Thursday, June 20, 2013

Book Review 286: The Last Knight

THE LAST KNIGHT: The Twilight of the Middle Ages and the Birth of the Modern Era, by Norman F. Cantor. 260 pages, illustrated. Free Press, $25

In “The Last Knight,” Norman Cantor attempts the difficult feat of pinning a civilization to the wall at the instant it changes, using the life of John of Gaunt.

Although I am an admirer of Cantor’s earlier medieval histories, “Last Knight” is not so successful, for two reasons.

First, Gaunt left no personal statements, so that while Cantor can guess at his conflicted attitudes toward Chaucer and Wyclif, these are at best guesses. Maybe good guesses, maybe not.

Second, while Cantor made his high reputation on both style and substance, “Last Knight” is repetitive and clumsily organized. Cantor hints that the chapters were written originally as separate essays, and if so, they should have been reworked to make a book.

On the other hand, Cantor is now an emeritus and free to insert himself into history in ways he did not in the past. A constant theme is to compare Gaunt, who was the richest man in Europe who was not a king, to today’s American billionaires.

In fact, today’s billionaires are pikers of Cantor’s admittedly rough estimate of Gaunt’s assets and income are accurate. He was more or less as rich as today’s top two billionaires combined.

But this is not just a simile made in an attempt to place a distant and very different world into a framework we can understand. It is also a sustained attack on today’s finance capitalism. Cantor’s barbs are worth thinking about and fun (for me, who shares some of his attitudes) to read but perhaps detract more than they add to his thesis.

Writing of the Plantagenets (Gaunt’s royal family), Cantor says, “they had no pity for the peasants or the poor in general. . . . This was the culture of domination the Plantagenets communicated to the world, and it is still common among the rich and powerful.”

This is not entirely fair to today’s billionaires. Some are indeed brutal bullies, but not all, and this is one difference between moderns and premoderns. The recognition of a common humanity is an innovation of the moderns that Cantor does not recognize (at least, not here).

Cantor is worth reading even when he falls short of his previous standards. We have to take his word for it that various statements he makes about the middle ages are well-founded, as the book is too short to offer evidence instead of dicta.

Here is his summary of Gaunt: “at bottom a moderate person who accepted the world he had been born into, sought to affect it at the margins, but never used his wealth and image to confront and change his world. . . . He was an enlightened and energetic aristocrat who lived at the dividing line between the Middle Ages and the Renaissance.” 

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