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Bookmarking History
Collecting the Middle Ages

by William M. Klimon

#78, 25 September 2006

History books are generally divided into two types: primary sources and secondary studies. Primary sources are those documents - chronicles, letters, journals, government reports, and so on - that are written by eyewitnesses or that otherwise contain largely first-hand information. Secondary studies are the works of later scholars and writers who use and blend the primary materials into a narrative or other form of historical study.

That's History 101. But it's a useful distinction to keep in mind if you are interested in collecting or selling medieval history. Why? Well, it's going to be difficult, though not impossible, to assemble an important collection of primary medieval materials. Christopher de Hammel, the collector, scholar, and former auctioneer at Sotheby's and now the Donnelley Fellow Librarian at Corpus Christi College, Cambridge, once pointed out that it was still possible for him, in his youth, to buy interesting medieval manuscripts. You can find manuscript leaves on eBay, though they are really more like decorative objects than books. But most of the best material is simply inaccessible - for reasons of price or of supply - to today's buyers and sellers. It's still possible, though, to "collect the Middle Ages" by looking to the best of modern scholarship on the medieval period.

Medieval studies are sufficiently obscure to ensure that many interesting works of modern scholarship were printed in more limited, collectible numbers, while the Middle Ages are still sufficiently with us - in our churches and our universities, and in our popular culture, from references from Robin Hood to the Crusades, Inquisitions, and witch hunts - to ensure enough demand for such works.

Where to Find Bibliographies of Medieval Studies

As with most searching these days, it doesn't hurt to look first on the Internet. You can search the International Medieval Bibliography .

But, remember, it's a paid service, so you're likely only going to have access through a public or university library. If you are looking for a free alternative, many, many professors now post their syllabuses and recommended-reading lists on the Web. But the danger there is that you'll see only the most popular works, those assigned in every class - and flood the market after the academic year ends.

And such online sources tend to be hit or miss, so it is useful to have a considered and comprehensive printed reference to work from. A decade ago the American Historical Association published a giant, two-volume Guide to Historical Literature, 3rd ed., edited by Mary Beth Norton (Oxford University Press, 1995). Volume 1, pp. 625-703, includes great annotated listings of important medieval scholarship since 1961 (the date of the previous edition of the Guide). You can find it in many larger libraries. I own a nice, very lightly indicated ex-library copy. It would probably fetch about $100, but it's worth keeping around as a reference work.

Inventing the Middle Ages

But, frankly, the AHA's Guide is a little boring - particularly when a more interesting (and cheaper) alternative exists. In 1991, the late Norman Cantor published Inventing the Middle Ages: The Lives, Works, and Ideas of the Great Medievalists of the Twentieth Century (William Morrow), a thoughtful, if dishy, series of pen portraits of some of the greatest medieval scholars of the twentieth century, as well as a "Core Bibliography in Medieval Studies." Although he ranges far and wide, almost always entertainingly, Cantor's focus is on the following 20 scholars: Frederick William Maitland; Percy Ernst Schramm and Ernst Hartwig Kantorowicz; Louis Halphen and Marc Boch; Erwin Panofsky and Ernst Robert Curtius; Clive Staples Lewis, John Ronald Reuel Tolkien, and Frederick Maurice Powicke; Charles Homer Haskins and Joseph Reese Strayer; Michael David Knowles and Etienne Henry Gilson; Richard William Southern; Johan Huizinga, Eileen Edna Power, Michael Loissey Postan, Carl Erdmann, and Theodor Ernst Mommsen. These are some key names in twentieth-century scholarship, and Cantor has a lot of fun grouping them under banners or into "schools" - the "Oxford Fantasists" (Tolkien and Lewis), the "Nazi Twins" (Schramm and Kantorowicz), etc. Inventing the Middle Ages is nothing if not a fun book. Cantor even has a book story, as when he inherited the 3,000-volume library, including many valuable books, of his teacher Theodor Mommsen, who committed suicide in 1958.

Cantor's choices of subject are interesting and informed, but they are not exhaustive. One could have, for example, included many more women scholars like Eleanor Shipley Duckett (1880-1976) and Helen Waddell (1889-1965), among others profiled in the recent Women Medievalists and the Academy, edited by Jane Chance (University of Wisconsin Press, 2005), the table of contents of which is available.

Or one could point to another very important school of Anglo-American medievalism that Cantor purposefully ignores - a group I call, in Cantorian fashion, the "Catholic Canonists" - Walter Ullmann, Brian Tierney, Stephan Kuttner, and all their many students and collaborators.

