Historians to remember

It is a distressing habit that seems to be developing on this blog where it is deaths that bring me out of a hiatus. Of course, there would be no such habit if there were no hiatuses, but the times are not good for that. Maybe that will get more explanation next post, whenever I can do that, but in the meantime, I shouldn’t go the whole holiday and post nothing, even if what must be posted is kind of awful. It is also delayed: this has been on my deck since February, when news of one significant death reached me and the person who’d told me then let me know about the five other major medievalists the reaper had claimed the previous month, and there were such among them that I knew I would have to write something next post instead of whatever I had planned. And finally, here we are.

My rules for giving someone an obituary on this blog are not very worked out. In general it is because, whether I knew them or not, their work has touched mine somehow or been the foundation of something I’ve done. In this, I persist in the blog’s basically self-serving purpose that it’s all about me somehow, I suppose, but to be fair, if I reported on deaths even of people I didn’t have much connection with, firstly it’d become a pretty grim blog and secondly I’d hardly be able to say much of use about them. Thus it is that I will not be saying more here about the late Jean-Marie Martin, leading expert on the society of the Italian area of Apulia on its journey from Byzantine through Lombard, Arab and Norman rules, or Jean Richard, eminent historian of the Crusades, than those notices, except to observe that apparently Richard, whose work I’ve put on many a reading list without myself giving it the attention it surely deserved, was only two weeks short of his hundredth birthday, and to provide links under their names to places where you can read more.1

Giles Constable, photographed by Randall Hagadorn

Giles Constable, photographed by Randall Hagadorn for Princeton’s Institute of Advanced Study

Then come two about whom I have more to say, but still did not know. Firstly, Giles Constable, 91 at his death, and by that stage he had been Professor of Medieval History at Harvard and Princeton’s Institute of Advanced Study, serving between times as Director of the Dumbarton Oaks Library and Research Collection in Washington DC, despite having been born in London. His was so productive a career it would hard to sum it up, and sufficiently long that I currently work with a doctoral grand-pupil of his. Wikipedia currently singles out his work on the key Benedictine reform abbey of Cluny, which I wrote about here long ago, on its abbot Peter the Venerable, a major figure in European theology and religious and intellectual life, and on twelfth-century thought in general, and certainly when making reading lists on Cluny or the twelfth-century Renaissance, I have always made sure as recent a dose of Constable as I could find was in there. That’s mostly because of reading bits of his work as an undergraduate myself, and finding that it carefully and clearly opened window after window on my understanding of the world he described.2 But what I still mainly cite him for is a short and brilliant article that did a similar thing for my understanding of the motivation of medieval monastic forgers, and sometimes for his work on monasteries’ claims to Church tithes, both of which are in that category of things which people still cite from decades ago because no-one has written a better thing on the subject.3 He seems to still have been working up to about 2016, at which point he’d have been 85 or so; may we all hope for so much…

Ronnie Ellenblum

Ronnie Ellenblum, from his Academia.edu page, which of course, does not record his death

Not active for as long, because only 68 when struck by a fatal heart attack, was Professor Ronnie Ellenblum. A more controversial figure, whom again I never met, every one of Ellenblum’s books seemed to upset a consensus, on how involved Frankish settlers were in the landscapes of the Holy Land where the Crusades brought some of them, on how much those Crusaders were willing to learn from their Muslim opponents in terms of fortifications and strategy (rather than the other way round), and more recently and noticeably, on the power of climate change to tip societies’ survivability over the edge.4 All of this, as you can probably tell, was born out of a deep acquaintance and close contact with the land in his native Israel. He also taught at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, which by itself put him beyond some people’s pales. I did not know about that issue when, as was recorded here, I read a short piece of his that was effectively the entire impetus of my Rethinking the Medieval Frontier project, but that was, in a more direct way than usual, his fault; from my wrangling with that book chapter came all the conversations that brought the agenda for that project into being.5 If I had ever met him, I’d have thanked him for that, as well as being embarrassed about how little the project yet had to show for itself; now I will never be able to.

