Via the last History Carnival, I found this post by Hugo Holbling on Norman Cantor's Inventing the Middle Ages. I actually tried to comment on it, but both times my comments did not post. Very freakin' annoying. I'm actually even more annoying because I have seen this whole thing before, and just don't get it. Is it because Cantor writes to popular appeal? Do any working historians actually take his thesis that seriously? Maybe it's just me, but I think he's full of it. It all seems very clear and sensible, but it's just not true. At least, not the way it's presented. Cantor is talking about an impression of the Middle Ages that no scholar I know subscribes to. So, is he talking about the popular vision of the MA? it seems so. And people trained in the late 19th and very early 20th c., when it was still reasonably acceptable to write history with a didactic (often nationalist) point, are supposed to be representative of how things have been done by the historians working now? or even their immediate seniors? Or, because really, I'm old enough to have my own grad students, and my academic grandmother got her degree in the 1940s, two generations ago? Er .... NOT.
To be fair, Cantor's book came out in 1991, but still, it seems to me that he's lumping together medieval scholars under these very loose categories that he himself has created, and then reduces their work to what is representative of those categories. I'm calling bullshit. Moreover, the scholars he's chosen are not all historians, and while they have helped to create a picture of the MA, lumping them in with the rest weakens the argument re "historians". Holbling says, for example:
What Cantor was able to do was illustrate this in a way that seamlessly blended biography, history, politics and philosophy into a carefully reasoned whole. Thus did Erwin Panofsky belong "to that generation of German Jewish humanists who envisioned themselves as connected to a chain of civility and learning that stretched back from Bismarckian and Weimar Germany through the millennia to the classical and biblical worlds that became fused in the Christian patristic culture of the fourth century A.D." Panofsky, like many of the others considered by Cantor, brought to the study of the Middle Ages a conviction of continuity – a thema in Gerald Holton’s terminology – that allowed him to read Medieval times as a steady evolution of the classical liberal project.
So, perhaps Panofsky belonged to that group -- but did he see himself that way, or is Cantor's label the defining factor? If it's evolution that Panofsky sees, why not simply attribute it to the fact that it is an essentially modern approach, and modernism would have been an important cultural factor in Panofsky's world? Among my acquaintances, I'd say that none of the people with an Ancient/Medieval background see the MA as a step in some kind of evolutionary process, but the modernists, and some of the early modernists definitely see all of "our stuff" as moving inevitably towards "their stuff"
It may be Holbling's interpretation, but I have some serious problems with this:
Tolkein and Lewis, whom Cantor grouped with Powicke as "The Oxford Fantasists", disliked the "modern" world and yearned for a return to (or remodelling on) a better age, one they saw in Medieval times. Bloch, hero of the Resistance, granted too much influence to the peasantry. Strayer and Haskins advocated Medieval law for the present, while Huizinga, Power, Postan, Mommsen and Erdmann saw in the Middle Ages a terror in one form or another (the repression of women for Power, decades ahead of other feminists) that had to be surmounted in order to arrive at a more tolerant, reasonable today. Thus the way we look at Medieval times was born of "learned research, humanistic theory, assumptions about human behaviour, and the ever-present ingredient of the personal experiences of medievalists…" Once set, the prestige and power associated with the academic positions occupied by the great Medievalists ensured that their views were perpetuated.
Forgive me, but how do Tolkein and Lewis fit in? Yes, they are medievalists and help shape the picture of the MA, but neither was an historian. And is it really sensible to discuss Lewis absent his Christianity? If I were to look for an agenda in his academic work, I would say that it had much more to do with Christianity (albeit one hugely informed by medieval theology) than with 'disliking the modern world and yearning for a better age'.
Mostly, though, I just get irritated that people accept Cantor's work as if it were talking about things that are true today. No, we can't know wie es eigentlich gewesen. But nowadays, we are trained to try and recognize and remove our own biases and to rely on the evidence, to the point that we have to offer alternate interpretations and say when we can't be conclusive. We try to get as close as possible to how things really were, and we are familiar with the historiography so that we can critique it when necessary. We also tell our students to look for biases in all their sources, primary and secondary. But we also, at least those of us who look at Cliopatria on a regular basis, are pretty condemnatory of those who make no attempt at objectivity, unless they are representative of a particular approach. After all, we may not agree with Marxist interpretation, for example, but we're not going to criticize someone who claims to be writing a Marxist interpretation for writing a Marxist interpretation: we just allow for that. Or at least that's what they taught me in grad school. How 'bout you guys?
note: I can understand that Holbling likes the book because it's well-reasoned, since philosophers and reasoning are natural allies and all, but me? I like to make sure that the reasoning isn't just a good argument. I like it to hold water when faced with actual evidence. Something can be logically flawless, but you know, if the argument is based on dubious premises ...