One of Cantor's most interesting judgments is on the work of Dom David Knowles (1896-1974). Dom David was an English Benedictine monk, a proponent of a very withdrawn and contemplative interpretation of monastic life, who, in a great irony of the kind one finds not in fiction but only in history, ended up living apart from his monastic community and was eventually appointed Regius Professor of Modern History at the very un-monastic Cambridge University. Dom David's work focused on the history of religious life and spirituality, culminating in his monumental opus The Monastic Order in England (Cambridge University Press, 1940) and The Religious Orders in England (3 vols., Cambridge University Press, 1948-59). Cantor goes in for psycho-history and makes all kinds of accusations about Dom David's personal life and was most unkind to Christopher Brooke, one of Dom David's disciples, but he concludes that Dom David's work constitutes "the outstanding accomplishment in medieval studies by a Catholic in this century. It is also one of the enduring works of historical literature in the English language, placing Knowles in the pantheon with Gibbon, Macaulay, and Maitland." No small praise, indeed. These four volumes will go for between $50 and $150 each, depending on condition and market, and should never be passed over.

In 1946, Dom David conducted a "special subject" (something like an advanced seminar) at Cambridge on St. Francis of Assisi. Among the students in that class were Brian Tierney, Giles Constable, and Christopher and Rosalind Brooke - basically an incubator of the greatest talent of that generation of historians of medieval religion. Forty-six years later, in 1992, I took Brian Tierney's valedictory seminar at Cornell on "St. Francis and the Early Franciscans," a course that had grown directly out of Dom David's teaching. I take great pride in being in the lineage of Dom David and so keep a sharp eye out for his works. On eBay, I recently picked up what I believe to be Dom David's own proof copy of The English Mystical Tradition (Burns & Oates, 1961), his collection of studies of Richard Rolle, Walter Hilton, Julian of Norwich, Margery Kempe, Augustine Baker, and other English spiritual writers. Perhaps not a particularly valuable work right now, but an amazing association with someone considered (by Cantor, at least) to be one of the greatest historians in the English language.

What to Look for among the Works of Cantor's Medievalists

So, you've found a book by one of the scholars in Cantor's list, but you're not sure if it's particularly valuable. If you are on a buying budget, here are a few rules for knowing what to take and what you can leave behind:

What to take:

  1. Books from university presses
  2. Stand-alone monographs
  3. Hardcovers
  4. Single-subject and monographic studies

What to leave:

  1. Books from commercial publishers
  2. Volumes in a series
  3. Paperbacks
  4. Introductions and syntheses

The case of the Oxford scholar Sir Richard William Southern (aka R.W. Southern) (1912-2001), one Cantor's heroes, whom he styles "St. Richard" and, in Arthurian fashion, the "Once and Future King" of medieval studies, illustrates all of these rules. Southern is perhaps best known for his introduction to medieval history, The Making of the Middle Ages (Yale University Press, 1953). But this book has been reprinted in paperback so many times as to be worthless if you are only looking to resell it. (I first encountered Southern in his Western Society and the Church in the Middle Ages [1970], for the Penguin History of the Church. The Penguin imprint should be a clue that the same thing goes for the value of this book as for The Making.) But in a long career, Southern published many other important books, including one book I've recently sold, the highly topical Western Views of Islam in the Middle Ages (Harvard University Press, 1962), a $40-$50 book. Also watch for his monographs on St. Anselm of Canterbury and Robert Grosseteste.

Knowing the names of these scholars and having some understanding of their bodies of work can also help you successfully ignore some other book-hunting rules. One of my rules is always avoid books from the Northeastern nonfiction reprint houses, like the old Dorset Press, which was owned by Barnes & Noble. Dorset Press reprinted, in serviceable hardcover editions, an enormous number of important historical studies, which were originally published by university presses and commercial publishers alike. The problem was that Dorset printed them - and B&N sold them - in enormous numbers. I consider them to be the better alternative to paperback reading copies, but they're usually a tough sell.

I recently came across a 1990 Dorset Press reprint of a work by Marc Bloch (1886-1944), the rising star of French historical studies in the 1920s and '30s, who was executed by the Nazis for his participation in the French resistance. (With many others, Cantor calls him the "martyred historian.") Bloch's work on Feudal Society is well known, but his monograph Les Rois Thaumaturges (1st ed. 1924), translated into English as The Royal Touch, on the medieval belief that the king possessed a healing touch, is a book I knew but thought just obscure enough to be saleable. It should bring $25-$35, even in the Dorset edition.

Some of these books may be hard to find, but they are out there. At a local thrift just a month ago I found a nice hardbound first edition, in a serviceable dust jacket, of Ernst Kantorowicz's The King's Two Bodies: A Study in Mediaeval Political Theology (Princeton University Press, 1957), a $50+ book no matter how you slice it. (I had never seen a first edition but have sold some of the later, paperback reprints.) So keep looking and good luck collecting - and selling - the Middle Ages.

Questions or comments?
Contact the editor, Craig Stark

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