Book Review: Inventing the Middle Ages

Reviewer: John J. Reilly

Title: Inventing the Middle Ages: The Lives, Works, and Ideas of the Great Medievalists of the Twentieth Century
Author: Norman F. Cantor
Publisher: William Morrow and Company,1991
ISBN: 0-688-12302-3
Other Information: 447 Pages, US14.00

There is an old joke in literary criticism that is really a serious question: What effect did T.S. Eliot have on Shakespeare? While a time-travel story involving Eliot and Shakespeare would not be without interest, the import of this question is really about the development of critical method. Scholars had to invent new ways of looking at poetry in order to handle Eliot and the other modernist poets. When these methods were turned on Shakespeare, they revealed what almost seems to be a new body of work. In much the same way, scholars in the 20th century can be said to have "invented" the Middle Ages, since their own age has sensitized them to see things in the material that would have meant nothing to prior centuries. By the same token, of course, the study of these scholars will tell you almost as much about the 20th century as it will about the Middle Ages.

It is interesting to read this book in the year 2000, a decade after it was finished. Norman Cantor, a noted medievalist associated with New York University at the time this book was written, is familiar with the major US and British universities. (He was born in Manitoba.) Cantor has a taste for macrohistory and cultural speculation on the grand scale, so Inventing the Middle Ages preserves in amber many of the concerns and unconsidered assumptions that were common among thoughtful people just after the end of the Cold War. There is declinism regarding the United States, the off-hand dismissal of historical teleology, and a certain degree of exasperation with the politicization of the academy that occurred in the 1970s and `80s. Also, something that seems increasingly shocking these days, the author is completely credulous of Freudian psychology. Still, this book should never become dated. Cantor knew many of the scholars he discusses, almost all of whom were characters, and his gossipy accounts of their lives and ways will surely remain among the primary sources for these people. Last but not least, his conviction that the Middle Ages are the future will bear repeated examination as various futures arrive.

According to Cantor, the serious study of the Middle Ages really began only around 1900. While he expresses some admiration for the Romantic engagement of the Middle Ages found in the novels of Walter Scott and Victor Hugo, and even in the somewhat imaginative history of Jules Michelet, he says that it was not until the end of the nineteenth century that enough archival research and textual analysis had been done to make serious study possible. This is a bit odd, because certainly there were numerous people in the last half of the 19th century who were working in archives and writing lengthy studies on medieval art and law and politics. However, according to Cantor, even Henry Adams, who by his own account brought the pure Germanic gospel of the documentary method to Harvard, was not a serious medievalist; Adams' Mont Saint Michel and Chartes is dismissed as just a good read.

Frederic William Maitland, an English lawyer turned Cambridge don who wrote a landmark study of the origins of common-law procedure, is the first medievalist whom Cantor chooses to take seriously. (He died in 1906.) Maitland's approach was "modern." For Cantor, this means a sharp focus on the "thing in itself," on the concrete details provided to us by the records. Maitland's explanations were "self-referential," in the sense of not invoking larger principles or higher forces. Not all of the modern medievalists whom Cantor discusses were "Modern" in these ways, but they all resembled Maitland in favoring "thick," highly detailed descriptions of the medieval worlds they described. Recreating the context is the point of the exercise; explaining particular events is sometimes a secondary consideration. Histories with thick descriptions, in fact, sometimes forego narrative almost entirely.

The best known variety of historyless history is that associated with the French journal Annales. One of its co-founders was the medievalist Louis Bloch. His martyrdom in the French Resistance during the Second World War gave both Annales and its materialist, soft-Marxist approach to history a degree of credibility that Cantor suggests it might not otherwise have had.

Readers interested in French academic culture will be fascinated by Cantor's somewhat jaundiced account of the French system of academic celebrity. The great French masters ("mandarins" they are called) are a lucky minority who come up through the elite schools. They become the centers of learned cults and end, if all goes well, as the founders of state-supported institutes dedicated to their greater glory. While Cantor is hardly dismissive of Annales and its worldwide Diaspora, he does note that this approach works best for subjects like peasant communes, Bloch's own area of study. When we do not know the names of individuals or what they did from day to day, it makes sense to focus minutely on their material and institutional circumstances. In situations where we do know quite a lot about individuals, however, and particularly when they lived in times of dramatic change, it is perverse to concentrate on the "long duration" of historical continuity. Additionally, Annales has had the unfortunate effect of discouraging the best historians from writing ordinary narrative history for the intelligent public, thereby leaving the field to popularizers.

Of the medievalists whom Cantor mentions, the names with the most resonance for most readers are certainly those of J.R.R. Tolkien and C.S. Lewis. Cantor is actually a bit patronizing about Tolkien as a scholar. According to Cantor, Tolkien, whose subject was Anglo-Saxon literature, was considered a burn-out case by the 1930s. He even says that there was some sentiment that Tolkien should have resigned his prestigious chair at Oxford in favor of a younger man. Oxford sentiment was rendered irrelevant by the explosive success of Tolkien's six-hundred-thousand-word work, The Lord of the Rings. Cantor calls it a novel; Tolkien called it a "romance." Whatever it was, it disseminated a view of history and ethics and the human condition to a public that seems only to grow with time. Cantor suggests that the book is a permanent addition to the great works in English, one that will last after the more consciously propagandistic fiction of Lewis is in eclipse. On the other hand, Cantor finds little to fault in Lewis's work in medieval allegory and Renaissance literature.

