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Inventing the Middle Ages:
The Lives, Works, and Ideas of the Great Medievalists of the Twentieth Century

by Norman F. Cantor
William Morrow, 477 pages, $28

When we read every day of the affairs of some medieval institution—the papacy, the British Parliament, the rabbinate, or the Deir ul-Islam—we are looking into the Middle Ages. 

That almost inconceivably vast stretch of time, usually reckoned as 500-1500 a.d., has a kind of double life in our culture. On the one hand, its thought, institutions, and habits live on under the surface of the cultural waters we ourselves navigate. We take its legacy for granted as our own. On the other hand, we regard it as alien, with either romantic nostalgia or revulsion. To call a person or thing medieval is often to label it as obscurantist; recall the depiction of the “Age of Faith” in the movie The Name of the Rose, in which Sean Connery as Br. William of Baskerville symbolized the progress of reason against his, and our, enemy, the Dominican inquisitor. However, the literary evocation of the period and its ideals, for instance in J. R. R. Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings, has generated a constant market—preparing the way, perhaps, for the similarly romantic Star Wars series, a medieval tale in a sci-fi setting. These and numerous other pop-medieval stories show how strong is the pull of the pre-Reformation Western past. 

Yet how little certain knowledge we have of it is well-demonstrated in this generous and sprawling work by Norman Cantor. Reading his lively account of the scholars who excavate and display the Middle Ages, an account replete with cultural history, moral judgment, psychological speculation, gossip, and no small amount of romantic idealism and fin de siècle pathos, the reader can reflect as much upon his own world, and about the character of Cantor himself, as he does about the painstaking task of historical reconstruction that absorbed the lives of such as Theodor Mommsen, Marc Bloch, or David Knowles. This book, which on its face seems to have been motivated by the old-timer’s urge to reminisce by means of the biographical genre, is actually a fine work of history, and in the end its author is unafraid to suggest that the work of history is itself an enterprise of devotion, a kind of spiritual work. 

One who wants to understand the medieval matrix of the present world must depend upon the works of scores of specialists and those few great historical writers who summarize and recast the former. Yet the conception of the medieval world changes along with contemporary intellectual trends, as these are absorbed by medievalists. The half-conscious, sometimes unconscious, application of contemporary questions to medieval texts is a process interwoven with the personalities of those medieval historians. The armaments of scholarly technique are critical in the enterprise, of course; those techniques, though, can be deployed for greater or lesser good depending upon the mind and character, even the soul, of the historian. Cantor recognizes this, and as he works his way through the lives of the great medievalists from the late nineteenth century through the present day, he is, like Plutarch, not afraid to distribute praise or blame to scholars and their works. 

Cantor makes the “founding era” of medieval studies the period from 1895 to about 1965, and in nine chapters he discusses twenty scholars whom he calls “master medievalists,” with their students. These men, and a few women, created a discipline where none had existed before. They were able to do so thanks to an unrepeatable set of conditions: the collection of texts in nationally funded libraries and archives; the creation of university chairs and graduate seminars in Europe and the United States; the willingness, at the end of the Victorian era, to reconsider the modern condemnation of the Middle Ages as an era of darkness. 

Each school of medieval studies had its own quest and its own collection of prejudices, and each contributed a portion of knowledge and interpretation to medieval studies in the twentieth century. The first “master medievalist,” the Cambridge legal scholar William Maitland, influenced Americans, particularly legal realists of the 1930s and ‘40s, more than his fellow Britons. His work was modernist and functionalist, and revolutionary in regarding the Parliament as a creation of the British crown for the good order of the realm rather than as an expression of the national will. 

The leaders of the second school, whom Cantor acidly labels “the Nazi twins,” Percy Ernst Schramm and Ernst Hartwig Kantorowicz, were wildly different from Maitland; inspired by the “disturbed ambience” of interwar Germany, they looked backward to Germany in the Middle Ages for heroic precedents. Their idealism looked for “a revived imperial Middle Ages in their own time.” What arrived instead was Hitler. Cantor, having received some training under Mommsen, sees some value in the German medievalist tradition, yet in Germany itself—thanks, he says, to “the Nazi calamity, postwar materialism, and the leftist orientation of the German humanists”—that tradition is dead. 

In France, “the French Jews,” Louis Halphen and Bloch, were part of a new approach to the Middle Ages which, beginning in the 1920s, has taken as its subject not the heroes or the thought of the Middle Ages but the economy and social habits over the longue durée. Still influential through its heirs and their journal Annales, this school controls French academic life and much of public opinion with an absolute rule resembling, not coincidentally, that of Louis Quatorze. It is this school, characterized by Cantor as having high “communicative skills and marketing techniques” overlaid on Marxist presuppositions, that has so influenced American medievalists lately. (That it is a French school has kept it deliciously fashionable.) 

Primarily as historians of literature and art, “The Formalists” of chapter five, Erwin Panofsky and Ernst Gurtius, pursued an understanding of medieval culture because they thought it would enliven the society of the twentieth century. Like the late-medieval humanists and Reformers, they search the sources for indications of present direction in “an effort to combat the culture of political despair, spiritual pessimism, and moral relativism in order to preserve the hard residue of humanistic values ... against the barbarian threats of Nazism and Stalinism.” 

