Blogs > Cliopatria > Norman Cantor, and grad school memories

Sep 24, 2004 5:01 pm

Norman Cantor, and grad school memories

Norman Cantor, one of the most controversial and celebrated American medievalists of the past half century has died at age 74. His Civilization of the Middle Ages was a classic from the moment it appeared forty years ago, and remains in print to this day (in a revised edition). He was reviled by many for his 1991 expose of the lives of other great medievalists, Inventing the Middle Ages. In particular, his treatment of Ernst Kantorowicz (the dean of medieval political theory) scandalized many in the field. Cantor suggested that Kantorowicz was an"impeccable Nazi", something for which he never provided evidence.

For my first three years of graduate school at UCLA, my primary mentor was the late Robert Benson, who had been a friend and student of Kantorowicz. Had he lived, he would have been my dissertation chair. It was Robert Benson who steered me towards my doctoral work on medieval bishops (something I have never blogged about, but oddly still near and dear to my heart). Benson's The Bishop Elect (alas, now out of print) was influenced by Kantorowicz's magisterial The King's Two Bodies, published in 1956 and still very much in print. Those two books were the most important works I read in my early graduate school career. Benson and Cantor were of similar age, and had known each other well. My mentor (who died in 1995) was heartbroken and infuriated by Cantor's betrayal of his master and the unproven insinuations of Nazism and anti-Semitism. (Robert Benson was Jewish, of course, as was Cantor). I remember that when Cantor's book came out in 1991, Profesor Benson was apoplectic. A letter that Benson wrote to the New York Review of Books condemning Cantor for his cruel lies is found here.

If you've ever been a grad student and studied with someone you admired and revered and lionized, you know how easy it is to take on their own prejudices! Though the roots of the Cantor-Benson-Kantorowicz clash were in the 1940s and 50s, I found myself taking on my adviser's sense of outrage and betrayal. I actually refused to read Cantor after that, and even (I do confess it), told one of my former students not to take a course from Cantor at NYU (where he taught until 1999). My student wisely ignored my advice, and was actually enrolled in the last undergraduate course he taught. She reported him to have been a lovely man, which may well have been true.

When I read Cantor's obit this morning, it brought back so many memories of my early grad school days at UCLA. In our little ivory tower world, we worked on paleography and medieval Latin, and spoke of Gratian's Decretum the way others speak of the Harry Potter books. We were all young, all eager to prove ourselves to these men who were our advisers and our mentors, who dispensed wisdom and TA-ships and their own prejudices. The love of a student for his first grad school mentor is a strange and passionate thing. I've never forgotten it. And even now, as I type this, in the back of my mind I am worried about what Robert Louis Benson, dead these nine years, would say as he read my little post about Cantor's passing.

Among other things, he would say that previous sentence ought not to have been begun with an"and".

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Van L. Hayhow - 9/29/2004

Thank you for your response. If I get a chance this weekend, I will pull my copy of the book and take another look at the chapter.

Hugo Schwyzer - 9/26/2004

I did read it -- and it was remarkably useful, save the hatefulness about Kantorowicz. But I didn't read Cantor again.

Van L. Hayhow - 9/25/2004

It is a little unclear from your post whether you ever read Cantor's book, Inventing the Middle Ages. Did you ever read it? I did some years ago when it came out in paperback. It seemed to me a well done book on historiography. The chapter you object to did make a case as to the two professors views as being consistent with and sympathetic too Nazi ideology. Of course, I have no expertise in the field, but I was wondering what your specific objection was. Thank You.

Hugo Schwyzer - 9/24/2004

Glad to hear that folks are still using it. In terms of the work I ended up doing, still the most influential text of all.

Manan Ahmed - 9/24/2004

Just yesterday, I had the beginning of school year talk with my diss. chair and the one book we talked the most about was King's Two Bodies. I read it last year and am still working out aspects...great work, indeed.

Richard Henry Morgan - 9/24/2004

Your post brings back certain memories. One is of one of Cantor's later works, wherein he asserted that the majority of American philosophers were followers of Wittgenstein (!!!). Just whence originated that bizarre factoid has yet to be determined.

The other memory is of one of my professors, Lawrence Cremin. I remember us standing in Barnard Bookforum, talking, and him raising his voice slightly when he said he had attended City College back when it was a real school -- and then pretending to be scandalized by his own political incorrectness. He also said that he and another historian had argued back and forth in the journals, and rode the argument all the way to tenure, over what was an essentially unanswerable question -- literacy rates in colonial America. He then laughed uproariously. What a character he was.

I also remember systematically ignoring my advisor's counsel (with disastrous results), right up to my last semester, when I simply handed him my course request form and asked him to fill it out. He found that funny, somehow.

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