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Ten Controversial Books about the Middle Ages

Hundreds of books about the Middle Ages are published each year. Many offer new and interesting insights into the period, and are generally well-received. However, there are also books that can cause a stir among medievalists. Some topics, such as the Crusades or Richard III, often generate considerable debate. Other books have found controversy for different reasons – sometimes bringing in new ideas that have changed the way we think about the Middle Ages, while others have been met by scorn and criticism.

Here are ten books that for a variety of reasons caused controversy:

Inventing the Middle AgesInventing the Middle Ages: The Lives, Works, and Ideas of the Great Medievalists of the Twentieth Century

By Norman Cantor
(William Morrow and Company, 1991)

Norman Cantor is best known for his 1963 book Civilization of the Middle Ages, which has been republished many times and is probably on the shelves of most medieval scholars. However, his book Inventing the Middle Ages caused a storm of controversy when it was published in 1991. The book focuses on how 20 medievalists from the 20th century and how their lives and outlook influenced their interpretations of the Middle Ages.

Cantor explained in the book that, “The Middle Ages as we perceive them are the creation of an interactive cultural process in which accumulated learning, the resources and structures of the academic profession, the speculative comparing of medieval and modern worlds, and intellectualization through appropriation of modern theory of society, personality, language and art have been molded together in the lives, work and ideas of medievalists and the schools and traditions they founded.”

The people talked about in the book included J.R.R. Tolkien, Marc Bloch, Charles Homer Haskins, and Eileen Power. However, Cantor depictions of these people was often very negative and critical – for instance two prominent German scholars, one of Jewish background, were found by him to have been deeply influenced by Nazi ideology.

As one scholar put it on a history message forum: “Cantor has been accused of character assassination, destructive innuendo, and just plain error.  This is not a minor quibble.  Cantor is NOT well-liked in the academy.  His savaging of a number of well-known and well-liked medievalists is very strongly resented, particularly by many of their surviving students who knew their mentors as well or better than Cantor did.”

You can find reviews of Inventing the Middle Ages here, here and here. You can read parts of the book here.

1332750724-243x366The Swerve: How the World Became Modern 

By Stephen Greenblatt
(W. W. Norton & Company, 2011)

The winner of the 2012 Pulitzer Prize for General Non-Fiction and 2011 National Book Award for Nonfiction, The Swerve details the story of the 15th-century writer Poggio Bracciolini and how he re-discovered the Roman author Lucretius’ poem On the Nature of Things, which had very ‘modern’ ideas about religion and society. In Greenblatt’s version, Bracciolini is able to rescue knowledge that had been lost for over a thousand years, and propel the Renaissance throughout Europe. One reviewer call it a “thrilling, suspenseful tale that left this reader inspired and full of questions about the ongoing project known as human civilization.”

However, many medievalists have a much less favourable view of The Swerve, partially because Greenblatt portrays the Middle Ages as a period of uneducated religious fanatics who knew nothing of ancient literature or even how to have a good time. One reading this book would probably not know that Lucretius’ poem, which Greenblatt portrays as having essentially disappeared for a thousand years, was actually known in the Middle Ages, with manuscript copies of it dating back to the 9th century.

In his review for the Los Angeles Review of Books – entitled Why Stephen Greenblatt is Wrong — and Why It Matters – Jim Hinch gives this appraisal:

The Swerve’s primary achievement is to flatter like-minded readers with a tall tale of enlightened modern values triumphing over a benighted pre-modern past. It’s no accident, I think, that The Swerve’s imagined Middle Ages bears a strong resemblance to America’s present era of superstitious know-nothing-ism. Or that Lucretius’s secular, principled-pleasure-minded values bear an equally strong resemblance to the values of Greenblatt’s cultural peers — including, presumably, the jurors who awarded him two national literary prizes. The Swerve presents itself as a work of literary history. But really it is a salvo in the culture wars; an effort to lend an aura of historical inevitability to the idea that religious faith has no place in a modern democratic society.

14211421: The Year China Discovered the World

By Gavin Menzies
(Bantam Press, 2002)

Ever since 2002 one can rarely find a book store that does not carry copies of 1421: The Year China Discovered the World. Menzies, a retired submarine commander with no experience as a historian, devised a very grand tale: that between the years 1421 and 1423 a fleet of ships from China was able spread out around the world, circumnavigating the globe and discovering Australia, New Zealand, the Americas and Antarctica. This fleet even managed to settle thousands of people in these far off lands.

However, Menzies book lacks actual evidence that any of this happened. While a Chinese fleet under Admiral Zheng He did sail to the east coast of Africa in 1421, there is really nothing to suggest that these ships went beyond that. Since the book has come out, historians have savaged it in reviews. For instance:

The reasoning of 1421 is inexorably circular, its evidence spurious, its research derisory, its borrowings unacknowledged, its citations slipshod, and its assertions preposterous.” – see more here.

