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.

Cantor is sometimes rough and bruising in his judgments. The great art historian E.H. Gombrich is dismissed, with no substantiating argument, “as largely a retailer of superficial psychological and aesthetic bromides.” Perhaps such aggressiveness in judgment is a trait Cantor decided to acquire after seeing his much-loved teacher, Theodor Mommsen, sitting silent and defensive in the company of louder scholars: “He lacked an image of himself as a powerful and successful person who could command attention. He lacked a capacity for self-assertion and the urge to use humanistic scholarship in the interest of asserting his personal dominance over others.” Is this praise or blame?

Cantor has a keen desire to find out the truth about the life and personality of those he is discussing. He tells the story of how Dom David Knowles, the most important historian of English monasticism and himself a Benedictine monk, ran away from his monastery in 1938 and began a mysterious long-term relationship with a female Swedish psychiatrist. This is remarkable tale, and Cantor is right to tell it. What is more remarkable is the lack of salaciousness in the telling and the clear fact that Cantor is more interested in what made Knowles think and act as he did than in the gossip about him. Knowles was the son of converts to Catholicism, an only child brought up largely in his mother’s company, a monk who took his vows relatively early; all these facts are more important to Cantor’s account than the later scandal. On the other hand, Cantor’s interest in Knowles’s psychological formation is balanced by a delicate exploration of the social world of early twentieth-century English Catholicism and its flagship, Downside Abbey and school, where Knowles was a monk and teacher.

Cantor gives a sympathetic and persuasive picture of Knowles’s growing disillusion with what he perceived as the spiritual and intellectual mediocrity of his surroundings, a discontent that even led him to write a book on the American Civil War in order to have an excuse to get away to Oxford to work in its libraries. Whether the man who emerges from Cantor’s pages is the true Knowles or not, there is no doubt of the author’s urge to find out about him, to get the story right, and, fundamentally, to make a connection between the historian’s life and the historian’s work.

Cantor’s decision to include a treatment of what he calls “the Oxford fantasists,” C.S. Lewis and J.R.R. Tolkien, was a bold one but justifiable. After all, they have shaped more people’s images of the Middle Ages than most academic history books. Yet this chapter is one of his flattest. There is no sureness of touch here. The depressing atmosphere of wartime Oxford and its groups of Christian dons is conveyed much better in A.N. Wilson’s biography of Lewis or Humphrey Carpenter’s study of Tolkien, Lewis, and their group, or indeed Tolkien’s own published correspondence.* The strange inclusion of Sir Maurice Powicke, a good but thoroughly conventional historian of thirteenth-century England, although he had Christianity, Oxford, and the 1940s in common with the two others, remains strange.

The brief list of “salient aspects of medieval civilization” captured in Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings—endemic war, long-distance journeying, and the heroism of humble people—is bizarrely off the point. The importance of what Cantor rightly calls “the most extended and difficult piece of pseudomedievalism ever imagined” must be sought in something other than these purely external details of Tolkien’s narrative. As a piece of Victorian Arthuriana redivivus it shares the same nostalgia of the industrial for the preindustrial and the same romanticization of the past. A deeper and more sustained analysis of Tolkien’s work of fantasy might have provided a better explanation of its popular success and the way it serves still as a gateway to interest in the medieval past.

Cantor is an enthusiast. This means his most deeply felt criticisms are reserved for those who have disappointed him. Most important of these is Richard Southern, a giant among Oxford medievalists (and the only living member of Cantor’s founding fathers—he celebrated his eightieth birthday in Oxford last February). As an American Rhodes scholar in Oxford in 1954, Cantor was given what he sees as the brushoff by Southern. He was “hurt, aggrieved, and bewildered by Southern’s cool and distant attitude” and the reader gets the impression that he has tried to rationalize this personal pain by elaborating a criticism of Southern’s failure to “challenge the academic world” and “form an identifiable school.”

Southern’s masterpiece, The Making of the Middle Ages (1953, many reprintings), was, in the view of Cantor and many others, “a seminal work of humanistic scholarship” that “set up a new discourse in medieval studies.” What is fresh and arresting about The Making of the Middle Ages is not only the purity and grace of Southern’s prose or the range and depth of his learning, but the combination of his willingness to ask large and fundamental historical questions with his ability to evoke the interior worlds of individual people in the past. In this (his first) book and his other writings he dissects such significant general developments as the rise of logic in the academic curriculum, the growth in power and scope of secular government, and the continual changes in society’s religious ideals at the same time as he presents real, locally rooted people, whose thoughts, feelings, and lives are recreated for us.

Cantor was clearly captivated by The Making of the Middle Ages, which he describes as “the single most widely read and influential book written on the Middle Ages in the twentieth century,” and he pictures himself going to Oxford as one of “a group of sometimes starry-eyed academic knights” following Southern’s King Arthur.

