BOOK REVIEW / Sir Lancelot and the Bay of Pigs: 'Inventing the Middle Ages' - Norman F Cantor: Lutterworth, 17.95 pounds

AS A graduate student at Princeton in the early '5Os, Norman Cantor was taught by the historian Joseph R. Strayer, who 'spent two years (1951-3) doing nothing else in his seminar but reading medieval tax rolls, first of England, then of France. When I proposed that I do a report on the Thomist idea of kingship, he told me I should consider transferring to the philosophy department. 'Sure, that is part of medieval history,' he said, glowering through his inevitable cigar, 'but the philosophers will never study tax rolls. If we historians don't do it, nobody will, so we have to do it'.'

In his summer vacations Strayer worked five days a week at the CIA, and whenever an international crisis blew up during term he disappeared to Langley, getting Cantor to take his classes. 'I once had the temerity to ask him what he was doing for the CIA and why it found the services of a medievalist so important. The response was that Allen Dulles knew medievalists were used to drawing conclusions from fragmentary evidence, and that is just what the CIA did.'

It may be worth recalling the sort of conclusions that the CIA, with its vast intellectual and material resources, has been prone to reach - that the USSR possessed no means of intercepting the Lockheed U2 aircraft; that the Bay of Pigs invasion would spark a mass uprising in Cuba; or, later, that the Islamic revival posed no threat to the Shah of Iran - when we consider what weight to put on the conclusions of medieval historians.

Outlining 'the lives, works and ideas of the great medievalists of the 20th century', Cantor, now professor of history at NYU, aims to show that his fellow academics have at least tried harder than their Victorian predecessors, who did not read the tax and court rolls, the statutes and memoranda, but described the Middle Ages as a stage in God's great plan, with men, movements and events all conforming to the preordained pattern of white Christendom's triumph.

In Cantor's view, modern medieval scholarship begins with FW Maitland of Cambridge, who published his study of the origins of English jury trial in 1895, basing it on a reading of the case records in the British Museum and the Public Record Office. Before Maitland, historians could and did get away with simply waffling about the Anglo-Saxon love of liberty and justice. 'The essence of modernism,' says Cantor, citing Eliot and Einstein among others, '. . . was to take the object studied out of linear and referential schemes and to concentrate on the thing itself . . .' For Maitland the object was archive evidence. This taste for the particular, Cantor claims, was also characteristic of medieval thought, which rings true because the arch-modernist and arch-Thomist James Joyce used to say the same thing.

The great English legal reforms occurred in the 1160s. The earliest surviving records date from the 1190s. Cantor plays this down, but it means that Maitland, for all his modern-mindedness, had to speculate when he attributed the reforms to the king as a sign of centralising government. Anti-Maitlandists argue that the gentry, the families who provided judges and lawyers and jurors, and who had constant lawsuits against the tenantry, devised the system to plump up their own powers and purses. There is no proof either way; it depends whether you believe that society is controlled by the nominal rulers, or by other privileged interest-groups.

In a banal but inescapable sense all history is invention, because all historians have their hobby-horses, their axes to grind, just as, when a friend tells you about a disagreement or a failed relationship, they will emphasise or discount this or that aspect to suit the way they happen to be thinking. They may even lie about some of it. Another friend in the know will say something different again.

Nazi medievalists in the '20s wrote of the great German emperors like Frederick Stupor Mundi and the romantic ideal of strong, unifying leadership. The American academic mandarins promoted by Woodrow Wilson admired their own elitist reflection in what they claimed was the burnished excellence of Norman state institutions. French Left-Bankers ignored the overlords, and all the narrative history of laws passed and battles fought, to concentrate on the social conditions of the peasant masses. Oxford dons saw the Middle Ages in terms of chivalry and the rise of individualism.

What Cantor himself finds to admire in the medieval period is 'the wonderful learning, wealth and imagination of monastery, court, cathedral and university', in short, the values of the cloister, and he treats the partialities and follies of all these scholars with deep and informed seriousness, largely unaware that, on behalf of gods called Marx or Order or something, they play the same old teleological game as the Victorians, just with better illustrative detail. He reserves his bile for those who make money at the job, particularly the bestselling French historian he accuses of bedding numbers of female grad students on a lucrative US lecture tour.

One of Cantor's subjects, the renegade English monk David Knowles, became famous for a collection of historical personality profiles, and Cantor is at his best when he sticks to this model. His general theorising is laborious: 'It is not too hard to make a case for the assertion that American medieval historians of the once dominant Harvard-Princeton institutional school too readily applied the bleak assumptions of pragmatic instrumentalism and transferred the hegemonic mind-set of American exceptionalism to their image of Anglo-Norman and French medieval state-building.' Unfortunately most of the book's 400 pages are covered in this stuff. Somewhere Cantor sniffs that the nonacademic Barbara Tuchman wrote 'suburban middle-class prose'. Well, it's a gift, Prof.

A question Cantor never addresses is why the whole stretch from the fall of Rome to the Renaissance should be considered as a single period. The population boom, the cathedrals, the Crusades, the epic romances, the growth of the nation states and the worst wars and plagues only came along after AD1000. The millennium divides two wildly different eras, so that the blanket concept of 'the Middle Ages' is not very useful.

For our own forthcoming millennium Cantor predicts a medieval revival, by which he means harmonious celebration of formal tradition and private feeling, as in his favourite century, the twelfth, or rather in the sunny picture of that century given by his favourite historian, Oxford's RW Southern. His only evidence for this 'retromedieval' trend, though, seems to be the popularity of Umberto Eco's monastic detective story The Name of the Rose in the 1980s, and he admits that the total collapse of civilisation will have to come first in any case. As Hollywood currently has no fewer than ten Arthurian films in development or production, perhaps we should look to a new Dark Age instead, all sixth-century guerrilla war and mysticism. Or we could leave the doomsday scenarios to Langley.