Or: “the historical equivalent of stories about Elvis Presley in Tesco and close encounters with alien hamsters” – from this article.

There are even websites out there that debunk Menzies claims, but the author has continued on, writing another book that claimed in 1434 Chinese explorers reached Italy, where they imparted the knowledge needed to set off the Renaissance. He has since gone on to write about Atlantis. Meanwhile, his work remains on the bestsellers list for history, and has even found a proponent in the Chinese government.

See also: Better than The Da Vinci Code: The theological edifice that is Gavin Menzies’ 1421

Fiefs and Vassals: The Medieval Evidence ReinterpretedFiefs and Vassals: The Medieval Evidence Reinterpreted

By Susan Reynolds
(Oxford University Press, 1994)

For medievalists the F-word is feudalism. Historians have been trying to define it and figure it for decades – in short, it was the system of how peasants farmed the land under a certain amount of control by their lords. This system was necessary because of the breakdown of central governments over the 9th to 12th centuries – that the people could not rely on kings to protect them, so they had turn to local lords and as part of the deal they had to give up many rights.

Rivers of ink have been used to figure out how this system operated and how far it spread throughout Europe. However, in 1994 Susan Reynolds, a historian from the University of Oxford, published a very different view. As explained by this reviewer, “Between 500 and 1300, she argues, most people expected to have what we would today call full rights of property in their land. They expected to be able to bequeathe what they had inherited and acquired, and expected to be secure from the threat of unreasonable confiscation of their lands. She further argues that medieval Europe saw no real decay or diminution of ideas of public order.”

While various reviews have been made of her work, the ideas about feudalism continue to find much debate. Reynolds adds in an interview from 2008, “it’s 13 years ago since I published this book, and some historians absolutely won’t look at it and others think it’s reasonably sensible.”

The Black Death: Natural and Human Disaster in Medieval EuropeThe Black Death: Natural and Human Disaster in Medieval Europe

By Robert Gottfried
(The Free Press, 1983)

Robert Gottfried of Rutgers University published his book on the Black Death, examining its origins and how it spread, making use of environmental and historical sources. It received good reception until 1987, when Stuart Jenks’ review in The Journal of Economic History accused him of plagiarizing portions of his book from Philip Ziegler’s The Black Death, which had been published in 1969. After pointing out several sections that were very similar between the two books, Jenks commented:

Gottfried has nothing in the way of new sources to add to the study of plague, and he has made some very dubious claims to have consulted three manuscripts. He has very little to offer the reader on the recent secondary literature on the plague, and he has not always succeeded in understanding even the English literature he cites. He has on numerous occasions derived his information from dubious secondary authorities, and his notion of proper citation of these authorities is at best irregular. In short, his book consists of little more than a rehash of some, though not all, of the sources and literature known to Ziegler in 1969…If Gottfried’s work has any merit, it is that it can be given to graduate students as an example of what to avoid in their own work.

Gottfried responded to the accusations the following year in the same journal. He states that he did cite his sources properly, and goes on to say “Jenks’s review might strike one as going beyond acceptable scholarly criticism. Perhaps more important is that it is careless in its use of fact, if not mean-spirited in its use of innuendo. But there is another issue here. It seems to me that the academic review is an endangered species. It is ostensibly written by a scholar to inform readers of the contents and themes of a book. Yet sometimes it is used as a soapbox to distort, contort, and gratuitously attack.”

In 1989 Gottfried left academia and moved into private sector.

City of Light: The Hidden Journal of the ManCity of Light: The Hidden Journal of the Man Who Entered China Four Years Before Marco Polo

Edited and translated by David Selbourne
(Little, Brown and Company, 1997)

David Selbourne, a British political philosopher with over a dozen publications to his resume, claimed to have translated an account by a 13th century Jewish merchant named Jacob d’Ancona, who said he had travelled all the way to China. Being a contemporary of Marco Polo, this account would be invaluable addition to the history of the Middle Ages. However, most scholars believe that Selbourne faked the whole book.

Soon after the book was released, reviews came out which questioned the authenticity of the text. First of all, Selbourne could not produce a copy of the manuscript, explaining that it was owned by an elderly Italian Jew who did not want it to be released (because of uncertainty over who it actually belonged too). Moreover,  the text had many oddities, including words and names that were not used until centuries later. As one reviewer put it, “By coincidence, much of what Jacob d’Ancona dislikes in 13th-century China is what David Selbourne dislikes in late-20th century Britain.”

