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Cantor's "Inventing the Middle Ages"

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By Paul Newall (2006)

The late Norman F. Cantor's Inventing the Middle Ages was first published in 1991. He set out to show

Inventing the Middle Ages... how our current notion of the Middle Ages - with its vivid images of wars, tournaments, plagues, saints and kings, knights and ladies - was born in the twentieth century. The medieval world was not simply excavated through systematic research. It had to be conceptually created: It had to be invented.

Cantor's fundamental claim was that "[a]ll works of history are in a sense autobiographical, particularly if the author is dealing with a historical personality that he finds sympathetic." It should perhaps be added the same holds for those found decidedly unsympathetic, and Cantor studied a host of eminent medievalists who fell into either or both camps. These included Maitland, Schram, Kantorowicz, Bloch, Halphen, Panofsky, Curtius, Haskins, Strayer, Knowles, Gilson and Southern, along with some lesser lights in the form of C.S. Lewis, Tolkein, Huizinga, Postan, Power and Mommsen. The notion at base is quite simple: the historical reality of how it really was - wie es eigentlich gewesen - is underdetermined by the available traces of the past and hence the historian must fill in the gaps. In doing so, however, he or she is liable to project backwards onto the past his or her own preconceptions, ideas and motives.

What Cantor was able to do was illustrate this in a way that seamlessly blended biography, history, politics and philosophy into a carefully reasoned whole. Thus did Erwin Panofsky belong "to that generation of German Jewish humanists who envisioned themselves as connected to a chain of civility and learning that stretched back from Bismarckian and Weimar Germany through the millennia to the classical and biblical worlds that became fused in the Christian patristic culture of the fourth century A.D." Panofsky, like many of the others considered by Cantor, brought to the study of the Middle Ages a conviction of continuity - a thema in Gerald Holton's terminology - that allowed him to read Medieval times as a steady evolution of the classical liberal project.

Many of these medievalists were writing before, during or shortly after the Second World War, and their work took on another dimension as a result. For Curtius, his European Literature and the Latin Middle Ages "grew out of a concern for the preservation of Western culture", threatened - as he and most of the others saw it - by Hitler and the Nazis. He attempted "to illuminate the unity of [the Western cultural tradition] in space and time" for in "the intellectual chaos" of the war years it had "become necessary" to do so. That probably no such unity actually existed was not the point: Curtius both believed that it did and wanted it to in order to serve as an antidote to the steady descent into fascism he was witnessing. Schramm's Otto III and Kantorowicz's Frederick II were both written in accordance with their belief that this great culture could be perpetuated only through strong, enlightened leadership, and they looked for a messianic figure in the present to do likewise, replacing the broken Germany of the post-Versailles Treaty years with a new imperialism based on the finest traditions of the Middle Ages. They got Hitler. Schramm thought that an imperfect neo-Medievalism was better than none and took his chances; Kantorowicz was Jewish and had to take his elsewhere.

Tolkein and Lewis, whom Cantor grouped with Powicke as "The Oxford Fantasists", disliked the "modern" world and yearned for a return to (or remodelling on) a better age, one they saw in Medieval times. Bloch, hero of the Resistance, granted too much influence to the peasantry. Strayer and Haskins advocated Medieval law for the present, while Huizinga, Power, Postan, Mommsen and Erdmann saw in the Middle Ages a terror in one form or another (the repression of women for Power, decades ahead of other feminists) that had to be surmounted in order to arrive at a more tolerant, reasonable today. Thus the way we look at Medieval times was born of "learned research, humanistic theory, assumptions about human behaviour, and the ever-present ingredient of the personal experiences of medievalists" Once set, the prestige and power associated with the academic positions occupied by the great Medievalists ensured that their views were perpetuated.

In sum,

Inventing the Middle Ages... out of this array of constituents, there was solidified a cultural structure that comprised the fundamentals of the Middle Ages that we read in our textbooks, teach and study in our classes, and disseminate in libraries, museums, and the literary and visual arts. Nothing of consequence from the nineteenth century was found worthy of perpetuation in the way of interpreting and imaging of the Middle Ages. Discovering the meaning of the European Middle Ages is a phenomenon of twentieth-century culture.

There are two lessons to draw from Cantor's book. The first is that the role of the individual historian is very much relevant to the overall study of history, which cannot be considered a solely empirical discipline. The historian is working with traces of the past that were recorded (in whatever form) by people with ideas, hopes, goals, ideological positions and influences just as the historian has still others as he or she selects and interprets them - two layers of theory-ladenness, as it were. The question of why a particular historian chose to emphasise some at the expense of others is one that can be addressed (at least in part) by biography - studying the historian instead of supposing that history is all about determining wie es eigentlich gewesen from the available evidence. This is clear in the obvious example of Galileo Studies, wherein some choose to use the Florentine with an apologetic motive and excuse the actions of the Church, even as others start with the notion that a vital conflict between science and religion could be demonstrated. However, that we can never get away from these thematic presuppositions when dealing in history leads to a whole new avenue of investigation: why does Fantoli read the Galileo Affair differently to Finocchiaro, say, and to what extent do the answers lie in their thinking and the circumstances of their lives, rather than (or in addition to) further study of the sources?

The second point is that the so-called postmodern (actually anti-representationalist) critiques of traditional historiography barely (if at all) touch on this sociological dimension enumbrated by Cantor. His methodology does not seem to have significantly influenced either side of the current debate, which is puzzling because it would seem to be devastating for the empiricists and indicative of not going far enough for their opponents. Noting that a Catholic scholar may have approached the events in seventeenth century Rome and Florence with an apologetic motive is unsatisfactory because it only touches the surface: apologists are not identical, after all. What do individual historians bring to their work in sociological terms, beyond basic similarities? How deep does the "ever-present ingredient of the personal experiences" go? This is a question that should provide historiographers with many years of study, as well as indicating - as if it were needed - that history is far, far deeper than a misplaced hope in finding out how it really was way back when.

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