Not unlike the formalists, but (being English) less theoretical were the men Cantor calls “the Oxford fantasists”—Tolkien, C. S. Lewis, and Frederick Maurice Powicke. The first two expressed, especially in their popular works (Lord of the Rings, Narnia), the disillusionment of postwar Britain, and proffered as an antidote an ingredient of the medieval romance, which celebrated the heroism of the little man and looked wistfully back to the Middle Ages as an age of faith. Powicke, for his part, studied—and admired—the genteel aristocracy of the later Middle Ages. 

In “American Pie,” Cantor details the careers of Charles Homer Haskins and Joseph Strayer, both students of administrative history and advocates of statist rationalism and both participants in the American institutions formed by the Wilsonian vision of social democracy. Strayer was replaced as the architect of the Princeton history department by Natalie Zemon Davis, a 1960s Marxist, about whom Cantor observes:

[I]rrationality, disorder, and delinquency are the focus of [her] attention and the behavior patterns to be endorsed. Davis merited her academic celebrity. Hers was the most self-consciously deconstructive American mind ever to apply itself to the study of early European society. She was the great anti-Wilsonian historical thinker.

Three concluding chapters close the book. “After the Fall” describes the Catholic medievalists David Knowles and Etienne Gilson, and their ambiguous positions in church and academy. The complicated Knowles, monk and monastic historian, was in Cantor’s view the finer scholar; Gilson held to a “naive Thomist integrationism” that, Cantor thinks, well served the ecclesiastical desire for demonstrable continuity, most particularly in ecclesiastical institutions. Their temperaments colored their work: Knowles was a radical Augustinian and valued sanctity alone; Gilson saw the good of institutions. Each wrote his medieval history from his particular point of view; each represented a contradictory element within Catholicism. Cantor thinks church-sponsored history absolutist, and historians, he insists, must be free of absolutism. Yet he has an almost religious devotion to the idea that history, particularly medieval history, contains within itself the seeds for the spiritual renewal of the postmodern world.

Perhaps most heroic of the subjects of Cantor’s book is R. W. Southern, elegiacaily named “The Once and Future King.” The “heir of the Oxford fantasists,” Southern, in his Making of the Middle Ages and in subsequent works, has studied religious sensibility in the twelfth century, especially in its romantic and individual expressions. Unlike the historians who emphasized material progress in the Middle Ages, Southern

immersed himself in both the glory and the mess of medieval sensibility. He placed in the foreground . . . the religious feelings of the Middle Ages, and as the postmodern era moves into the twenty-first century, the relevance of medieval spirituality rather than rationality will become more meaningful to the survivors of the age of Bush and Gorbachev.

The last chapter, “Outriders,” is a collection of miscellanea: Johan Huizinga, Eileen Power, Michael Moissey Postan, Carl Erdmann, and Mommsen, the last an exile from the Nazis and a mentor whose despair and death Cantor poignantly recounts. In this chapter, a final eight pages reveals Cantor’s theology of history. A remarkable, startling, and hopeful evocation of what he calls retromedievalism, it witnesses to a historian unafraid to break ranks and do the impermissible—to prophesy. In these pages, Cantor’s voice echoes that of the novelist Walker Percy and the moral philosopher Alisdair MacIntyre in their differing vaticinia of the future inspiration of the West, after the destruction of modernity, by some still-unknown holy man.

Cantor believes that the present crisis in the university will only deepen, as will the general alienation from both capitalism and socialism as value systems. But in the field of medieval studies, the study of medieval literature may well flourish to renew the work of the founders “in which the Middle Ages were determined as a cultural structure, moral signification, and therapeutic recourse.” Unlike the romantics of the early nineteenth century, who used medieval culture as a shield against the discomforts of the Industrial Revolution, future retromedievalists will have at their disposal a far more detailed account of the thoughts, the hopes, and (though Cantor does not use this term) the doctrines of the Middle Ages. Those collections will be our inspiration.

Cantor himself particularly favors the doctrine of the Incarnation, which preconditioned medieval people to find “the ideal within the material, the beautiful within the ugly, the moral and peaceful in the midst of violence and disorder.” Cantor’s retro-medievalism he calls anti-statist, in the sense that it rejects the regulatory and welfare state; on the personal level, it rejects the scientistic habits of modernism and its rebellious offspring, counterculturalism. If, he thinks, the all-too-familiar list of global catastrophes can be avoided, along with the medieval disjunction between intellectual and spiritual excellence and material squalor, then the study of and identification with medieval culture in the postmodern West can give birth to a new history, rather than the end of history.

A palpable hope suffuses the final lines of Cantor’s book, and this, too, explains why this Plutarch of medieval studies has told his story so cheerfully:

We must have faith that God and fortune, as well as reason and the lessons of experience, will avoid [the above] hazards and allow the flourishing of a benign and creative retro-medieval moment. Like the Roman Empire, the modern age will crumble from the crack of inordinate greatness beyond the interest of the many and the desire of the privileged few to sustain, and in the murky streets of ruined cities and meeting grounds of a billion humble habitations, our heroes and saints will show us how to begin history anew.

Cantor hopes that the people of the Christian Middle Ages, sympathetically understood through the work of the great modern medievalists, will rouse the imaginations of their descendants in the West. For all Cantor’s suspicion of the church, and his scholar’s love of privacy and independence, this is a conviction that is akin to that of Christopher Dawson and—to take a living and influential philosopher—Karol Wojtila, better known as John Paul II. Cantor has given us these biographies of medievalists to fulfill an ancient purpose of learning—to warn, to edify, to inspire.

Robert Darling Young is Associate Professor of Theology at the Catholic University of America.

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