Southern, however, refused to lead his self-proclaimed disciples. The students he eventually worked with were, according to Cantor, “an ordinary, conformist, anal-retentive lot.” What seems to be conditioning Cantor’s views here is the American academic assumption that success is to be measured by students placed in prestigious positions, by the institutional backing a scholar receives, and by the funding he obtains. Yet surely “a seminal work of humanistic scholarship” makes its influence felt in deeper and more personal ways. “Southern,” writes Cantor, “who could have done an enormous amount of good if he had founded an institute in his own best intellectual image and used its patronage powers to transform the medievalist profession, turned away and made the ‘great refusal.’ ” But if generations of undergraduates (and their teachers) have an image of the Middle Ages shaped in part by Southern’s great book, is that not the most authentic success a humanistic scholar can hope to have? Cantor shows elsewhere that he knows this. Only his personal hurt apparently prevents him from admitting that opening up new intellectual perspectives is as important as building institutes.

Cantor is sharply critical of those who have, in his view, failed to lead or to develop their full potential, and it seems to be Oxbridge dons in particular who have not lived up to expectation. Sometimes this is because they should have founded an institute, a seeming panacea for Cantor, which would have enabled Southern to revolutionize medieval studies and even to have provided the eccentric economic historian Michael Postan with a proper niche. Sometimes they fail because they did not go abroad. Postan should have gone to America, C.S. Lewis needed a dose of the Annales school in France (an experience, one might think, which would probably have killed him).

It is especially the anti-psychoanalytical bent of English culture which is the enemy; a classic case in point is that of Richard Hunt, the immensely learned Keeper of Western Manuscripts at the Bodleian Library in Oxford, who, according to Cantor, “because of some psychological morbidity, accomplished little of what he could have done. Hunt’s life and career are a salutary lesson in how much the British have suffered from their antipathy to psychotherapy.” Perhaps more germane is how much Cantor suffered from Hunt’s dismissal of his abilities at Latin.

Cantor’s most blatant prejudice is against what he terms, somewhat hopefully, “the obsolete leftist culture of the sixties and seventies.” He makes a sustained parallel between the activities of groups of far-right students in the German campuses of the 1920s and American campus radicalism of the 1960s:

In both eras, highly organized groups of politically active students…exercised a severe impact on the educational scene…. Professors were afraid of them; rectors sought to appease them with compromises—we know the scenario well…. Ideologically committed or simply opportunist or fearful professors supported the student militants.

The legacy, he warns the reader, is still with us: American universities house “an academic profession steadily infiltrated by the 1968 generation that had failed at the barricades and instead determined to take over the university.” The experiences symbolized by the year 1968 have clearly shaped Cantor’s deepest prejudices. He went into the trenches then and has never reemerged. His ideas about the leftist “infiltration” of universities are indeed not entirely without foundation: many academics in history and the humanities have political and social opinions to the left of the rest of the population, and many former student radicals are now professors in their forties with modified but not transformed attitudes. The problem in Cantor’s approach, however, is that his hostility to the left is so broadly conceived, so unthinking, and so easily triggered that frequently, instead of providing analysis, he merely parades his obsessions.

Whatever its value as a view of current American academic life, Cantor’s anti-leftist perspective leads him into one of the book’s worst failures of scholarly judgment. When discussing particular historians and their historical approaches, his opinions, although vigorous, are usually fair. When dealing with the Annales school they are not. His account of its origins and influence is not in itself flawed. The founders (in 1929) of the journal Annales, after which the school is named, were Marc Bloch and Lucien Febvre, of whom the former died working for the resistance, the latter surviving to create an academic empire in postwar France. The Annales school stressed non-narrative social, cultural, and economic history, with a strong emphasis on interdisciplinary studies; it was secular, leftist, and sophisticated, drawing on the social-structural and anticlerical intellectual tradition of French sociology and anthropology to create historical analyses that stressed the physical environment, gave special attention to the lower classes, and treated the Church as peripheral.

The Annalists eventually came to dominate historical studies in France and to exert great influence in certain other centers, notably Princeton from the 1960s. Cantor’s analysis of these developments is shackled by his perception of the Annalists as the real enemy. “Bloch’s reinterpretation of medieval history along Marxist lines,” he writes,

was an event of critical importance not only for the understanding of the Middle Ages but for academic culture as a whole, with a politically polarizing and intellectually provocative outcome we are just beginning to appreciate fully…. In the short run, and still in the early 1990s, we are left with the situation that the transatlantic triumph of the Annalist school and its affiliates signified the prominence of left-leaning, essentially Marxist interpretations in medieval studies.