Selbourne responded by saying that these historians were jealous of his success. ”Uncreative academics are always distressed when a fellow academic writes something which attracts attention and becomes popular or sells,” he explained in an interview.  As the controversy erupted, the American publisher of the book decided against releasing it. Since then very few scholars have referenced the work. You can read more about the story of this book in this blog post by Rachel Landau.

The Vinland Map and the Tartar RelationThe Vinland Map and the Tartar Relation

Edited by Raleigh A. Skelton
(Yale University Press, 1965)

In 1965, Yale University announced they were the owners of a 15th century map that depicted parts of North America – proof in their eyes that Europeans were aware of the New World decades before Columbus sailed across the Atlantic Ocean. Known as the Vinland Map, it was supposedly attached to a manuscript known as the Tartar Relation.

As the soon as the book was published detailing the work, scholars were raising questions – about the man who sold the manuscript to Yale, and whether or not the map is a clever forgery. In his review of the re-issued version of the book Lars Lönnroth suggests:

the possibility that somebody may have tampered with a genuine medieval map by adding new details to it, thus forging a small but essential part of it: the Vinland part. And yet this is the simplest, most logical way to explain the strange mixture of modern and medieval thinking that characterizes this map. One can only assume that someone who knew the Icelandic sources concerning Vinland managed to procure a genuine medieval world map, originally made to illustrate the Tartar Relation, and that this person — who probably lived in the twentieth century — decided to fill an empty space on the map with drawings of Vinland, Greenland, and Iceland.

Since then, reports have come out giving evidence that the map is genuine and a fake. See also: Analysing the Vinland Map: A Critical Review of a Critical Review

medieval-technology-and-social-changeMedieval Technology and Social Change

By Lynn Townsend White, Jr.
(Oxford University Press, 1962)

It has been called “the most stimulating book of the century on the history of technology.” Lynn White’s book was an attempt to note how important technological development was to the history of the Middle Ages, a topic that had been up to then rarely mentioned. The book is divided into three main parts – the first dealing with the stirrup, the second the heavy plow and other agricultural changes, and the third about medieval machines that could make energy – ie. wind and water mills, cranks.

Many reviews on the book sharply disagreed with its central ideas, including that technological development could have such a deep influence on society. However, in subsequent decades scholars have built upon his work, not accepting his ideas wholeheartedly, but finding some use in them.

Some ideas, like the stirrup thesis – which suggests that in the 8th century Frankish soldiers made use of so they could ride and fight on horses, ultimately leading to the development of knighthood and medieval way of warfare – have been thoroughly dismantled by historians. Despite that, Medieval Technology and Social Change remains a widely read book by medievalists. As Shana Worthen notes in her look back on the book’s influence, she explains “for all its flaws, is still a highly readable work of history, in part because of its multi-disciplinary use of archeology, etymology, economic history, art history, and iconography to frame its central sociocultural and technological arguments, and it is used widely by historians of the Middle Ages, technology, agriculture, and military history alike. ”

See also: The Stirrup as a Revolutionary Device

PasquePassovers of Blood: European Jews and Ritual Homicides (Pasque di sangue: Ebrei d’Europa e omicidi rituali)

By Ariel Toaff
(Il Mulino, 2008)

Very few publications lead to death threats, but that is what happened to Ariel Toaff, a professor of medieval history at Bar Ilan University, after the Italian version of his book Passovers of Blood: European Jews and Ritual Homicides came out. The book deals with the Jewish community living in Germany and Italy during the later Middle Ages, focusing on an some strange practices involving dried blood being carried out by some Jews. Part of the evidence for the book came from the records of a trial held 1475, where a group of Jews were accused of killing a boy named Simon.

As soon as the book was released it was met with a wave of criticism, from historians and the general public. Toaff was accused of anti-semitism and there were calls for him to be fired from Bar Ilan University. Toaff added that he had received death threats. He ultimately produced a second edition of his book, in which he made more explicit his rejection that medieval Jewish people were in any way responsible of the crimes Christian inquisitors accused them of.

You can read more about the controversy over this book here.

Same Sex Unions in Pre-Modern EuropeSame Sex Unions in Pre-Modern Europe

By John Boswell
(Villard Books, 1994)

Boswell, an openly gay medieval historian at Yale University, produced this book just before his death in 1994. In it he claims to have found liturgical evidence that the Catholic Church was accepting of same-sex unions, at least in the early Middle Ages. Most historians have found that his interpretation of the liturgical evidence was wrong – they were more likely dealing with ceremonies of sworn brotherhood rather than a form of marriage.

You can find reviews of the book here, here and here.

Meanwhile, the book also found a larger audience as mainstream media published reviews of it, and it drew condemnation from Christian leaders. It has been credited with having some influence into contemporary views of same-sex marriage, which have rapidly changed since the mid-1990s.

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