BOOK REVIEW / Sourpuss sharpens his claws on the past: 'Inventing the Middle Ages' - Norman F Cantor: Lutterworth Press, 17.95 pounds

Click to follow
The Independent Culture
THE MIDDLE Ages are always with us - in cathedrals and rituals of kingship, in common law and notions of courtly love. They embody senses of identity and of loss, and against them we measure our progress or our failures. In this century they have enriched the deadly cosmology of Nazism and inspired the weird world of The Hobbit; they have provided workers' associations with precedents of guild fraternity, and continue to sustain claims to nobility and deference among the landed. A book exploring the making of these Middle Ages by 20th- century historians would be useful. Inventing the Middle Ages, while compulsively readable, is both infuriating and wrong.

Norman Cantor writes of the life and times of 20 medieval historians from 1900 to now. Some, like Kantorowicz, he denounces for crimes such as collaboration with the Nazis; others, including Tolkien and C S Lewis, for personal inadequacy and escape into fantasy; still others, like Richard Southern, for their aloofness. The minor villains are British scholars, his student-day heroes who failed to show warmth when the young Cantor visited Oxford as a graduate student in 1954. Imagine the gnawing bitterness in the young man who came to shower love on these great scholars, but found Oxford historians accustomed only to dogs at their feet.

This sense of love spurned, of being an outsider, pervades the book. Cantor's judgements are sour. Medieval history has become the site of an infernal conspiracy, its historians either villains or dupes. The greatest villains are the French, the 'mandarins', and chief among them Marc Bloch. This member of the Resistance (who was tortured and killed by the Germans in 1944), co-founder of the most influential current school of history, is accused of demolishing a whole edifice of medieval scholarship: he and his successors in the Annales School, who opened out history to encompass so much that had been excluded, are depicted as calculating careerists flirting with Marxism to win the plaudits of cafe society and lucrative invitations to American campuses.

But much of what Cantor obsessively denounces as yet another leftist conspiracy was in fact the impact of two world wars on the sensibility of European historians. In 1974 Umberto Eco declared the 'return of the Middle Ages'. From Ellis Peters to Montaillou, from the Jorvik Centre to Monty Python and the Holy Grail, there has been a 're-turn' to a different kind of place - not a world viewed from a throne, high altar or exchequer, but a world of many different voices and hues.

Marc Bloch hoped that a comparative and social history might offer an alternative to the past conjured by nationalist fantasy and ethnic invention, bringing Europeans together in a sense of a shared history. This small-minded book fails to see in the 'new' Middle Ages a vision of peace after the Somme and Auschwitz. A better book might have appreciated that we need such a history for a people's Europe bound - rather than torn asunder - by its past.