Cantor seems annoyed by the members of the Annales school partly because of their success: “They knew how to gain attention, how to communicate, how to market their ideas,” he complains. One of their foremost postwar representatives, Emmanuel Le Roy Ladurie, is described as “the rock star of medievalists,” resembling “a middle-aged David Bowie.” Particularly galling, presumably, was the stipulation by Cantor’s own chairman at New York University that introductory graduate courses “follow and endorse the Annalist position.” Cantor, with his embittered memories of the student radicalism of the 1960s, depicts the “triumph of the Annalist school” as a victory for “essentially Marxist interpretations.”

Here he goes off the track. The book usually regarded (though not by Cantor) as Bloch’s masterpiece is his Feudal Society, published in 1940, with an English translation in 1961. It presents a portrait of life in western Europe in the eleventh and twelfth centuries that deals with the entire range of lay experience: the patterns to be found in the names given to persons and places, the ways memories were preserved, the culture of the aristocracy, the political structures and the relationships of rural society. Certainly, Feudal Society displays interest in the peasantry and gives a sense that medieval power and wealth were not distributed evenly, but it is marked also by a deep sensitivity to cultural meaning, symbolism, and the history of perception. It is an excellent complement to Southern’s Making of the Middle Ages and can stand comparison with that classic. To characterize or dismiss Bloch’s work as “history along Marxist lines” is not so much prejudiced as wrong.

The defects of leftism in Cantor’s eyes can be revealed by asking a very simple question in the words cited by Cantor himself—“Is it good for the Jews?”—for an important subtheme of Inventing the Middle Ages is the dilemmas of the educated Jewish elite in the present century. The contribution of Jewish scholars to medieval studies has been great and Cantor gives them their due. A quarter of his founding fathers are Jewish. Behind Maitland’s pioneering work in legal history stands the textual scholarship of Felix Liebermann, “Maitland’s Jewish shadow.” The chapter on Halphen and Bloch is entitled “The French Jews.” Even “The Nazi Twins,” the title of the chapter on Kantorowicz and his contemporary Percy Ernst Schramm, turn out to be half Jewish.

The controversies of medieval scholarship in the twentieth century parallel those concerning Jewish intellectual identity. Cantor sees himself as taking a stand in favor of the “liberal rationality” of the “educated Jewish middle class of the transatlantic world.” Nazism is a self-evident evil, but more insidious, and for Cantor more of an issue for current academics, is the dominance of cultural leftism in the modern university: “the seismic rift—between the liberal center and the radical left—ran through the lives of all educated middle-class Jews in the free world in the 1930s and 1940s. Profound traces of that rift are still clearly visible and in places like Paris and New York City continue to be of high signification….”

The medievalists whom Cantor discusses were, with two exceptions, born in the period 1870–1905. They virtually all had personal experience of the events that shattered Europe in the first half of the twentieth century. Many served in the First World War, in which some were wounded or taken prisoner; others were victims of Nazi repression or died violently in the Second World War—Bloch tortured and killed by the Gestapo, Carl Erdmann (an anti-Nazi) killed while serving in the German army on the eastern front in 1945. Not only this. Even in their peacetime worlds they were often something other than academics or something besides academics. Maitland was a lawyer and Knowles was a monk before they were professors. Charles Homer Haskins advised Woodrow Wilson at the Versailles peace conference, and his pupil Strayer worked for the CIA as well as for Princeton University.

This range of experience, wished for or not, is no longer to be expected among medievalists. Their careers are academic from start to finish; they may spend no time outside the university after the age of eighteen. Scholars for whom war, government, persecution, or religion were first-hand and often formative experiences have been replaced by generations who have known nothing other than peacetime academic culture. Scholarship must be inspired by imagination and it is of the nature of the imagination to grasp matters beyond one’s personal experience; but imagination is stimulated by wide experience and it may be that a narrower academic world produces a narrower vision of the past. Perhaps this is what lies behind the belief of Theodor Mommsen, Cantor’s teacher, that “medieval studies was receding into conformity and routine.”

Cantor is avowedly psychoanalytical in his approach and what he is evidently doing in this book is coming to terms with his intellectual parents: “We shall not see such giants again.” He simultaneously uncovers their nakedness and worships at their shrine. Although the publisher predictably calls Cantor “an eminent medievalist,” it is fair to say that our picture of the Middle Ages would be scarcely different if he had never published a word. After the appearance of this remarkable book, the same cannot be said of our picture of medievalists.


Defending Kantorowicz August 13, 1992

  1. *

    A.N. Wilson, C.S. Lewis: A Biography (Norton, 1990); Humphrey Carpenter, The Inklings: C.S. Lewis, J.R.R. Tolkien, Charles Williams and their Friends (Houghton Mifflin, 1979) and J.R.R. Tolkien: A Biography (Houghton Mifflin, 1988); The Letters of J. R. R. Tolkien, edited by Humphrey Carpenter and Christopher Tolkien (Houghton Mifflin, 1981).