the current idea or image of the medieval period—for “inventing the Middle Ages.”

Cantor gives special recognition to twenty medievalists by including their names in his chapter headings, but he spends much more time on some than on others. Carl Erdmann, author of a path-breaking book on the origins of the crusading movement, gets two pages, the English monastic historian Dom David Knowles thirty. Around the “great medievalists” referred to in the subtitle are a penumbra of other, usually younger, historians whom Cantor believes were influenced by the various masters. The result is a long, collective intellectual biography. It is, like most such one-man enterprises (for example Maurice Cowling’s multi-volume Religion and Public Doctrine in England), a highly personal selection; indeed, a medievalist who has once met Cantor has a higher chance of inclusion.

However, the selection is not so much idiosyncratic as strictly limited in range. There would be little doubt that most of the scholars Cantor discusses are indeed major forces in the history of medieval studies—“founding fathers,” he terms them. They fall roughly into four groups: the German Jews of the 1930s diaspora and their non-émigré, non-Jewish associates; the French Annales school; Oxford and Cambridge dons active between the 1930s and the 1960s; the American scholars Charles Homer Haskins, founder of the Medieval Academy of America, and his pupil and protégé Joseph Strayer. All have had importance for Cantor, personally or through their predominant intellectual influence. Largely excluded are scholars from, or working on, the Mediterranean world, eastern or northern Europe or the Celtic lands. The early Middle Ages and the late Middle Ages form only a sketchy presence. What we have here is an Anglo-American view of historians working on the central parts of western Europe in the central Middle Ages.

Cantor’s prose is usually workaday, sometimes clumsy (“The origins of the modern state we can with justification say was being born here”), frequently banal (including dated slang—it is long since I heard the participle “power-tripping”), and it occasionally lapses into purple passages:

The aristocratic Frankish women—with whom the lords and knights diurnally copulated in the high-ceilinged wooden feasting halls among the packs of dogs and heaped garbage bones of countless red meat roasted dinners—if only to save themselves from constant pregnancies and early deaths in the roulette experiences of perilous childbirths, had begun to urge their masters and sons to fabled and valiant deeds of heroic romance in distant exotic climes.

This is not an Edwardian translation of a little-known Finno-Ugric epic but Cantor’s description of the background to the First Crusade. But the verve and energy of his project transcend such stylistic flaws and make his book highly readable. For each of the medievalists he discusses Cantor undertakes a triple task. He seeks to depict the career and personality of the scholar, the social and academic milieu that formed him (or, in one case, her), and the main features of the scholar’s work. The three are presented as closely tied together:

What interests me most of all is how the life experiences and cultural milieus of these medievalists became integrated into their conscious reflections on the medieval world. In writing and reading history, we are visibly creating a psychoanalysis in which our own anxieties, hopes, loves, fears, and disappointments become interactive with the learned discoveries and data bases that academic research proliferates.

This ambitious book thus not only presents us with a series of often personal portraits of great twentieth-century scholars, but also evokes a number of different social and intellectual environments, from the intense, uncertain world of Twenties Germany to the fusty donnishness of postwar Oxford and the glamour of the great French mandarin institutes. Cantor is extremely adept at characterizing both movements and institutions. The first wave of academic feminism, in which women medievalists were important, tended, he notes, to produce, in sharp contrast with current trends, unmarried female scholars working on subjects other than women’s history: he cites as examples Helen Cam, a specialist in English legal history, and Beryl Smalley, who opened up the whole field of biblical scholarship in the Middle Ages.

Cantor’s analysis of the structure of French academic life, dominated by the intellectual power brokers of the metropolis, the Parisian professors running the academic equivalent of a “feudal system,” is both cynical and accurate. He uses imaginative pairings or groupings to highlight his points. The great French Jewish scholars Louis Halphen and Marc Bloch are discussed together, not simply because their lives did indeed intertwine, but to emphasize the crucial difference, which turned Bloch to activism and leftism while Halphen remained loyal to “the old rationalist, humanistic culture of Western Europe.” Erwin Panofsky and Ernst Robert Curtius, central figures in medieval art history and the history of medieval Latin literature respectively, are paired under the useful, if simplistic, heading of “formalists,” committed to a picture of medieval high culture as intensely tradition-bound. For them the innovations of medieval artists are best seen as clever manipulations of inherited motifs and forms rather than expressions of individualism.

