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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

Inventing the Middle Ages

Inventing the Middle Ages:

The Lives, Works and Ideas of the Great Medievalists of the Twentieth Century

By Norman F. Cantor

A collection of portraits of the leading authorities on the history of the Middle Ages, revealing how their varied outlooks and personalities shaped our modern conception of medieval times.

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Available as: Hardback

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Print Hardback

ISBN: 9780718828738

Specifications: 234x156mm (9.21x6.14in), 480pp

Published: November 1992


It is sometimes difficult to appreciate the extent to which our current perception of the Middle Ages, grounded in images of plagues, wars, kings, saints, knights and tournaments, is of comparatively recent origin.

In what will surely prove a seminal work of historiography, Norman F. Cantor argues that our picture of the medieval world, far from having been excavated by systematic research, is quintessentially the creation of twentieth century historians whose spiritual and emotional outlooks coloured their interpretation of an entire epoch. These strong personalities and creative minds, who brought fresh insights about the past, effectively 'invented' the Middle Ages.

Professor Cantor anatomises the story of that invention through the lives of twenty of the great medievalists of this century, beginning with F.W. Maitland, a 'secular saint' and self-taught scholar of incomparable ability, who slipped into historical research and brilliantly traced the emergence of English Common Law. Among the many other scholars Cantor cites are J.R.R. Tolkien and C.S. Lewis, who, working against a background of war and the threatened disintegration of society, envisaged alternative morally ordered and inspiring worlds; Percy Schramm, a Nazi sympathiser, and Ernst Kantorowicz, who later attempted to conceal his earlier pro-Nazi leanings, who both studied medieval kingship; Marc Bloch, a Jew, killed while fighting with the French Resistance, who helped establish the method of the 'Annales' historians, using economic statistics to make broad sociological points; David Knowles, a Roman Catholic monk, who relived his conflicts with his own superiors through the trials of St Francis, and highlighted the medieval church's ambiguous sense of individuality; Joseph Strayer, who eulogised medieval bureaucrats whilst employed by the CIA; and Sir Richard Southern, who combined the conventional career of an Oxford don with a lyrical, original insight into the subtleties of medieval sensibility.

In this stimulating, provocative and always intelligently written work, Professor Cantor fashions an immense body of learning in an entirely fresh way. Readers will come away fully informed of the essentials of the subject and also newly aware of the interconnection between medieval civilisation and the culture of the twentieth century.

Preface and Acknowledgements

1. The Quest for the Middle Ages
2. Law and Society: Frederick William Maitland
3. The Nazi Twins: Percy Ernst Schramm and Ernst Hartwig Kantorowicz
4. The French Jews: Louis Halphen and Marc Boch
5. The Formalists: Erwin Panofsky and Ernst Robert Curtius
6. The Oxford Fantasists: C.S. Lewis, J.R.R. Tolkien and Frederick Maurice Powicke
7. American Pie: Charles Homer Haskins and Joseph Reese Strayer
8. After the Fall: Michael David Knowles and Etienne Henry Gilson
9. The Once and Future King: Richard William Southern
10. Outriders: Johan Huizinga, Eileen Edna Power, Michael Loissey Postan, Carl Erdmann, and Theodor Ernst Mommsen

A Core Bibliography in Medieval Studies

Born in Canada, the son of a Winnipeg rancher, Norman F. Cantor graduated from the University of Manitoba, and studies as a Rhodes Scholar at Oxford, and at Princeton. The author of numerous books, he was Fulbright Professor at Tel Aviv University from 1987–88, and is currently Professor of History and Sociology at New York University.

This is compulsory reading for any medievalist and for everybody concerned about the past – and the future – of Western civilisation. It is also outrageous: sharp, personal, daring, and thought-provoking. M.T. Clancy, Professor of Medieval History, University of London
Fascinating, acerbic, funny and deeply personal ... Cantor does not stop at an examination of the social and political circumstances of the time in which historians write; he is concerned with their inner condition. It is the analysis of personality which does much to make his book so readable ... Michael Prestwich, in The Times Literary Supplement
Cantor's consistent approach and his lively pen-portraits make his book not just an efficient charting of the fortunes of medieval studies in this century but a good read as well. Maurice Keen, in The Oxford Magazine
Anyone who reads this remarkable book with attention will not only enjoy a tour of some of the academic centres of the twentieth century but also be presented, in a distilled and summary form, with a dozen debates or interpretations that have preoccupied scholarly thinking about the Middle Ages ... As well as a work of intellectual history, Cantor's book is a kind of handbook for medieval studies. Robert Bartlett, in The New York Review of Books
Norman Cantor's Inventing the Middle Ages is one of those rare books at once intellectually stimulating as well as scholarly. It will annoy, anger, arouse bitterness, and at the same time capture the interests of its readers. Its insights are often brilliant; its judgements are often acidulous; the writing is always clear and readable. It is an important and exciting book which will be read and talked about both in and out of academia Sidney A. Burrell, Professor Emeritus of History, Boston University
Popular but scholarly historical writing is not so hard to come by. Racy, riveting, and scholarly works of historiography are much rarer – in fact Inventing the Middle Ages is the only real example I have seen. ... The spotlight is on the unique perspective each of the medievalists brought to bear on the discipline. They are also placed in broader historiographical currents, with the inclusion of brief accounts of other figures of note in medieval studies as well as descriptions of the whole academic traditions. ... Parallels are continually drawn between the modern and medieval worlds, at all sorts of levels ... Inventing the Middle Ages is a splendid book, unusual in its combination of different genres and its mixture of scholarly assessment with popular style. ... it has a core bibliography of medieval studies works available in English and endnotes with brief bibliographic annotations to each chapter. The latter contain some of the most interesting material ... if you are at all interested in medieval history I recommend it. Danny Yee