Norman Frank Cantor (19 November 1929 – 18 September 2004)[1] was a historian who specialized in the medieval period. Known for his accessible writing and engaging narrative style, Cantor's books were among the most widely read treatments of medieval history in English. His textbook The Civilization of the Middle Ages, first published in 1963, remains an all-time bestseller in the field.


Born in Winnipeg, Manitoba, Canada, Cantor received a Bachelor of Arts degree at the University of Manitoba in 1951. He moved to the United States to obtain an M.A. degree (1953) from Princeton University, then spent a year as a Rhodes Scholar at the University of Oxford. He returned to Princeton and received his Ph.D. in 1957 under the direction of eminent medievalist Joseph R. Strayer. He also began his teaching career at Princeton.

After teaching at Princeton, Cantor became a professor at Columbia University from 1960 to 1966. He was a Leff professor at Brandeis University until 1970 and then was at SUNY Binghamton until 1976, when he took a position at University of Illinois at Chicago for two years. He then went on to New York University, where he served as Dean of NYU's College of Arts & Sciences, as well as a professor of history, sociology and comparative literature. After a brief stint as Fulbright Professor at the Tel Aviv University History Department (1987–88), he returned to NYU where he taught as a professor emeritus until his retirement in 1999, at which time he devoted himself to working as a full-time writer.

Although his early work focused on English religious and intellectual history, Cantor's later scholarly interests were diverse, and he found more success writing for a popular audience than he did engaging in more narrowly-focused original research. He did publish one monograph study, based on his graduate thesis, Church, kingship, and lay investiture in England, 1089-1135, which appeared in 1958 and remains an important contribution to the topic of church-state relations in medieval England. Throughout his career, however, Cantor preferred to write on the broad contours of Western history, and on the history of academic medieval studies in Europe and North America, in particular the lives and careers of eminent medievalists. His books generally received mixed reviews in academic journals, but were often popular bestsellers, buoyed by Cantor's fluid, often colloquial, writing style and his lively critiques of persons and ideas both past and present.

Cantor was intellectually conservative and expressed deep skepticism about what he saw as methodological fads, particularly Marxism and postmodernism, but he also argued for greater inclusion of women and minorities in traditional historical narratives. In both his best-selling Inventing the Middle Ages and his autobiography, Inventing Norman Cantor, he reflected on his strained relationship over the years with other historians and with academia in general.

Upon retirement in 1999, Cantor moved to Miami, Florida, where he continued to work on several books up to the time of his death, including the New York Times best-seller "In the Wake of the Plague." He had been editor of Encyclopedia of the Middle Ages (1999)

Select bibliography of Cantor's publications

  • The Medieval World 300-1500 ('Norman Cantor, Civilization of the Middle Ages, p. 2')
  • Perspectives on the European Past
  • The Civilization of the Middle Ages A revision of his earlier Medieval History: the Life and Death of a Civilization (1963) (ISBN 0-06-017033-6)
  • How to Study History (with Richard I. Schneider) (1967) A textbook that lays out fundamental methods and principles, including the uses of primary and secondary sources
  • The English
  • Western Civilization: Its Genesis and Destiny
  • The Meaning of the Middle Ages
  • Inventing the Middle Ages: The Lives, Works and Ideas of the Great Medievalists of the Twentieth Century, (1991) A historiography of views of the Middle Ages, in twenty vitae of seminal historians and other shapers of contemporary perception, including C. S. Lewis and J. R. R. Tolkien
  • Medieval Lives
  • Medieval Society, 400-1450
  • The Age of Protest (1971)
  • Twentieth-Century Culture (1988) (ISBN 0-8204-0358-X)
  • The Sacred Chain: History of the Jews (1994) Harper/Collins
  • The American Century: Varieties of Culture in Modern Times (1997)
  • In the Wake of the Plague: The Black Death and the World It Made (2001)
  • Antiquity (2003)
  • The Last Knight: The Twilight of the Middle Ages and the Birth of the Modern Era (2004) A look at John of Gaunt
  • Alexander the Great (2005) Published posthumously by HarperCollins (ISBN 0-06-057012-1)

Cantor published a memoir in 2002, Inventing Norman Cantor: Confessions of a Medievalist.