Thursday, November 1, 2012

Inventing the Middle Ages

Norman Cantor's Inventing the Middle Ages is a fascinating book, and excellent hurricane reading. It covers the generations of medievalists who flourished between the 1890s and the 1970s, in chapters of about forty pages. Of those he writes about, I had heard of a handful--Maitland, Kantorowitz, Bloch, Braudel, Le Roy Ladurie, Lewis, Tolkien, and Gilson--and of them had read only Le Roy Ladurie and Gilson on medieval matters.

His judgments are severe, here and there: on the Annales school he has many hard things to say, both about their academic politics and about their histories. On Oxbridge:
But intellectual innovators are severely rationed in British academia--one or at most two per academic discipline per half century. In this subtle way, the intellectual conservatism of the establishment is actually reinforced, since the grandees can point to a single unique innovator as the outcome of their own ambient wisdom and plasticity, and they then can go peaceably back for another generation to pouring the sherry before high table dinner and the port afterwards.
He judges that Etienne Gilson's work ultimately failed. He praises the histories of Percy Schramm and  Ernst Kantorowitz, but not unjustly titles the chapter on them "The Nazi Twins".

I cannot speak to his judgments on the writers. I do wonder whether a man born twenty years later would have so confidently applied the terms of Freudian analysis here and there to his subjects: ego, superego, Oedipal attachment, repression. If I had a spare year between now and Christmas, I could find plenty to read in his 125-book core bibliography (and I may yet read half a dozen of them, just not immediately).

I will add two frivolous complaints;
  1. There is a touch of mandarinism in the occasional use of "middle-class", for example in the passing mention of Barbara Tuchman as writing "suburban, middle-class prose". Now and then finds formulas such as "undergraduates and the educated public", as an audience able to read a certain work.
  2. A sentence such as "[Schramm's] book on Otto III was an intellectual revolution in medieval studies, and it is as exciting today as the day it was published (it has never been translated into English)." depresses me.
And one serious reservation: I don't see his prediction of a "retromedievalism" as likely to come about. Nor do I see that two aspects he identified as central to the project have that much to do with medievalism. Who could argue with "civil society"? Yet in the Middle Ages it existed as much in default of a powerful state as in opposition to it. And the "hard-edged sentimentality" one could locate in many other cultures.

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