Encyclopedias of the Middle Ages tend to fall into two categories: those, such as the multi-volume Dictionary of the Middle Ages edited by Joseph Strayer, that contain substantive articles by acknowledged scholars and find a deserved place in university libraries; and the single-volume, user-friendly text produced for the general market. It is for the second category of readership that Norman Cantor has prepared his latest contribution.
Cantor is aware of the obligations on the academic writer to preserve the past as a public space in which non-specialists at once startle at the contrasts and marvel at the similarities with their own world-view. But this awareness has created a programme whose ambitions cannot be realised within 500 pages.
Cantor has decided that, since the Middle Ages is an arbitrary block of time carved from world history, his volume ought not to confine itself to Europe and should contain general entries on Africa, North and South America, China and Japan (though not, curiously, India). This exercise is cursory and does little to create a systematic comparative framework for European and non-European cultures in the manner achieved, for example, by Colin Platt's Atlas of Medieval Man .
Second, Cantor has decided to make his volume reflect the diversity of cultures within the smaller world of a broadly defined "Europe". Cantor is careful to allocate ample space to Judaism and Islam as well as to Christianity (though it is also determinedly secularist in much of its tone). It also sets out to respond to what Cantor defines as fashionable topics of concern: "the family, the working class, women, childhood heretics, Jews and homosexuals".
Such selection criteria are worthy, responding as they do to the genuinely heterogeneous nature both of medieval and of modern society (though it is to be noted that the gay agenda, for example, gets dropped completely after the introduction). The authors are not slow to draw parallels, and not averse to the occasional parable: there is some nice use of modern (and postmodern) jargon and some well-placed comment on the medieval origins of modern political and social conflict. Where the volume falters is principally in its lack of consistency.
The commitment to topics is erratic: there is a good entry on the French House of Capet, for example, but none for the Valois. Opinions either vary between essays - did Richard III kill the Princes in the Tower, or did he not? - or repeat unhelpful generalisations (peasants were drudges). Above all, the standards of writing and of historical reference are uneven. The longer entries are generally reliable and sometimes enlivening: the list of contributing editors includes various luminaries. But the short entries, which appear to have been put together in-house, are often poorly focused and misinformed. If it is historians' moral responsibility to impart understanding to the public, then we must try harder.
One view of a collaborative work is that it is only as strong as its weakest entry. Another says that a few brilliant contributions leaven an otherwise indifferent enterprise. Cantor's own gift lies in his extraordinarily wide range of reference, his self-consciously positioned prose and his ability to respond to a general readership in an unpatronising manner. One suspects that this would have been a better and more entertaining book had he written the whole thing.
W. M. Ormrod is director, centre for medieval studies, University of York.
The Pimlico Encyclopedia of the Middle Ages
Editor - Norman Cantor
ISBN - 0 7126 6407 6
Publisher - Pimlico
Price - £16.00
Pages - 464