The past created by today
John D Clare is fired up by a book on the Middle Ages
This is one of the few books that I have sat down and devoured cover-to-cover since Barbara Tuchman's A Distant Mirror. But Inventing the Middle Ages is not about history. It is about historians.
One by one, Cantor studies the great writers on medieval history of this century. For each of them, he is true to his title. He tells us about their lives, including some sensational information (did you know, for example, that Marc Bloch was a hero of the French Resistance?) Then he shows how their lives' experiences determined their ideas - how they invented a Middle Ages which fulfilled their inner needs and beliefs.
Finally, for each author, Cantor paraphrases their ideas and explains how their views have influenced the way historians look at the Middle Ages.
This is where Inventing the Middle Ages is of particular value. I have read Powicke's Henry III and the Lord Edward, but no one ever suggested that it had an underlying principle (that social connections were the force behind political events) - nor that Powicke was part of a "British school of social politics" which included Namier and Neale - nor, indeed, that this way of looking at British history was escapism from the political fanaticism of the 1930s. Before I read Cantor, I never knew that C S Lewis initiated the serious study of courtly love, nor that Postan popularised the idea of a medieval population ceiling. This, and much, much more, I gained from reading Cantor's book.
The result was rather like a conversion experience. I found myself asking: "Why has nobody toldme this before?" Cantor's book taught me as much about medieval history as any book I have read. It made me want to rush off and study history again.
Most of all, I realised how helpful it would be for hard-pressed teachers,required by the national curriculum to understand the different "interpretations of history".
Inventing the Middle Ages leaves a lot to be desired as a piece of writing. The language is stodgy and difficult and the reader has to put up with a certain amount of jargon. But don't let that stop you reading this book. Ask your library to get a copy. For almost 25 years, I have been a history teacher. Inventing the Middle Ages made me remember those three fleeting years when, all too briefly, I was an historian.
John D Clare is head of history at Greenfield Comprehensive School, County Durham