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

Hugo Barnacle
Saturday 22 October 2011 21:19

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.

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