WHEN NORMAN F. CANTOR, a distinguished former professor of medieval history at New York University, died last Saturday, none of his peers wrote a letter to The Times Literary Supplement to suggest that his work wasn't up to snuff. That's because Cantor was the only one who might have even considered doing such a thing. As Ideas columnist Christopher Shea noted in the magazine Lingua Franca in 2001, the author of the classic "Civilization of the Middle Ages" and the popular "Inventing the Middle Ages" had a penchant for writing vitriolic obituary-debunking letters to the editor.
After Lawrence Stone died in 1999, for example, Cantor used the TLS's letters page to rebut a eulogy in that publication for the eminent Princeton historian, claiming that Stone's work was "verbose, disorganized, and often erroneous," and that Stone was a "tedious Brit" whose "lavish patronage of Marxists and British and French cronies" was a disgrace to the discipline. And when C. Vann Woodward died in 2000, Cantor wrote to the TLS claiming the Yale historian's legacy wasn't anything he wrote but his success in recruiting 1968-ers enamored of "radical-left historiography" as students.
Questioned about his motivation, Cantor told Lingua Franca, "There are a million copies of my medieval books in print, but I regard myself as a cultural critic as well as a historian. I'm particularly concerned with the training of historians, and who trains them, and how that impacts on the general culture." Later, in his 2002 memoir "Inventing Norman Cantor," he offered a more personal explanation of his acerbity: "The best writing, for me, comes . . . when I have sustained an unpleasant shock . . . or insults and abuse from a group of academic colleagues. Then I write to affirm my own dignity, humanity, and autonomy."