Inventing the Middle Ages (Review)

By Norman Cantor.

Norman Cantor (1991) takes the various approaches to medieval historiography and uses them to illustrate scholarship in general, and from there draws a number of interesting conclusions about modern politics, religion, and social life (Cantor, 410-414). Cantor got in trouble for writing this work. While 80% of this work is brilliant scholarship, the other 20% make the tabloids look like peer-reviewed journals. The subtitle of the book should read “Professor Guilty of Sex Scandal: Cantor Tells All!” Then again, that is also why the book is so highly entertaining. After reading this book one may legitimately talk trash about various historians. Just kidding…sort of.

The study of the middle ages in the twentieth century was a microcosm of the larger battle for Western civilization. We see the Hegelian dialectic at work in which the culturally conservative U.S. Government (just go with it for the moment) was funding radical left-wing schools in France whose only merit was they were not politically active Communists. We see conservative reactions in the Formalist school, yet even this school merely asserted cultural conservatism–it never defined it at its roots.

The Functionalists

The functionalist school of the Middle Ages represented the apex of modernity’s scholarship: it’s objective was to (rightly) note that people in the Middle Ages (or whenever) did something for a reason. Actions presupposed a function (53). Representative of this approach was Maitland. The problem with this approach represents the problem with modernity in general (and the University in particular): it isolated one aspect of reality and unwittingly identified that aspect with the whole of reality. Further, it is unable to write about larger strands throughout a period of history (Versluis 2000).

The Nazi Twins

Jewish historian Ernst Kantorowicz must be an embarrassment to international Jewry: he is a Nazi Jew! Against the Formalist school (see below), Kantorowicz read the Middle Ages not as a unified consensus, but as a dialectical development waiting for a charismatic invididual to exploit it (Cantor 1991: 203). Cantor’s original project was a revisionist biography on Frederick II. It was criticized by scholars as “unscholarly” and “pop history,” but who cared? Kantorowicz simultaneously captured the spirit of great men while communicating history in a clear and engaging manner. Unfortunately, one can easily see the connection to Hitler, whose rise eventually forced Kantorowicz to leave Europe. On the other hand, his masterpiece was The King’s Two Bodies, which traced the dialectical impact of “the twinned-person” idea on Medieval politics and is arguably the finest genealogical critique of late Western medieval theology.

The French Jewish School

One could probably summarize its approach, not surprisingly, as left-wing and nigh close to Marxism. It was not officially Marxist, though. This distinction is important because it is this distinction which allowed the CIA to fund radical left-wing institutions in Paris as a left-wing alternative to Marxism, presumably with American tax dollars (149). The ideology behind this school was heavily endorsed in the American universities.

Cantor’s discussion of the French Mandarin system is worth the price of the book (124-135). In this system one worked his way up through the respected eschelons of the university hierarchy. If one had the ability to write well, local salons would publish his work, making him a celebrity. American universities, always wanting to be fashionable, would discuss (and informally endorse) this philosophe’s work and invite him on a lecture circuit in the U.S. As Cantor notes (and as only he could), “He will be idolized by the university president’s wife at the reception afterwards, and female graduate students will offer him both their minds and their bodies” (126).

The limitation of this school of thought is in the limitations of Marxism itself. When Marxism ceased to go out of style in the Academy, and other historical models were suggested, the Annales approach found itself marginalized.

The Formalists

The Formalists were the cultural neoconservatives of medieval studies. Their focus was primarily on art and iconography, and they advanced the sensible thesis that artistic works (and probably culture at large) could not be separated from the texts that inspired them (161). For the functionalists, this presupposes a continuity between religious and cultural texts. For anyone familiar with Patristic and Medieval Theology, this is exactly the case (more so with Patristic theology in the East). This is in contradistinction to the Functionalist school and in radical contradiction to the French Jewish school.

