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”),…

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