Cantor suggests that Tolkien and Lewis are to be credited with making the spirit of the Middle Ages accessible to the general public, but here he is surely wrong. Tolkien and Lewis did popularize many of the themes and images that are found in medieval literature. They also conveyed something of the little epiphanies that the medieval mind found in particular things and people and places. Still, all this was put to the service of 20th century themes by 20th century minds. No medieval epic, and indeed no epic of which I am aware, conveys the sense of the world in motion that the Lord of the Rings does. The work is more like The Winds of War than Le Morte d'Arthur. Though Lewis hated psychology (almost as much as I do), nonetheless his characters have an interiority that was not a prominent feature of medieval literature. The 20th century saw grace operating from an angle other than the one understood by the 13th.

Cantor comes close to hitting the nail on the head when he remarks that there is something apocalyptic about Tolkien and Lewis. Reading them, he says, one almost gets the impression that they would have liked to join with other wild people and take over the world to protect it from the Shadow. The remarkable thing about Inventing the Middle Ages, at least to me, is the number of medievalists it discusses who had explicit thoughts along just those lines.

Take, for instance, the Weimar-era scholars whom Cantor calls "the Nazi Twins," Percy Ernst Schramm and Ernst Hartwig Kantorowicz. The appellation is not entirely fair. It is true that they were both right-wing. Schramm spent much of the war as a historian attached to the General Staff; for a while, he was daily in Hitler's presence. Kantorowicz was a friend of Goering, and took care to have a swastika placed on the cover of the book that made his reputation. Still, Schramm was not a party member. His friend Kantorowicz was not eligible: he was a Jew who emigrated, to the United States, quite late in the 1930s. What ties them to the Nazi Party is the historical and even mystical support they gave to the doctrine of the "leader principle."

They did this through biographies that became wildly popular in the 1920s. Schramm's book covered Otto III, the Holy Roman Emperor in the year 1000. He hoped to inaugurate the renovation of the world, aided by his ecclesiastical sidekick and reputed magician, Pope Sylvester II. Kantorowicz's subject was the even more uncanny13th-century emperor, Frederick II, who was called Emperor of the Last Days by his friends and Antichrist by his enemies. Both Schramm and Kantorowicz hoped to aid the recovery of Germany from defeat in the First World War by reacquainting its people with the full depth and force of the ancient idea of kingship, thus preparing the way for a charismatic leader. Their work probably was not without effect. As Cantor remarks, you don't always get the messiah you asked for.

Less dramatic use of the Middle Ages was made by many scholars who nonetheless felt that the period was urgently relevant to modern times. Among the scholars of the "formalist" school, probably the best known is another German, Ernst Robert Curtius, whose book "European Literature in the Latin Middle Ages" still shows up on reading lists. The point of "formalism," as the name suggests, is to identify and describe the forms and typical ideas that run through medieval literature, indeed through all Western literature back to antiquity. The formalists, as Cantor describes them, seek to disclose and preserve an essential tradition in Western culture, one that can survive the tumults of modernity. As a practical matter, formalism is more than just nostalgia for the past. Indeed, since it emphasizes the degree to which the past is still with us, it is actually a bit anti-historical. One formalist, Erwin Panofsky, expanded the technique of "iconography" that had been developed for medieval studies to the criticism of film. Very few medievalists, in fact, seem to have been tub-thumping reactionaries, perhaps because reactionaries rarely wish to restore a past more than a generation old.

This discussion hardly exhausts the list or even types of medievalist whom Cantor discuses. He gives a great deal of space to his dissertation adviser from Princeton, Joseph Reese Strayer, a Wilsonian liberal who advised the CIA during the Cold War and emphasized the high level of instrumental rationalism that informed some medieval governments. There is the great proponent of neo-Thomism, Etienne Gilson, about whom Cantor seems to admire everything but his Thomism. Readers will also learn that Johan Huizinga's famous book, The Waning of the Middle Ages, is not actually the beginning and the end of all wisdom about late medieval culture. Readers get a double helping of everything: the Middle Ages were a fascinating time, and during the last 100 years they have been studied by fascinating people.

Fascination is one thing, but is any of this relevant to the 21st century? Writing just at the end of the Cold War, Cantor suggested that it will be. Socialism may not be quite dead, he says, but its loss of prestige is probably irreparable. Capitalism is therefore being asked to underwrite hope and ethics, something that is beyond the capacity of a mere economic system. When the modern era declines from its period of inordinate greatness, then may come an age of "retromedievalism."

In Cantor's telling, retromedievalism sounds an awful lot like a more cheerful form of neoconservatism. For Cantor, the essence of the medieval heritage is two things: civil society protected by the rule of law, and a "sentimental formalism" in private life that leaves room for personal love and feeling. Something else that we may recover is medieval cheerfulness. It was the doctrine of the Incarnation that made the Middle Ages fundamentally optimistic. The good is visible, not just in heaven or in the future, but in the world around us: symbolically, we already live in the City of God. And even when the future looked dark in medieval times, the greater pessimism simply occasioned the greater optimism: Antichrist in the final analysis was just a harbinger of the Second Coming. The memory of the Middle Ages is indelible in the Western mind, Cantor tells us, and what once was can be again.

Well, certainly there was a sunny Middle Ages, the Middle Ages of the Peace of God and the Cluniac reforms. There were moments when, as St. Augustine counseled, Europe did not seem to take history altogether seriously. On the other hand, there was also the Middle Ages of Frederick II and Joachim of Fiore, when the whole West seemed to be carrying the same eschatological tune. Ten years ago it was hard to believe that such a thing could happen again. Those were the days of "the end of history." History looks less dead today, however, and teleology is making a comeback.

If you liked this review, you may be interested in my new anthology, Apocalypse & Future. You can get it from, or from Xlibris at

Originally written: 2000/08/02

Return to review index.REVIEWS
Return to main index.HOME