Anyone who reads this book with attention will not only enjoy a tour of some of the academic centers of the twentieth century but also be presented, in a distilled and summary form, with a dozen debates or interpretations that have preoccupied scholarly thinking about the Middle Ages. In the first biographical chapter, devoted to Frederic William Maitland (d. 1906), the most important historian of the Anglo-American legal tradition and arguably the greatest medievalist of all time, Cantor not only sketches out Maitland’s life and working method, but gives an eight-page summary of Maitland’s picture of how that legal tradition began. In his classic and monumental work, The History of English Law (which appeared under the names of Maitland and Frederick Pollock), Maitland surveyed the roots of the Common Law in the courts of the English kings of the twelfth and thirteenth centuries. Drawing on a profound knowledge of the legal sources (many of which he himself edited), he showed how the practical needs of a feudal society eventually gave birth to a judicial system recognizably the ancestor of our own, characterized by jury trial, due process, adversary procedure, and professional attorneys. Cantor fully appreciates Maitland’s accomplishment:

Maitland drew upon his astonishing memory and addressed an audience well beyond academic medievalists. He aimed at the transatlantic legal profession in the English-speaking world and much of the educated public in general. Here he writes with fire and abandon on the making of forms of civil (property) action in the late twelfth century and the rise of the trial by jury in the late twelfth and early thirteenth centuries and the social relations involved. There is warmth and humor; he writes to make us feel we are there. He writes from the inside…. It is an astonishing achievement, one of the truly great pieces of historical literature of all time.

This summary of Maitland is followed by twelve pages on the subsequent fortunes of Maitland’s theories. All this is made comprehensible to educated nonspecialists and given a polemically contemporary significance:

The criminal justice system Maitland describes as being in effect in late-thirteenth-century England exists in the New York of 1990. What Maitland saw in the meeting of Parliament in 1306—a functional tool for national order and public efficiency…is what we know the state to be, and should be today.

Similar passages are devoted to theories of the medieval state, the nature of medieval culture, the rise of individualism and romanticism, the character of the medieval economy, and other themes. As well as a work of intellectual history, Cantor’s book is thus a kind of handbook for medieval studies.

The strongest impression left by Inventing the Middle Ages, however, is the remarkable series of individual lives that Cantor delineates. He has a strong gift for characterization, which a tendency to crude Freudianism paradoxically enhances. President Woodrow Wilson, discussed in connection with the liberal origins of American medieval studies, had “a high-strung disposition arising from unresolved Oedipal feelings and repression of his sexual urgings”; Helen Cam’s “sex-driven communalism represents feminist medievalism’s rejection of traditional phallic authoritarianism.”

His descriptions of prominent historians can often be photographically vivid: Strayer “had large, powerful hands with thick fingers, but I never saw him shake hands with anyone…. He had no small talk, and in his company several minutes of total silence could pass”; the great Oxford medievalist Richard Southern “was the most beautiful Englishman I had ever seen in the flesh, with piercing blue-gray eyes, sandy hair slightly graying, an unmistakable mellifluous voice. Except for a long nose, he resembled Laurence Oliver.”

Cantor is constantly suggesting, with great relish, the wonderful films or television miniseries that could be made both about aspects of the Middle Ages and about his subjects, the great medievalists. He has found some very curious bits of gossip about them: C.S. Lewis, the Oxford medievalist and Christian apologist, author of the “Narnia” books, appeared on the cover of Time in 1949 partly because of the active conservative Christianity of Whittaker Chambers, then a senior editor at Time; Theodor Mommsen, Cantor’s teacher, was welcomed by the mayor and a brass band in an Italian town because they had confused him with his grandfather and namesake, the great Roman historian who had died forty years earlier.

Virtually every portrait in Cantor’s book is memorable and some are remarkable. Ernst Kantorowicz, author of a famous biography of the thirteenth-century Holy Roman Emperor Frederick II, started life in a wealthy German Jewish family, was wounded in the First World War, and helped suppress left-wing risings in the immediate postwar period. After his biography of Frederick had made his name, Kantorowicz became a professor at Frankfurt, but had to leave his position after the rise of Nazism—not, as Cantor stresses, that he was temperamentally at odds with far-right nationalism (“Kantorowicz’s Nazi credentials were impeccable on every count except his race”). Brought to Oxford by a fellow homosexual, the classics scholar Maurice Bowra, Kantorowicz apparently became unpopular because of his dandyism and arrogance. He eventually found a position at Berkeley, where he taught for a decade before being faced with an anti-Communist loyalty oath during the McCarthy years. Kantorowicz refused to take it and left for Princeton, where he died in 1963. There is some irony in a man who had spent 1919 shooting Spartacists in the streets being required to take an anti-Communist loyalty oath.

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