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Norman F. Cantor — a noted medieval history professor, an inspiring teacher whose textbook on the subject reads like anything but a textbook — was THE medieval history professor of the past couple of generations.
It was my great good fortune to take several courses with Professor Cantor at Brandeis University in the 1960’s. This alone makes me grateful that I attended this particular school.
Professor Cantor passed away, sadly, in September 2004 at the age of seventy-four.
I say sadly because, in my experience, not only was he a great, popular teacher, he was the sort of person you felt you would have liked to get to know better.
I took the following courses at Brandeis — where he taught only briefly before moving on — with Professor Cantor:
Europe in the Later Middle Ages (sophomore year; spring 1966); grade A-
Civilization of the Early Middle Ages (junior year; fall 1966); grade A-
Topics in Medieval History (proseminar, 2 semesters; senior year; 1967-68); grade B+
I recall vividly the excitement I felt when I learned that Professor Cantor, who had been teaching at Columbia University and had become disgruntled with the Columbia history department, would be coming to Brandeis.
A roommate of mine, Ronald Ratner, also a history major, had learned from an older brother, who was a Columbia student, that Professor Cantor was decamping for Brandeis. “Cantor is coming to Brandeis next semester!” Ron announced.
I had recently changed my major to history, which I should have majored in in the first place. It was a natural subject for me.
My main interest was actually historiography — I liked to read good historical WRITING. I was mainly interested in how history was written and presented, more than the actual events themselves. My knowledge of history in terms of facts and chronology was then and has always been weak.
I had for a long time been yearning to learn about the Middle Ages. They have an intrinsic fascination. But there were few good medieval history professors anywhere, it seemed, even at top universities. If there even was a medieval history professor at Brandeis prior to Professor Cantor, I was not aware of it.
I can still remember much of Professor Cantor’s lectures. His witty remarks. For example:
— that knights (jousters) were like today’s professional athletes – they would retire and open a tavern with a sign outside showing them in armor;
— that St. Jerome, translator of the Bible into the Vulgate, was the sort of man who liked to sit and chat at the medieval equivalent of church coffee hours;
— that 99 percent or so of people in the Middle Ages believed literally in heaven and hell.
This last point Professor Cantor made by devising a ridiculous chart for our benefit and amusement. “You want statistics,” he said. “I’ll give them to you.” And, then he sketched a chart on the board, with made up statistics showing the percentages of medieval people who believed literally in heaven and hell, those who questioned the idea, and so on.
In appearance, he was sort of goofy looking. He wasn’t what you would call prepossessing, but he didn’t seem to care. He had the necessary confidence for a teacher; he knew he was good.
He was fit and still young when I took his courses, a former athlete, I was told. And, he was not slovenly in dress or appearance.
He had an impish wit and an infectious laugh. He delighted in taking you by surprise with a sally, but he was never mean or arrogant.
In the second course I took with Professor Cantor, in my junior year, the class met from four to six p.m. on Thursdays, once a week. It was the fall of 1966. We had a class during the World Series between the Los Angeles Dodgers and Baltimore Orioles. The class would always have a short break at the midway point. During class on October 6, 1966, the same day as game two of the World Series, when time for the break arose, Professor Cantor adjourned the class. “I’m sorry,” he said (something to that effect), “but after all it’s the World Series and Sandy Koufax is pitching,” shrugging his shoulders (a characteristic mannerism of his) as if he were helpless to do otherwise. The game started late per East Coast time because it was in Los Angeles.
Cantor was a spellbinding lecturer. He had a folksy, down to earth speaking style and a rich voice. He spoke totally off the cuff, without notes and without a lecturer’s equivalent of histrionics.
His lectures were full of amusing and memorable anecdotes; brilliant aperçus; frequent jokes whereby he displayed formidable wit; asides intended to stir you and make you think; brilliant comparisons between one historical period and another or to the present day; considerable erudition, based on wide reading, that was brought to bear; analogies that would enable you to perceive and grasp ideas, controversies, and personalities that otherwise would have seemed remote, foreign, or strange to the modern student; and so on. He had the class eating out of his hand.
It was sheer pleasure to be part of the audience.
I had read St. Augustine’s Confessions in high school. Professor Cantor devoted considerable time to lecturing on the Church Fathers. He made the theological and philosophical disputes of the day come alive. He wrote in his textbook:
For his philosophic system [Augustine] was deeply indebted to the Platonic tradition, but his work sounded the death knell of ancient philosophy. He inaugurated a new world view. Socrates and Plato had identified knowledge with virtue: if a man knows what is good, he will do good. Augustine shows easily that this doctrine violates the realities of human life. It is obvious that men frequently know what good is but are powerless to pursue it. It is obvious, as Augustine contends, that man is not a rational animal, that will has primacy over reason, that man’s emotional, irrational tendencies preclude the following of dictates of reason.
Augustine’s doctrine, Professor Cantor contended, amounted to “religious existentialism” and prefigured modern psychology.
I said that Professor Cantor was a nice man. (His wit was sharp but gentle.) Once, I experienced this in a way that had a direct effect on me.
I was a horrible procrastinator when it came to term papers. I did write one A paper for Professor Cantor that he praised highly. But, in another course, I dashed off a paper which I completed slightly after it was due. It was too late to turn it in in class. I resolved to leave the paper in Cantor’s office without any further delay. But the building was locked. Unsure of what to do, I felt I had to somehow make it evident that I had finished the paper. So, I taped it to the front door of the history department building, affixing a note to it with big printed letters saying that the paper should be delivered to Professor Cantor’s office ASAP.
Time passed and the paper was not returned to me. A bit hesitantly, I made a trip to Professor Cantor’s office and asked him about it. “Oh, yes,” he said, “I remember that the janitor said something or other about a paper. I seem to recall that I got it, but I’ve lost it. I guess I have no alternative but to give you an A.”
