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I am a medievalist and an adjunct college instructor in the humanities at Union College. My research includes medieval theologies of history, text/image relationships in visionary and mystical texts, and the writings of the twelfth-century Doctor of the Church, St. Hildegard of Bingen. I am also a translator of medieval Latin and German texts, especially as relate to my research. I completed a Master's in Medieval Studies at the University of Notre Dame in 2010, a Fulbright Fellowship in Germany in 2008, and a B.A. in Classics and German at Boston College in 2007.

Friday, October 14, 2011

Book Review: Inventing the Middle Ages by Norman F. Cantor

Norman F. Cantor. Inventing the Middle Ages: The Lives, Works, and Ideas of the Great Medievalists of the Twentieth Century. New York: Morrow, 1991. 477 pp.

This is a moving, if idiosyncratic, historiographical meditation on the rise of "modern" medieval studies (to be distinguished from those of the nineteenth century). After a concise sketch of the broad strokes of medieval history and the movements of modern interpretation, Cantor dives into compelling portraits of the twenty medievalists who, in his opinion, "invented" the Middle Ages for the modern world of the twentieth century. Combining a standard academic's review of their works with an esteemed historian's synthetic stitching to tell the history of historians, Cantor attempts to understand not only what each of these men (and one woman) told us about the Middle Ages but also why they approached them the way they did.

The result is a mixed bag. On the one hand, he handles with skill and alacrity the various schools of ideas and approaches that these inventors either appropriated or crafted as their legacies; in this respect, this volume is a valuable precis for the modern student of how historians and, to a lesser extent, literary and art history scholars, have practiced their trades. On the other hand, Cantor clearly betrays his own academic pedigree and the prejudices it entails. His own political thoughts seem to be in line with the Wilsonian progressivism inherited from his own Doktorvater, J. R. Strayer (profiled, with appropriate stories from Cantor's grad school days, in Chapter Seven); while his sensitivities mark him as another "Knight of the Southern Round Table" (see pp. 359ff), even if his actual time spent with R. ("Dick") W. Southern while on a Rhodes was minimal. Cantor was clearly never a fan of the Marxist-influenced schools of thought that rose around the "martyred" Marc Bloch (Chapter Four) and other French intellectuals, and the only positive outcome, in his mind, of the tumultuous year 1968 was the disillusionment its failure produced (though he marks his chagrin that Wilsonian progressivism died, too). Some reviewers will take his ambivalence toward the "leftist" New Historicism as unrehabilitated conservativism; they would fail, in that conclusion, to understand the classically liberal idealism that, though perhaps faded and tarnished, still animates Cantor.

His strongest chapters are thus on those men whom he knew and under whose influence he has lived. He may be faulted for the starry-eyed encomium to Southern, the excesses of which extend to his idealistic frustration that Southern was never proactively ambitious enough; but he does, at least, acknowledge some of Southern's more obvious weaknesses as an historian, especially his ignorance of the world east of the Rhine and of women, admirably remedied by one of the "Knights", Peter Dronke (pp. 361-2). Cantor's wistful regret is that "Bloch's disciples have built vast power bases where they have done some good, but also much damage. Southern (...) turned away and made the 'great refusal'." (p. 351). The most moving portrait is also the most fragmented and tragic, of the outrider Theodor ("Ted) Ernst Mommsen (Chapter 10). Again, as one of Mommsen's students and friends and as the unique benefactor of Mommsen's library (p. 371), Cantor has a sympathetic and personal view of the man and allows the greatness that would be hidden from a more distant acquaintance to shine through. Indeed, despite the dismissive quality of the term "Outriders", Chapter Ten (Cantor's last) is the most poetically lyrical of the book.

The other best chapter is the third, on Percy Ernst Schramm and Ernst Kantorowicz ("The Nazi Twins"), so long as one looks past the facetious claim that Kantorowicz was in any way a Nazi (though his scholarship was admired by them, he was also a Jew, forced to resign his professorship in 1933 and flee to America in 1938). Though most medievalists of any standing will have heard of his The King's Two Bodies, and many may actually have read it, far fewer will be familiar with his far superior Frederick the Second; and only a small minority of American medievalists of today (as at Oxbridge at the time of Cantor's Rhodes work) will have the least acquaintance with Schramm's Kaiser, Rom, und Renovatio. I would recommend Cantor's study of the men to all, for the movements of pre-war German Geistesgeschichte (a tradition that Cantor managed to assimilate, to his benefit) are ignored by modern scholars to their peril.

As a work of medieval scholarship, this book is of uneven value. It is written from a certain old-fashioned stance that places it outside of the fashions of today's academe, though we should make two caveats. First, the book only ever claims to chronicle the great medievalists into the 1960's; as Cantor mentions multiple times (e.g. 156, 276-7, 364), the great era of "feminist" medieval scholarship, i.e. of women medievalists (the sneer is noted), only came into its own in the generations thereafter. Second, the book was written just at the end of the Cold War, under the first President Bush. The movements of medieval scholarship of the last twenty years are absent, and unfortunately for Cantor, they have not been in the direction he might have hoped. As just one example, in his "canonical" list of 125 key works in Medieval Studies, he appropriately includes Caroline Walker Bynum but only for Jesus as Mother. As absolutely fantastic as that book is, and essential on the bookshelf of anyone trying to understand the twelfth century, posterity has entered Holy Feast, Holy Fast into the pantheonic canon.

Where this book thoroughly shines is as the testament of a great observer of twentieth-century medieval studies. Cantor invested himself life and soul in this invention; these stories may be gossipy, but they are the stories of the very creation of the scholar and man Cantor understood himself to be. It is especially as auto-biography that this book stands above. ( )

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