The truth (and problem) of the formalist school is with their argument: it is true that texts cannot be divorced from the life around them—and the best way to communicate this life is in art (and poetry). If one is positing a unified continuity from the Patristics to the 15th century, then one is sadly mistaken as it ignores the huge differences between the Franks and Eastern Romans on one hand, and the Celts and Western Romans on the other.

The Oxford Fantasists

This is probably the most famous part of the book. Cantor discusses the two most beloved writers of the English language in the twentieth century: Clive Staples Lewis and J. R. R. Tolkien. Their project is simple: draw upon the glories of medieval culture to rebuilt the shattered England from the ashes of WWII. While they accomplished no such goal, few can deny the staggering impact they have had on readers across the world.

It is at this point in the narrative that scholarly conservatives (and evangelicals in particular) will cry “shenanigans!” Cantor suggests Lewis was sexually repressed and was unable to consummate his marriage for several months, only to have his wife forcibly seduce him (211). The first problem with this statement is the obvious one: evidence? None. The culprit is nearby, however. One suspects Cantor is relying upon the speculations of Ian Wilson, who bore no love for Lewis. Yet, does not Cantor admit that Wilson failed in the basics of scholarly research and the demonstration of evidence (430)? Why should we take Wilson seriously?

The American School

The American school is the ideological brainchild of Woodrow Wilson. It’s particular historical methods are not that important. On the other hand, Woodrow Wilson’s worldview has dominated American politics (and by extension, literally the rest of the world) for 90 years. Not surprisingly, we see the American medieval history school as a justification for post-Christian Western politics.

The actual historical arguments by representatives Strayer and others are not that interesting, except for this: it is a specific justification of the Norman invasion of England, and the replacing of Saxon culture with a specifically Norman and Papal culture (269). Such a task also involves a rewriting of the “other” culture’s history. Interestingly, Strayer was also a CIA asset (262). One cannot help but speculate on the connections between Wilsonian progressivism, Norman and Frankish historiography, and the CIA: all of which contribute to the relativising of traditional communities around the world (at least today).


Cantor has a sexually charged chapter dealing with the neo-Thomists David Knowles and Etienne Gilson. It makes for interesting reading, but if the reader is either ignorant of Freud, or rejects Freud, or simply doesn’t care, then much of this chapter can be skipped. In all seriousness, Cantor does highlight the inability of Thomist Catholicism to offer a coherent account of the Middle Ages from Augustine to Ockham. Gilson tries, but Cantor dissects him quite well. (Personally, I think Cantor is wrong, but his analysis of Gilson is correct. Here is the problem: Cantor says Gilson cannot offer a unified reading because the discontinuity between Augustine and Aquinas is too great. However, granting the discontinuity, one can also say that Aquinas is the dialectical synthesis of Augustine. Or rather, he is the antithesis and Ockam is the synthesis. Obviously, Gilson will not take that interpretation).


In a daring stroke of genius, Cantor illustrates the truth of his project by devoting a chapter on feminist writers who either reject medievalism or reconstruct its accepted tenets. These feminist critiques illustrate the limitations of the above historical models, but also the real gains and the directions in which future medieval history will take.


The book is outrageous because of its daring. Part of it is brilliant historiography, the rest of it is scandalous tabloid. Let’s be honest: few can deny the book’s entertaining value. Fewer still can deny its scholarly arguments. Indeed, we followed his arguments because he tied them in with the moral peccadilloes of most of his comrades. Granted, I think he overdid it, nor do I ascribe the same normative and omnipotent value to psychoanalysis, especially the sexual aspects.

On the other hand, this book is a must read in terms of historiography. It should be mandated in all freshman history and liberal arts classes. It is interdisciplinary in character and demonstrates the best ways to integrate various fields.

Cantor, Norma. Inventing the Middle Ages: The Lives, Works, and Ideas of the Great Medievalists of the Twentieth Century. New York: William Morrow and Co., 1991.

Versluis, Arthur. “Western Esotericism and Consciousness.” Journal of Consciousness Studies, 7 (no.6) 2000: pp. 20-33.


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