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Norman Cantor, medievalist


Norman Cantor seems to have decided, as a kind of perpetual outsider (in spite of his Princeton and Oxford education), that he has nothing to lose by telling it all. Of his Inventing the Middle Ages: The Lives, Works, and Ideas of the Great Medievalists of the Twentieth Century (William Morrow and Company, New York 1991), Lee Patterson says accurately on the dust jacket: 'Intriguing, informative, irritating, and vastly entertaining, Inventing the Middle Ages will rattle lots of cages'. I am not sure that this book has raised Cantor's status in the eyes of very many practicing medievalists, and indeed one review concludes with the words 'The widespread circulation of this mean-spirited and tendentious work is a grievous blow to medieval studies'. 'Grievous blow' or not, undeniably the book has its fascination. Cantor's idea, after a pretty dreadful opening chapter that should alert the reader of trouble ahead without causing the book to be laid aside, is too encapsulate the life and thought of twenty medievalists to about 1965. This selection seems somewhat capricious, for the book considers medievalists who should be on a 'top 20' list but hardly mentions others whose contributions have been of the first order: Gerhart Ladner is barely mentioned, and his name does not appear in the unreliable index — but then neither do Jean Leclercq's nor Gerd Tellenbach's. Cantor does not observe his cutoff date with an consistency and in fact often brings the story to the present, thus raising the further question of why some medievalists who have been central to the development of medieval studies in the last generation, such as David Herlihy, are not mentioned at all. But it is a good rule to be grateful for what a scholar has done, rather than lament what remains undone. In any case, it was not Cantor's goal to form a top 20 list, and the merit of his selections is that it illustrates very different ways history has been pursued in our century.