Archiver > WORLD-OBITS > 2005-07 > 1122654951

From: "Peter_McCrae" <>
Subject: CANTOR; Norman Frank-18/9/2004-USA
Date: Fri, 29 Jul 2005 17:35:51 +0100

Norman Cantor
(Filed: 01/10/2004)
The Daily Telegraph & the
Norman Cantor, who has died aged 74, brought a pugnacious American academic
perspective to the study of European mediaeval history and was thus more
popular in his own country than he was across the Atlantic.

In America he was praised for his "fluent, graceful, prose style". In
Britain, he was sometimes criticised for his use of self-consciously "hip"
language, his penchant for imposing rigid patterns on intractable material
and his often cavalier way with evidence.

His book about the Black Death, In the Wake of the Plague (2001), dismissed
Chaucer as a "wise guy poet"; it described Henry Plantagenet was a
"19-year-old stud" and Edward III's daughter, Princess Joan, as a
"top-drawer white girl".

Cantor's determination to be both provocative and "relevant" led to some
startling assertions: the Black Death led directly to the downfall of
Richard II; the Peasants' Revolt of 1381 "could have led to a working-class
takeover of government and a socialist state".

In The Sacred Chain of History, a courageous, opinionated and in parts
brilliant history of the Jews, Cantor, himself Jewish, took on the "ruling
circles of the American and Israeli Jewish communities". These, he argued,
had been engaged in a con-trick to present Jewish history as a continuous,
providential story of endless oppression, culminating in the Holocaust from
which, miraculously, came the triumph of modern Israel. The story, he
argued, was more patchy and inconsequential. By mythologising history,
Zionists and traditional rabbinical teachers had put Jews on a "one way
ticket to oblivion" in the 21st century.

Stimulating though this was, British reviewers felt Cantor's narrative was
undermined by sloppy errors of fact and, particularly, by eccentricities of
interpretation. This applied especially in his final chapter, dealing with
the last 50 years. His portrait of modern Britain as a country riddled with
anti-Semitism, and British Jews as "a socially and culturally marginalised
group", was described as "ill-informed and unbalanced" by Chaim Bermant and
"infuriating" by Rabbi Julia Neuberger.

Cantor certainly seemed to have a hang-up about the British, despite, or
perhaps because of, having spent some time as a Rhodes scholar at Oxford.
("Taking him and Clinton together," remarked Bermant, "one almost has a case
for abolishing the scholarship.")

In 1989, Cantor launched a bitter assault on British academics joining the
brain drain. "American universities are not the new Victorian Punjab of
academia designed to provide outdoor relief to the British academic
classes," he thundered in a letter to the Times Education Supplement.

Ignoring the fact that most academics heading across the Atlantic had been
invited to come, he went on: "What is most peculiar about this dialogue is
the assumption that American academia is just waiting around with eager
breath to be delivered by the decamping Oxbridge dons. Like hell they are."

Asked by a journalist from The Sunday Telegraph whether he was embittered,
Cantor displayed even less liking for British journalists than for British
academics. "I'm never going to be out of a job," he stormed. "I am one of
the highest paid professors in America. Here's a scoop for you: I earn
$101,000 a year. Print that in your Sunday Telegraph."

Norman Frank Cantor was born in Winnipeg, Manitoba, on November 19 1929.
After taking a degree from the University of Manitoba, he moved to the
United States. He received a masters degree from Princeton, spent a year as
a Rhodes scholar at Oxford and received a doctorate at Princeton, where he
began his teaching career.

He became a professor at Columbia University, taught at Brandeis, the State
University at Binghamton and the University of Illinois. From 1978 until
1981, he was dean of the faculty of the College of Arts and Science at New
York University.

In America, Cantor was best known for The Civilisation of the Middle Ages
(1963). This was revised in 1994 to include new research into contemporary
concerns, such as the role of women in mediaeval society. With all the
confidence of the 20th century equivalent of a Whig historian, he asserted
in The Age of Protest (1971) that protest movements (as opposed to
revolutions) lead to "social change and more often than not to social
melioration". The book included two "do-it-yourself kits" for starting and
dealing with protest movements.

Inventing the Middle Ages (1991) was a highly personal and provocative
account of how the personal experiences and prejudices of some of the 20th
century's great mediaeval historians had coloured their interpretation of
the period. His last book, published in April, was The Last Knight: the
Twilight of the Middle Ages and the Birth of the Modern Era. Just before his
death, he completed Alexander the Great.

Cantor was editor of the Encyclopaedia of the Middle Ages (1999), and in
2002, published Inventing Norman Cantor: Memoirs of a Mediaevalist.

Norman Cantor, who died on September 18, married, in 1957, Mindy Mozart. She
survives him with their son and daughter.

© Copyright of Telegraph Group Limited 2005.

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