Professor Cantor was aware of his popularity — like most born teachers, he had a strong ego. But he could be self-deprecating in a charming fashion.
As noted above, I took a proseminar course with him. A proseminar is a course that includes both graduate and undergraduate students. The course called for an individual student to deliver a paper on a given week, followed by class discussion. At the end of the term, Professor Cantor declared that the course had been more or less a failure. “I guess it’s mostly my fault,” he said.
Professor Cantor was brilliant when it came to describing the schools of medieval history:
The English institutional school – Cantor used the analogy of an acorn growing into a tree. The institutional school looked to the past to answer the question: how did our enlightened system of government and law come into existence?
Dialectical and sociological approaches – here, the emphasis was on history of ideas, an area in which Professor Cantor was brilliant and stimulating.
The devotional-personal school – it focused on “capturing the attitudes and mores of medieval religious leaders.” An outstanding exemplar of this approach, in Cantor’s exposition, was the English historian M. D. Knowles, who wrote a four-volume history of English religious orders. So much of what was happening in society in those days was ecclesiastical, the professor explained, that one could, by focusing on monasteries, uncover a lot of what was happening in that period. In other words, the monasteries were where you needed to look.
Cantor encouraged us to read the elegant writings of R. W. Southern, another English historian, with whom Cantor had studied. In monographs such as his The Making of the Middle Ages, Cantor explained, Southern “is able to talk of twelfth century churchmen as contemporaries and friends.”
The Annales school – – this school seems to have quickly become arid — few of its practitioners have had the brilliance of one its cofounders, Marc Bloch.
Professor Cantor introduced us to Bloch the man and his theory of history. Bloch, who was shot by the Nazis as a member of the French Resistance, wrote under duress during the Second World War an uncompleted, posthumously published book: Apologie pour l’histoire ou Métier d’historien (published in translation as The Historian’s Craft). Thanks to Professor Cantor, I read it. And read it several times over thereafter. It was an original, immensely stimulating book.
To summarize — as best as I can with only a layman’s knowledge – Bloch rejected event-based, factually based history. This appealed to me because, as noted above, I was always weak on the facts, and I found a lot of chronological narrative history to be dry and dull.
Bloch cautioned historians not to rely overly on written sources but instead to seek out the “tracks” of medieval men. So, say, one wants to know about society during the reign of some medieval king. You may get a lot of misleading information in an account of his reign written by someone from that time – a court chronicler bent on flattery and praise, say, or perhaps a churchman with a grudge against the civil authorities. Instead, you should make active use of other sources that were not left behind intentionally, but which can unravel mysteries for us: sources such as economic data, demographics, agriculture, linguistics, coins, ships, and so forth. They can tell us a lot more than the official sources can and provide mute empirical data.
Professor Cantor was always enlivening his lectures with interesting nuggets so that scholarship was vital, a monograph wasn’t just a book – it had been written by SOMEONE, an individual with strengths and limitations as a historian, writer, intellectual, and scholar, as well prejudices.
For instance, in lecturing on the English institutional school, he demonstrated that the study of the history of law – what one might think of it as a dry subject — can be immensely informative. (It was an area of study that Cantor took great interest in.) He told us about an English historical work of immense importance, the two volume The History of English Law Before the Time of Edward I by Frederic William Maitland and Frederick Pollock. Cantor said that Pollock should not have been credited as a coauthor. “Maitland wrote more than ninety-nine percent of the two volumes,” he said.
He had a keen appreciation of excellence in historical writing, indeed of writing and exposition in general. He exhibited this in his own writing, which was notably lucid. His textbook reads like a work of literature.
Once, while talking about Edward Gibbon — the first and oldest of the medieval historians whom Cantor discussed in his lecture on medieval historiography — Professor Cantor read a few passages from The History of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire to the class. He paused at a sentence where Gibbon, who was famous for the use of parallelism, uses several semicolons. He expressed appreciation for this device, then lamented that the semicolon was not used more frequently in modern English prose.
As a side benefit, I learned a lot of vocabulary in Cantor’s courses — words hitherto unknown to me that are now familiar: hagiography, pejorative, chrysalis, debilitating, acidulous, daimonic, plenary, patristic, peroration, contumacious, prevaricate, desuetude, feckless, pusillanimous, lugubrious, procrustean. Words such as these are underlined in the precious (to me) copy of Cantor’s textbook that I still have.
He was always thinking on his feet and would keep his listeners on their toes. He would come out with things that would occur to him as interesting or amusing that were not necessarily part of his “script.” For example, in one course we were reading portions of Steven Runciman’s A History of the Crusades. “It’s the kind of book that makes for good summer reading in a hammock,” he said.
In another class, we were given the assignment — one, as it turned out, I did very well on — of summarizing and critiquing several books on a related medieval topic. To get an idea of what kind of paper to write, he suggested we take a look at The New York Times Book Review. Then he added, as an afterthought, “the Times is the paper of the Establishment. If you read it, you will find out what they are thinking and doing.”
This is an imperfect summary of the rich and stimulating content in Cantor’s books and lectures. I have read four of his books: (1) his textbook, Medieval History: The Life and Death of a Civilization; (2) The English: A History of Politics and Society to 1760; (3) Inventing the Middle Ages: The Lives, Works, and Ideas of the Great Medievalists of the Twentieth Century; and (4) his intellectual autobiography Inventing Norman Cantor: Confessions of a Medievalist.
I hope this post will convey some of the intense pleasure and intellectual stimulation I got from his courses.
— Roger W. Smith
Note: Professor Cantor’s obituary has been posted on this site at: