Tracing the ""quest"" for the Middle Ages, Cantor (History, Sociology, Comparative Lit./N.Y.U.; Perspectives on the European...


"INVENTING THE MIDDLE AGES: The Lives, Works, and Ideas of the Great Medievalists of the Twentieth Century"

Tracing the ""quest"" for the Middle Ages, Cantor (History, Sociology, Comparative Lit./N.Y.U.; Perspectives on the European Past, 1971, etc.) has drafted a riveting chapter of 20th-century intellectual history. In this penetrating, opinionated, colorful study, Cantor paints sharp portraits of 20 modern medievalists--some heroes, some ""authoritarian egoists""--whose research has formed our vision of the Middle Ages. Delving into their psyches and explaining their brilliance and influence, Cantor shows that the writing of history is inextricably bound to the present, that historians like C.S. Lewis, Joseph Strayer (Eisenhower-era Princeton professor who worked for the CIA), or French Resistance hero Marc Bloch projected their personalities and the wider sociopolitical context onto their work. Percy Ernst Schramm and Ernst Kantorowicz's studies of medieval ""kingship,"" written in 1920's Heidelberg, reflect their elitism (Cantor calls them ""The Nazi Twins"") and the anxieties of the unstable Weimar Republic, just as Frederic Maitland's work on English law breathes the modernism of Eliot and Kandinsky. Passionately involved in the field, Cantor confesses his biases and disappointments--e.g., that his Oxford don Richard Southern (The Making of the Middle Ages) failed to attain the pervasive influence of Marc Bloch, whose Feudal Society was the last half-century's other ""most influential"" book on medieval history. Never shy to label or judge, or to discuss the dark side of human motivation, Cantor claims that Bloch's ""heritage of sanctity....was exploited to build a power-base for his Annalist colleagues and disciples."" The Middle Ages, Cantor convincingly contends, has deep affinities to the 20th century not only in heritage (church, university, Anglo-American law, etc.) but as ""the secret sharer of our dreams and anxieties."" His final, fiery call for a ""retromedievalism"" that ""reasserts the freedom of civil society"" is extreme but provocative. Engrossing, insightful, and bound to ruffle in its characterizations and its claim for the Middle Ages as central to the struggle to understand the spiritual and intellectual crises of our own age.

Pub Date: Dec. 16, 1991


Page Count: 488

Publisher: Morrow

Review Posted Online: N/A

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Nov. 15, 1991