Tuesday, February 08, 2005

Reality Check

Reality Check

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 ...


Anonymous said...

To state my bias at the outset, I’m a fan of Norman Cantor.

Cantor provided an insight that those who are not professional historians seldom get. In his "Inventing the Middle Ages" and even more so in "Inventing Norman Cantor" we get to see how history is written.

Every age writes its own view of the past. If this were not so there would be one standard history of the Middle Ages with occasional updates as new facts are discovered. This is clearly not the case and we see that history is written and rewritten and recreated by successive generations. Created by men and women who are immersed in their own times the written record is bound to change. This change also enriches our understanding.

Indeed, Norman Cantor’s own character affected his own writing. Cantor cared passionately about Medieval history. He saw its importance in helping us to decipher our past and in deciding how to act in the present.

He also cared passionately about the future of history as a profession. He saw that unless historians make an effort to integrate and explain history and its allied arts to a wide audience that support for history as an academic discipline would wither and die.

In "Inventing the Middle Ages" Cantor did a great service to the profession. He showed how writing history at the very highest level is a human endeavor that reflects the passions of the historians who created the insights that shapes our understanding. By making this process understandable, I suspect that Cantor created an appreciation in the wider public that will reap dividends of support for historians in the future.

As you may know, Cantor died last summer, and I for one will miss him.

meg said...

I'm with you, ADM. I read *Inventing the MA* not long after it came out, and even before the uproar had reached my ears, I was shocked by the way he erected a false monolithic understanding of the MA in order to indulge in a little grudge repayment. In this book, he beautifully exemplifies precisely what he castigates.

It's not even rhetorically successful: He is so sharp-tongued that even the ignorant and disinterested reader can detect the pong of ulterior motives on every page.

And I'm not even a historian, but one of those sorry litterateurs who can't be expected to understand! (nudge nudge)

Derek Olsen said...

I'm not a historian nor have I read the book but from what I can see, it looks like a classic case of the genetic fallacy. Because we find a certain thing in the evidence based on our own biases and perspectives does not mean that it wasn't there to begin with.

Another Damned Medievalist said...

Anonymous --

I do own a couple of Cantor's books and really am addressing only the one in question. But I think part of my problem is that I tend to disagree with some of your basic assumptions.
I don't agree that "every age writes its own view of the past" at least not in the way you seem to mean. We build upon each other's work, add new information, and sometimes use the same information in different ways. Over time, different emphases come into and go out of fashion, but that isn't the same as imbuing the writing of history with a particular viewpoint.

As far as "Cantor cared passionately about Medieval history. He saw its importance in helping us to decipher our past and in deciding how to act in the present" goes, it might surprise you to know that many historians question that view. Clearly History is about deciphering the past, but does it, should it help us to decide how to act in the present? I'm really not that sure. For example, some people might say that Vietnam should have taught us to stay out of Iraq. Although I'm not a modernist, I think that's just bad reasoning. The two situations are very different, and trying to draw an analogy based on history just ends up masking some of the real issues that needed to be considered. It's fuzzy History, if you will. In the sense that History helps us to understand ourselves and others better, absolutely. But one of the popular misundertandings about History that I hate is that we are supposed to learn History so that we don't repeat our mistakes. That's true in individual human experience, and in a limited fashion can be true in History, but it should not be the rationale for learning and appreciating History. As far as I'm concerned, History explains how we got to where we are, and gives context for pretty much every other field and its development. It's the cornerstone of human understanding, and that's why we should study it -- not for the trite reasons you (and Cantor? I'm not entirely sure where he ends and your interpretation starts) suggest.

By the way, I allow anonymous comments so that people don't have to sign in to Blogger. I expect that people who post comments will have the courtesy of signing their names or pseudonyms. If you can't be bothered to let us know who you are, I reserve the right to remove your comments.

Another Damned Medievalist said...

I just realised that anonymous didn't really address my objections, anyway.

New Kid on the Hallway said...

Okay, I went to check out the original post and didn't make it past the first paragraph. Norman Cantor is the first person to suggest that historians interpret history in light of their own experiences and the society/culture in which they live? That the study of the individual historian is important? Umm, haven't historians been doing this for years? It's called HISTORIOGRAPHY? Sorry to say, Cantor did not invent it. Although I certainly agree, ADM, that he does it badly!

Cantor's book may be the first experience that some readers have with the idea that the life of the historian shapes the history that s/he writes, but it's not the source of that idea.

(Sorry, I realize this doesn't substantively address your main objections, but talking about Cantor always makes me crazy anyway!)

Another Damned Medievalist said...

Actually, NK, you just help me to crystallize my objections for myself. That's exactly it. It's Cantor's introduction of what is essentially historiography as if it were a new idea. That's the central part. The other objections are that, rather than discussing the historiography as part of perfectly acceptable schools of thought, Canto is forcing his own psycho-historical suppositions about his subjects as if they were valid, or equally valid; and that he's doing this for a popular audience in a way that, if we look at the results in terms of what people take away from the book, is essentially misleading and in the long term even harmful to helping people to understand what it is we do.

meg said...

Of course, Cantor may be the first contact that a lot of folks have with professional character assassination....

Ancarett said...

I tend to take Cantor not as an objective perspective on the field, but more as a gossipy romp through the academic stories of yesteryear. It isn't even historiography -- it's entertainment. (That said, the chapter on the Oxford Fantasists thrilled one of my graduate students who had never heard any comments on the academic work of either Tolkien or Lewis before she came upon Cantor.)

Anonymous said...

I suppose I've read about half the English-language authors Cantor discusses, maybe more, and a good proportion of those working in other languages who've been translated. On the whole, I found "Inventing the Middle Ages" an odd mixture of the interesting (e.g., on Strayer), the infuriating (as on Kantorowicz), and the oddly inaccurate on trivial, but easily established, points (Lewis's "Preface to Paradise Lost" is hardly a long commentary to Milton's poem, and, as it stays in print, I doubt that "no one" reads it). It was fun to read, mostly.

Since I was soon aware that he was not reliable on many counts, I tended to look for interesting comments on people he actually knew (not merely met), and his not unreasonable speculations about how academic politics and social bias have influenced careers. From time to time I've cited him in Amazon reviews -- mostly, though, to raise an issue and disagree with him. Amazon from time to time takes direct comments on an author's views (and possibly even mention of academic qualifications), as unfair personal attacks, so "contrary-to-Cantor's-criticism" provides a shield!

Hugo Holbling said...

I'm glad my review caused some controversy, although I didn't expect feelings on Cantor to run so high. I'm not sure that critiquing verisimilitude has anything to do with "making no attempt at objectivity", but I'm pleased to see historians are interested enough to comment on my work.

I have a forum dedicated to history and historiography at my site, if anyone would like to discuss either or explain why I'm talking through my hat.

Miriam said...

I'm a bit late to this interesting party, but Dad the Emeritus Historian of Graeco-Roman Egypt reminds me, with some bemusement, that Cantor's approach is little different from that of G. P. Gooch in History and Historians in the Nineteenth Century (1913). For that matter, I don't see how it differs much from the debates over the politics of historiography in Victorian England, where quite a lot of historians/critics/pundits began from the position that history both was and should be written from a specific political or theological position.

Cantor was an amusingly gossipy read, but, to quote my father again, "a bit more wie es eigentlich gewesen was called for!"

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