Inventing the Middle Ages

The concept of the Middle Ages, or, as in some European languages, “the Middle Age,” originated in the eighteenth century, but according to Norman Cantor, modern understanding of the millennium between the decline of the Greco-Roman world and the era commonly termed “the Renaissance” derives primarily from twenty scholars who worked between about 1895 and 1965. Some medievalists are sure to challenge Cantor’s list of leading lights as well as many of the judgments he makes in this provocative study, but they will recognize that they are challenging a man of great erudition and sophistication who has been accumulating the material of this volume for four decades through wide reading and, often, through personal knowledge of his subjects.

Inventing the Middle Ages is an unusual book. Its title suggests a thesis along the lines that the Middle Ages are merely a later academic “invention,” but Cantor’s purpose is more complex than that. Its subtitle, The Lives, Works, and Ideas of the Great Medievalists of the Twentieth Century, seems to portend some sort of unwieldy combination of biography, literary criticism, and intellectual history, but the book is more purposeful and coherent than one might suppose. It is also a book with a personality of its own.

In the first chapter, “The Quest for the Middle Ages,” Cantor asserts two main justifications for studying the medieval world: its importance as a cultural heritage and its attraction as “the conjunctive other” of the modern age, an era tantalizingly like the modern world but different enough to challenge current values and provoke thought about possible alternatives. Although Cantor sees his core of eminent medievalists as valuable from both perspectives, he emphasizes the second and less common validation of the quest.

His notable medievalists’ work is not one invention but a series of them, diverse and sometimes contradictory, but not factitious—or fictitious—inventions. It appears likely, though he does not make the point overtly, that he has in mind the Latin root of “invention” as the coming upon or discovering of something. The modern “inventors” of the Middle Ages have not been makers so much as discoverers, and the diversity of their discoveries follows from the variety of their backgrounds. Thus Cantor’s interest in their biographies.

Most of the principals in Cantor’s book were young men during the rise of Hitler, and since the majority of them are European, their lives and outlooks were strongly influenced by political developments of the 1920’s and 1930’s. Two German medievalists—Percy Ernst Schramm and Ernst Hartwig Kantorowicz—concentrated their researches on two medieval emperors, the late tenth century Otto III and the thirteenth century Frederick II, respectively, by way of focusing their need for a renewal of German imperial glory in their humiliated post-World War I nation, but becoming in the process, in varying degrees, tools of the Hitler regime, as Cantor’s designation for them—“the Nazi twins”—makes clear. Neither of these men can be called a mere propagandist, but their work (like the earlier philosophy of Friedrich Nietzsche and music of Richard Wagner) became useful in Nazi hands. In sharp contrast, the Nazi threat drove another German, Ernst Robert Curtius, back to a medieval field of study he had abandoned years before. Curtius had been teaching modern French literature at the University of Bonn, but when this subject became a precarious one to deal with honestly in the late 1930’s, Curtius turned to medieval Latin literature and wrote the enormously influential book known in its English translation as European Literature and the Latin Middle Ages (1953). If Schramm and Kantorowicz yearned for Germanic glory, Curtius expressed the need for cultural stability in a world coming apart.

Another medieval scholar, the French Jew Marc Bloch, became an ardent member of the French Resistance and died before a Nazi firing squad, but not before he had time to write compellingly on the history of feudalism and set forth a theory of history informed by neo-Marxist and anthropological considerations. Erwin Panofsky, a German Jew in the process of becoming the leading art historian of his time, escaped to the United States and enjoyed a brilliant career as a teacher, lecturer, and author of highly acclaimed books such as Renaissance and Renascences in Western Art (1960).


(The entire section is 1833 words.)