Suggested Topics
Arts and Entertainment
'Banksy Does New York' Film - 2014

Art Somebody is going around telling people he's Banksy - but it isn't the street artist

Arts and Entertainment
Woody Allen and Placido Domingo will work together on Puccini's Schicchi

Theatre

Arts and Entertainment
The sixteen celebrities taking part in The Jump 2015

TV

Arts and Entertainment
British author Helen Macdonald, pictured with Costa book of the year, 'H is for Hawk'
booksPanel hail Helen Macdonald's 'brilliantly written, muscular prose' in memoir of a grief-stricken daughter who became obsessed with training a goshawk
Arts and Entertainment
Tom DeLonge has announced his departure from Blink-182

music
PROMOTED VIDEO
Arts and Entertainment
In the picture: Anthony LaPaglia and Martin Freeman in 'The Eichmann Show'

tv
Arts and Entertainment
Anne Kirkbride and Bill Roache as Deirdre and Ken Barlow in Coronation Street

tvThe actress has died aged 60
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

ebooks
Arts and Entertainment
Marianne Jean-Baptiste defends Joe Miller in Broadchurch series two

tv
Arts and Entertainment
The frill of it all: Hattie Morahan in 'The Changeling'

theatre
Arts and Entertainment
Gillian Anderson and David Duchovny may reunite for The X Files

tv
Arts and Entertainment
Jeremy Clarkson, left, and Richard Hammond upset the locals in South America
TV
News
A young woman punched a police officer after attending a gig by US rapper Snoop Dogg
people
Arts and Entertainment
Reese Witherspoon starring in 'Wild'

It's hard not to warm to Reese Witherspoon's heroismfilm
Arts and Entertainment
Word up: Robbie Coltrane as dictionary guru Doctor Johnson in the classic sitcom Blackadder the Third
books

Arts and Entertainment
The Oscar nominations are due to be announced today

Oscars 2015
Arts and Entertainment
Hacked off: Maisie Williams in ‘Cyberbully’

Maisie Williams single-handedly rises to the challenge

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Eddie Redmayne in The Theory of Everything and Benedict Cumberbatch in The Imitation Game are both nominated at the Bafta Film Awards
Arts and Entertainment

Academy criticised after no non-white actors nominated

Arts and Entertainment
Damian Lewis shooting a scene as Henry VIII in Wolf Hall
TV

Arts and Entertainment
A history of violence: ‘Angry, White and Proud’ looked at the rise of far-right groups

tv

An expose of hooliganism masquerading as an ideological battle

Arts and Entertainment

art

Lee Hadwin can't draw when he's awake, but by night he's an artist

Arts and Entertainment

TV

Arts and Entertainment
Michael Keaton in the 1998 Beetlejuice original

film

Arts and Entertainment
Olivia Colman and David Tennant star in 'Broadchurch'

TV

Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    Greece elections: In times like these, the EU has far more dangerous adversaries than Syriza

    Greece elections

    In times like these, the EU has far more dangerous adversaries than Syriza, says Patrick Cockburn
    Holocaust Memorial Day: Nazi victims remembered as spectre of prejudice reappears

    Holocaust Memorial Day

    Nazi victims remembered as spectre of prejudice reappears over Europe
    Fortitude and the Arctic attraction: Our fascination with the last great wilderness

    Magnetic north

    The Arctic has always exerted a pull, from Greek myth to new thriller Fortitude. Gerard Gilbert considers what's behind our fascination with the last great wilderness
    Homeless Veterans appeal: Homeless in Wales can find inspiration from Daniel’s story

    Homeless Veterans appeal

    Homeless in Wales can find inspiration from Daniel’s story
    Front National family feud? Marine Le Pen and her relatives clash over French far-right party's response to Paris terror attacks

    Front National family feud?

    Marine Le Pen and her relatives clash over French far-right party's response to Paris terror attacks
    Pot of gold: tasting the world’s most expensive tea

    Pot of gold

    Tasting the world’s most expensive tea
    10 best wildlife-watching experiences: From hen harriers to porpoises

    From hen harriers to porpoises: 10 best wildlife-watching experiences

    While many of Britain's birds have flown south for the winter, it's still a great time to get outside for a spot of twitching
    Nick Easter: 'I don’t want just to hold tackle bags, I want to be out there'

    'I don’t want just to hold tackle bags, I want to be out there'

    Nick Easter targeting World Cup place after England recall
    DSK, Dodo the Pimp, and the Carlton Hotel

    The inside track on France's trial of the year

    Dominique Strauss-Kahn, Dodo the Pimp, and the Carlton Hotel:
    As provocative now as they ever were

    Sarah Kane season

    Why her plays are as provocative now as when they were written
    Murder of Japanese hostage has grim echoes of a killing in Iraq 11 years ago

    Murder of Japanese hostage has grim echoes of another killing

    Japanese mood was against what was seen as irresponsible trips to a vicious war zone
    Syria crisis: Celebrities call on David Cameron to take more refugees as one young mother tells of torture by Assad regime

    Celebrities call on David Cameron to take more Syrian refugees

    One young mother tells of torture by Assad regime
    The enemy within: People who hear voices in their heads are being encouraged to talk back – with promising results

    The enemy within

    People who hear voices in their heads are being encouraged to talk back
    'In Auschwitz you got used to anything'

    'In Auschwitz you got used to anything'

    Survivors of the Nazi concentration camp remember its horror, 70 years on
    Autumn/winter menswear 2015: The uniforms that make up modern life come to the fore

    Autumn/winter menswear 2015

    The uniforms that make up modern life come to the fore