Norman F. Cantor, Inventing the Middle Ages (William Morrow and Company, 1991)

The Middle Ages have been interpreted many ways since the Renaissance. Each century brings new perspectives, and literature changes to reflect them. Though scholars have studied the Middle Ages for centuries, only recently has the subject become a fully formed scholarly pursuit. In the past century, the study of the Middle Ages has extended beyond narrow ideological perspectives to allow deep insight into the people living in Europe after the fall of Rome and before the Renaissance.

In Inventing the Middle Ages, Norman Cantor explores the origin of our ideas about the Middle Ages. The book covers the lives of twenty great medieval scholars, from legal specialists like Frederic William Maitland, to popular historians like Johan Huizinga, to the two most widely-read medievalists, C.S. Lewis and J.R.R. Tolkien. Each man's background, influences, and seminal works are discussed in detail, belying the brevity of the biographies. Cantor defines the cultural boundaries of each man's work while showing how their work reaches beyond the fleeting interpretations and fashion of particular eras.

This book is about scholars, but not solely for scholars. Cantor's breezy, easygoing style makes every biography palatable to the general reader. At odds with the dense material he covers, Cantor's light approach delivers enjoyable reading. The book works without shortchanging anyone discussed or losing the reader in a dry scholarly tome. The accessible style carries readers past the few dry patches -- personal details and motivation add life to the work. Occasionally gossipy, Inventing the Middle Ages makes the authors out to be more than cloistered intellectuals. Where needed, Cantor mixes personal details and relations in with the arcana of medieval history to provide insight into each biography. He even injects his own experience into the book. For example, one of Cantor's subjects is his PhD advisor, Joseph Strayer. In this case, the anecdotes from Cantor's dissertation work are used to illuminate Strayer's approach to medieval studies in general.

The evolving nature of 20th century learning changed attitudes and understanding about the Middle Ages considerably. Comparing the fiction of Lord Dunsany or William Morris to that of J.R.R. Tolkien or C.S. Lewis, though only a few decades separate their work, shows the dichotomy between the 19th and the 20th century conceptions of the Middle Ages. Dunsany and Morris depict ordered neo-Victorian medieval worlds that lack the depth and personal motivation found in Tolkien and Lewis. The better-drawn medieval worlds of Tolkien and Lewis stem from extensive research in the primary texts from the Middle Ages. 19th century literature lacks the perspective gained from this research. 20th century literature has a direct, personal attachment to medieval experiences. The massive accumulation of scholarship on the Middle Ages in the past century is clearest when Cantor points out that "any bright American college sophomore who today takes a good survey course on medieval history has a better understanding of the components of the medieval world than anyone who wrote before 1895" (page 37).

Linking the Middle Ages and the modern era is a constant theme for Cantor. Using the 20th century medievalists as links, Cantor draws many parallels between the Middle Ages and today. In law, politics, science, and religion, Cantor shows how a better understanding of the Middle Ages provides insight into how and why we look at such things today. Cantor describes how Ernst Kantorowicz's biography of the Holy Roman Emperor Frederick II was a popular success in Weimar Germany precisely because of connections that Germans drew between the first part of the 20th century and Frederick's era. He then makes a case for this work's broader influence on the development of German society in the 1920s and 1930s. The parallels stretch from popular biography to politics. Some of them, though, are indeed a stretch. Cantor spends several pages likening the reign of England's Henry II to Roosevelt's New Deal era. Too much effort to make cases like this is something of a distraction in Inventing the Middle Ages.

Many popular books and films build on the Middle Ages. Understanding the roots of our knowledge of that era helps explain how we are connected to the people of 500 to 1500 years ago. Norman Cantor's Inventing the Middle Ages assists in making this connection. Accessible to the scholar and amateur alike, the book is a useful and entertaining resource for filling in the historical context for how and why we portray medieval Europe today.

[Eric Eller]