Sunday, November 30, 2014

Inventing the Middle Ages

Norman Cantor (1991) takes the various approaches to medieval historiography and uses them to illustrate scholarship in general, and from there draws a number of interesting conclusions about modern politics, religion, and social life (Cantor, 410-414). Cantor got in trouble for writing this work. While 80% of this work is brilliant scholarship, the other 20% make the tabloids look like peer-reviewed journals! The subtitle of the book should read "Professor Guilty of Sex Scandal: Cantor Tells All!" Then again, that is also why the book is so highly entertaining. After reading this book one may legitimately talk trash about various historians. Just kidding...sort of.

The study of the middle ages in the twentieth century was a microcosm of the larger battle for Western civilization. We see the Hegelian dialectic at work in which the culturally conservative U.S. Government was funding radical left-wing schools in France whose only merit was they were not politically active Communists. We see conservative reactions in the Formalist school, yet even this school merely asserted cultural conservatism--it never defined it at its roots.

Cantor discusses the various approaches to medieval historiography: functionalism, fantasy, the proto-Nazi approach, the French Jewish annales school, and the American school (with a few others).

This review will simply highlight his take on CS Lewis and JRR Tolkien, arguably the two most popular writers in the English language in the twentieth century. Secondary attention is given to the American School.

The Oxford Fantasists

This is probably the most famous part of the book. Cantor discusses the two most beloved writers of the English language in the twentieth century: Clive Staples Lewis and J. R. R. Tolkien. Their project is simple: draw upon the glories of medieval culture to rebuilt the shattered England from the ashes of WWII. While they accomplished no such goal, few can deny the staggering impact they have had on readers across the world.

It is at this point in the narrative that scholarly conservatives (and evangelicals in particular) will cry "shenanigans!" Cantor suggests Lewis was sexually repressed and was unable to consummate his marriage for several months, only to have his wife forcibly seduce him (211). The first problem with this statement is the obvious one: evidence? None. The suspected culprit is nearby, however. One suspects Cantor is relying upon the speculations of Ian Wilson, who bore no love for Lewis. Yet, does not Cantor also admit that Wilson failed in the basics of scholarly research and the demonstration of evidence (Cantor, 430)? Why should we take Wilson seriously?

The American School

The American school is the ideological brainchild of Woodrow Wilson. Its particular historical methods are not that important. On the other hand, Woodrow Wilson's worldview has dominated American politics (and by extension, literally the rest of the world) for 90 years. Not surprisingly, we see the American medieval history school as a justification for post-Christian Western politics.

The actual historical arguments by representatives Strayer and others are not that interesting, except for this: it is a specific justification of the Norman invasion of England, and the replacing of Saxon culture with a specifically Norman and Papal culture (269).  And I say this as a personal descendant of William the Conqueror. Such a task also involves a rewriting of the "other" culture's history. Interestingly, Strayer was also a CIA asset (262). One cannot help but speculate on the connections between Wilsonian progressivism, Norman and Frankish historiography, and the CIA: all of which contribute to the relativising of traditional communities around the world (at least today).


The book is outrageous because of its daring. Part of it is brilliant historiography, the rest of it is scandalous tabloid. Let's be honest: few can deny the book's entertaining value. Fewer still can deny its scholarly arguments. Indeed, we followed his arguments because he tied them in with the moral peccadilloes of most of his comrades. Granted, I think he overdid it, nor do I ascribe the same normative and omnipotent value to psychoanalysis, especially the sexual aspects.

On the other hand, this book is a must read in terms of historiography. It should be mandated in all freshman history and liberal arts classes. It is interdisciplinary in character and demonstrates the best ways to integrate various fields.

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