Memories of Ruth Macrides

You are owed a post, dear readers, but as happens too often these days, this is not one I wanted to write. Over the Easter vacation news reached me of the unexpected death of Dr Ruth Macrides, of the Centre of Byzantine, Ottoman and Modern Greek Studies at the University of Birmingham, noted Byzantinist and my erstwhile colleague. I have dithered about writing, because there are many people already doing so who knew Ruth better than I did, but I worked with her, I shared seminar wine with her and I have written notices about people I knew far less well; I probably should. So, this is a few memories of Ruth.

Staff picture of Dr Ruth Macrides

Picture of Dr Ruth Macrides from her Birmingham staff page, now displaying a sad notice of her death

Pinning down when I first met Ruth is tricky for me. It would have been when I was teaching on the History side of Birmingham’s School of History and Cultures, whereas the Centre for Byzantine, Ottoman and Modern Greek Studies sits organisationally within the Department of Classics, Ancient History and Archaeology, so our points of crossing then were limited. But I knew her by the time I handed over the MA in Medieval History’s Research Skills module to her at the end of my contract, so I must have met her before that. In this respect, my memory is deficient, sorry Ruth. But she made a fresh impression upon me when, rescued from possible academic unemployment by the job as Interim Curator of Coins at the Barber Institute of Fine Arts, I thus found myself gathered into the Centre. I don’t know if Ruth was in fact running the Centre at this point, but she was everywhere in its activity: she edited its journal, Byzantine and Modern Greek Studies, and she organised its seminar programme, which was (as indeed you heard here) studded with international speakers, including non-Byzantinists. The thing that most impressed me at the first meeting was that she had had termcards printed, not just A4 printouts but little green folded cards with the Centre’s logo on them. An affectation, you might think, but it was practices like this (and its Postgraduate Colloquium and periodic hosting of the Spring Symposium of Byzantine Studies, which latter Ruth was organising this year…) that meant that the Centre was instantiated and continued to have a group identity despite being organisationally subsumed into something else. With things like these Ruth was the Centre’s lungs; she kept it breathing, and I could point you at other interdisciplinary centres of yore which are no longer really visible or significant not least because no-one bothered to do things like those. So all power to Ruth’s memory for that.

Cover of the April 2019 issue of Byzantine and Modern Greek Studies

Cover of the April 2019 issue of Byzantine and Modern Greek Studies, presumably the last one Ruth edited and displaying the logo of the Centre for Byzantine, Ottoman and Modern Greek Studies, a coin of Emperor Leo III

My next most powerful memory of Ruth is of her laughing. As she was organising those seminars, she also had to take the speakers out to dinner. Not every one of those dinners could be a party, but I remember one seminar dinner in particular—though I don’t remember who the speaker was, or even if they actually came to dinner—in which Ruth and fellow American immigrée Professor Leslie Brubaker were exchanging anecdotes about the terrible British housing they had encountered with horror on their first arrivals on these shores. I have a very clear picture in my mind of Ruth drawing breath between laughs with her hand emphatically grasping Leslie’s arm, and I see that this is also Ruth as Leslie has remembered her on Birmingham’s tribute page. So Ruth energetically fronting the Centre and Ruth laughing with her colleagues are my two strongest memories of her, and that is just as it should be I think.

But Ruth also needs remembering as scholar, so I will add one more, though, because it makes a point she would not have. In fact, she wasn’t even present for it. A very long memory of this blog could however contain a seminar report on a paper by Kyle Sinclair, one of Ruth’s doctoral students who had on that occasion returned to present to one of the local postgraduate seminars. That was a good paper, but it was also the first time I had heard Ruth actually cited, for a paper entitled ‘The Historian in the History’, which turns out to be one of those super-useful things on how medieval authors’ own perspectives mess with our understanding of the history we rely on them for.1 That is, obviously, a known factor of doing history and yet it’s really hard to find people explicitly writing about it and about how we might extract practice as historians from these instances. It’s why I still struggle to direct students for whom source critique is a new idea, because clear and transportable examples are few and far between.2 I’m sure that, if you’re in the field, this is not the work for which the name Ruth Macrides is best known; in fact, she wrote so much of importance that I wouldn’t know where to start with that, especially as she specialised a few centuries later than I do at the other end of the Mediterranean from where I started. But that paper is one that all medieval historians could usefully read, and of course I had to hear about it from one of her students, because something I never heard Ruth do was boast about her work. Her own importance to her field was not something she thought worth mention, apparently. But I think it is and will continue to be evident in all the things people are now saying about her. She was important, she will be much missed, and so I wanted to make my own little contribution to her being remembered. Go in peace, Ruth, and may there be laughter where you have gone.

1. Ruth Macrides, “The Historian in the History”, in Costas N. Constantinides, Nikolaos M. Panagiotakes, Elizabeth Jeffreys and Athanasios D. Angelou (edd.), Philellen: studies in honour of Robert Browning, Biblioteca dell’Istituto ellenico di studi bizantini e postbizantini di Venezia 17 (Venice 1996), pp. 205-224.

2. My other good example is Janet L. Nelson, “Public ‘Histories’ and Private History in the Work of Nithard” in Speculum Vol. 65 (Cambridge MA 1985) pp. 251-293, repr. in eadem, Politics and Ritual in Early Medieval Europe (London 1986), pp. 195-237, and I believe Chris Given-Wilson, Chronicles: The Writing of History in Medieval England (London 2004) does this work as well, but there really aren’t enough such pieces. I dream of some day writing one for charters…

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