Thursday, December 10, 2009

Historians of the Middle Ages

Just before Thanksgiving, I finished Inventing the Middle Ages: The Lives, Works, and Ideas of the Great Medievalists of the Twentieth Century by Norman Cantor (1991). Why I pick up a particular book at some particular time quite often puzzles me, but this book, which I've owned since buying it second-hand in 2006, got its call in November, and it proved quite a fascinating read. I picked up my pace reading through it like in order to finish before Thanksgiving (it's hard cover and wouldn't travel easily). Now why on earth would I find such a work fascinating? Several reasons. First, Cantor writes well, and he's covering two topics at once: twentieth century writers, as well as medieval history. For instance, the English legal theorist Frederick Maitland was a member of the Bloomsbury group, consisting of such persons as Virginia Woolf and John Maynard Keynes. Interesting company for him (Maitland), as well as the reader. Cantor handles both subjects quite well. The intrigues, interests, biases, and obstacles of twentieth century historians of the medieval period prove quite interesting in themselves (there's more than just a little academic gossip here). Indeed, one of the intriguing aspects of the books addresses how the needs and interests of the present effect researches into the past. For instance, two German scholars who began during the Weimar Period were interested in German leadership. One, Kantorwicz, a Jew, was forced to flee Germany because of a "strong" German leader, while the other, Schramm, was close to Hitler as historian of the Wehrmacht.

The two most famous medievalists considered made their names outside of their scholarly area, but their scholarly interest in the Middle Ages shown through much of the popular work. C. S. Lewis and J.R.R. Tolkien allowed their sense of this lost world to shine through their very popular works.

These are only of few of the historians discussed, and even those whom we'd never heard of before become quite fascinating in Cantor's consideration. In addition, I realize that I was quite fortunate as an undergraduate to have been exposed to medieval and Renaissance history from some capable teachers. My first semester as an undergraduate, taking a course in Western Civ, introduced me to Phillip the Fair and Boniface VIII. A course in Medieval History from John Bell Henneman gave me a wide-ranging introduction to this strange world, and one can't appreciate the Renaissance without some sense of it roots.

I'm now casually working my way through Cantor's Civilization of the Middle Ages (1994), a comprehensive survey. Cantor provides good bibliographies and his book has prompted me to go back and explore some of these historians as well as this period. I've also started Huizinga's The Autumn of the Middle Ages. (Note: not The Waning of the Middle Ages—a different translation—but more on that later.)