The Thoroughly Modern Middle Ages

History Today, February 1993 | Go to article overview

The Thoroughly Modern Middle Ages


How much of themselves do historians put into their history? Most people have their own vivid images of the world of the Middle Ages - but how coloured are they by the crises and upheavals of their twentieth-century historians?

A new book just published in Britain, Inventing the Middle Ages, sets out to cut across the idea that the history we read is merely the product of disinterested research. Its author, Norman Cantor, Professor of History and Sociology at New York University, and himself a medievalist, has set out, via a revealing warts-and-all exploration of the lives of twenty great twentieth-century medievalists, to show how their characters and personal traumas shaped the history books they wrote.

When the book originally came out in the United States, one reviewer wrote 'Intriguing, informative, irritating and vastly entertaining, Inventing the Middle Ages will rattle lots of cages'. It is easy to see why. Cantor describes how the historian of medieval monasticism, David Knowles (who was also a Roman Catholic monk) relived conflicts with his superiors through writing about St Francis - and how, with a secret mistress, he wrote with an edge about the medieval church's ambiguous sense of individuality.

Cantor sees in the Oxford dons and medieval fantasists, C.S Lewis and J.R. R. Tolkien (known to millions for their fiction writing about Narnia and the world of the Hobbit, work shot through with medieval trappings) men looking to an alternative morally ordered world to the one they had grown up in - the world of the British Empire which was crumbling around them. And he shakes the skeletons from the Nazi past of the German historians, Percy Schramm and Ernst Kantorwicz, both renowned among scholars for their pioneering studies of medieval kingship.

'Historical writing to me is inevitably a form of literature - in writing this book I was aware that I was cutting across the grain of objectivist modernism which has dominated history since 1945', Professor Cantor told History Today in New York. 'The context and events in the lives of the medievalists I describe did influence their view of the Middle Ages - and modern concerns and obsessions - formalism, ideology, totalitarianism - soaked into their work. …

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