Two More Greats Gone: Simon Barton and Mark Whittow

This is a kind of repetition I really hope stops arising. The pressure is not off my life in such a way that blogging as we knew it, or anything like, can yet be resumed, but the one thing that I can’t justly not write about is people I wish hadn’t just died, and just a bit more than a year since I last posted it is, awfully, that that once more brings me out of hiding. I’m sorry if anyone was hoping for better, and I’m sorry that the news I have is so terrible, but I owe both these men a lot and have to say something in their honours.

Professor Simon Barton of Central Florida University

Professor Simon Barton, of Central Florida University and previously of Exeter University, photographed by James d’Emilio in 2017 and borrowed from Professor D’Emilio’s Twitter stream

I still don’t know what happened to Simon Barton. There is nothing on the web about his death anywhere that doesn’t apparently go back to a tweet by Simon Doubleday on 17th December publicising an announcement on the Facebook page of the Sociedad Española de Estudios Medievales, and for a while that seemed like such an odd place for the news to crop up, and it so odd that it was not repeated, that I was very much hoping that an obituary notice had been prematurely posted and that it would soon be contradicted. But that contradiction has not come and other places have begun to post tributes, and I guess it must be true. I first ran into Simon Barton because when still at Exeter, long ago in I think 2003, he accepted a paper I’d offered to the Second Conference of the Historians of Medieval Iberia. That was a good and very friendly conference, and while the paper never actually got finished I apparently did well enough to be invited back in 2005, and that paper became my infamous Aprisio article. Basically, Simon kept inviting me back to things, even at times when surely unbeknownst to him I felt as if I would have to be leaving the profession soon and was no kind of real scholar. His cheerful encouragement whenever I had contact with him has been a reliable constant for quite a lot of my academic career, all the more valuable because there was no reason he needed to provide it. It was a recent pleasure for me in the previous academic year to start using his work more thoroughly in my teaching by way of repayment, and it was only getting more interesting as he went on; his most recent, and now I guess last, book, really transcends the institutional and political sort of history in the tradition of which he had begun. And now there will be no more, and of course there are also all the ruptured personal ties and grief that death leaves behind it about which I really can’t say anything meaningful except how sorry I am.

Dr Mark Whittow at Corpus Christi College, Oxford

Dr Mark Whittow at Corpus Christi College, Oxford

That inarticulacy in the face of death hurts all the more for the other victim of the season, Dr Mark Whittow. Here, horribly, there is no doubt: Mark was driving home from Banbury on the 23rd December, there was a collision and he was killed. Why this is a blow for the subject, others have already put far better than I ever could—the article on the website of St Peter’s College, where he was a fellow for many years, has him perfectly written up—but here, what I can’t say of Simon, I can picture the house that will now be emptier and the people who must grieve and it’s awful. I’ve sat round that breakfast table and on those sofas, with Mark being controversial because the conversation was more fun that way, and again I was made welcome there when that mattered a good deal. Within days of my arrival in Oxford, indeed, Mark had made himself known to me and roped me into giving a paper at short notice (a paper which, by a horrible irony, until very recently rested with none other than Simon Barton, who was editing a book in which it was finally to appear), but he made up for it with dinner and that famous welcome, and for the remaining years I was in Oxford we plied each other with college and other hospitality and made grand plans whose minuscule chance of realisation, given how busy we both were with other things, didn’t make them any less entertaining. He also enjoyed the blog, and it seems especially perverse, however obvious, that he can’t comment on this post. He would have been pleased at least, I imagine, to know that his death would make both the Times and the Telegraph, but there’s no question that he’d rather have been around still having fun, and he had, perhaps more than anyone else I know, worked out how to have it. The timing and the family he leaves behind make this all seem very cruel already, but so does the sheer vivacity with which Mark lived and of which he and we would all have enjoyed so much more. I shall miss him and Simon both and I wish they weren’t dead.

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8 responses to “Two More Greats Gone: Simon Barton and Mark Whittow

  1. I am very sorry to hear of these losses, both personal and professional. It’s particularly hard on families when death comes just at the holidays; one never really gets over that association.
    Your generous tributes vividly evoke people I never met. I do hope someday you’ll have the time to return to blogging and write such enthusiastic detail about less sad topics. Very best wishes . . .

    • Thankyou, Dame Eleanor, very much appreciated; I also hope for this, and have clear and present targets by which it may come to pass. But more on that when I’ve met them! Meanwhile thankyou for the kind thoughts as ever.

  2. Thanks to the correspondent who let me know by e-mail that Simon was, apparently, victim of a sudden and massive stroke. I assume more will be said about the wheres and whens and what next in due course but the confirmation and detail was appreciated.

    I also realised last night that I don’t think I’ve hitherto had to do one of these posts for people whose work I’d actually covered on the blog. I already linked to the one post I have reporting on Simon speaking, but there are several posts I wrote covering Mark’s papers, which collectively go to show his range of knowledge and good humour about his subject(s), so now those are linked here too.

  3. Barbara Gannon

    I am one of his colleagues at UCF. I saw Simon early in the week, he was his usual energetic self asking me abut some dopey university rule. He was gone by the end of the week. Simon was wonderful. We had him as a colleague for a short time and we are devastated. I cannot believe I will be back at wok next week and he will not be there. I am grateful I got to know him but his loss will be very hard to deal with.

    • Thankyou for the testimonial; I think it’s safe to say that many of what readers still remain here will know how you feel. I’m glad to know he’d made such a positive impression already, but it does make things crueller in some ways; so much that should still have come… My condolences to you and your department.

  4. Barbara Gannon

    He was something out of central casting–send me the perfect scholar– kind, witty, brilliant, and self deprecating. I am not sure if anyone believes me who did not meet him. I imagined years with him, until he got an endowed chair somewhere –working together. Sending him anything I found on cricket. This is IMPOSSIBLE to imagine.

  5. Pingback: Society for the Medieval Mediterranean 2015 (in Lincoln), parts 2 & 3 | A Corner of Tenth-Century Europe

  6. Pingback: In memoriam Ted Buttrey (1929-2017) | A Corner of Tenth-Century Europe

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