Cyril Mango at the American School at Athens

Cyril Mango at the American School at Athens

Then we reach the ones I did in fact know, at least a bit. The death whose news sparked off the exchange I reported above was that of the one I knew less well, Professor Cyril Mango. I met him twice, I think, at the Medieval History Seminar at All Soul’s College Oxford both times, and when I say met, I mean sat at a table while he talked, or while his wife Marlia Mundell Mango talked for him because, even then, he was very ill. Farflung Byzantinist colleagues would ask me if Cyril Mango was still alive when they were in contact with me for completely other reasons, so widely known was this, but the news was important because he truly was a ‘giant in the field‘, who had been responsible perhaps more than any other single scholar—and there really weren’t many in this competition when he began—for bringing the history and culture of the Byzantine Empire into a wider Anglophone awareness. This was not because he was a populariser, though I don’t think he had any shame about writing for a public, but because despite being extremely learned in his subject matter he remained able to communicate it to outsiders whilst still being recognised by insiders. The result was that, if someone in the UK owned one book not by John Julius Norwich about Byzantium, Mango was probably either the author or a contributor, but also that if one went on to study Byzantium, he was in all the experts’ references too.6 The field has been oddly quiet about his departure from it, perhaps because it had been expected for so long, and I’m sure there are people from his 92-year-long life who could give him a better write-up than I can—indeed, several already have—but for now I hope this does him at least some justice.

[The only pictures of Professor Michael Clanchy I can find which show him as I remember him are attached to things written by his daughter about his death, which was apparently preceded very narrowly by his wife’s, and they’re painful reading and I would feel bad stealing the pictures. The obituaries linked below have pictures of him in happier times.]

And then lastly, and for me saddest because I knew him best, there was Michael Clanchy. Since he worked mostly in the same kind of fields as Giles Constable, and especially on the intellectual ferment around the creation of the first university in Paris and one of that ferment’s principal products, the philosopher, theologian and leading candidate for history’s worst boyfriend Peter Abelard, you might wonder why I knew Michael Clanchy at all, and then be surprised at how many papers of his, including one (before the blog) which was both his inaugural and retirement lecture, I’d been to. But, investigating, you would quickly then discover that that lecture was given at the Institute of Historical Research in London, one of my academic homes, and although he really only tuned in the eleventh century in terms of his own work, he was a regular at the Earlier Middle Ages Seminar, because he found everything interesting as far as I can see. Consequently, because kindness returns kindness, people used to go to his stuff as well, but this was also because he made it all so interesting. His biography of Abelard may still be the only work that manages to make the man interesting personally as well as significant intellectually, as well as at least halfway comprehensible to the non-expert, not least because as its title suggests it is about far more than just Abelard.7 But as far as I know, excellent though that book is, especially if accompanied by his revision of the Penguin translation of Abelard’s and Héloïse’s letters, it only had the one edition, unlike the one that most people had heard of Michael Clanchy for, From Memory to Written Record, which argued for a fundamental shift in the way people used and stored information over the eleventh and twelfth centuries, and in which by the third edition, under pressure from those who knew England before the Conquest better than after (and better than he did), he was beginning to extend that thinking backwards into a new way of thinking about how writing was being used then that I’m not sure anyone has really picked up.8 And there’s an article of Michael’s from 1970, even, that still gets cited, another of those things that are just too good to replace.9 But it is his kindness for which he might deserve to be remembered best. I don’t know how many conversations I had with him in the IHR tea-room in which he not just professed but maintained an interest in what I did, even once or twice asking very junior me for advice on early medieval archives, none of which, since he could never teach me and our periods barely even met at the edges, he needed to do. I will of course remember him for his work, but I will also remember those conversations and be thankful for him. I can picture him trying bashfully to shrug off the praise, and of course, again, I shan’t ever get to deliver it, but also again, I hope this is something.

I need to rethink what I am doing with this blog, again, since the backlog and the available time obviously don’t work together. I will try and do some of that rethinking for the next post, but even if that doesn’t sound thrilling, at least it more or less must be more cheerful than this one. Thanks for still reading and I hope to write more soon.


1. For Martin, the work for which he was famous beyond Apulia was probably his first book, which made that area well-known to a wider audience, J.-M. Martin, La Pouille du VIe au XIIe siècle, Collection de l’École française de Rome 179 (Rome 1993), but I confess, it is one of those I know I ought to have read, and actually what I know him for most is his contribution to Pierre Bonnassie’s Festschrift, “Quelques réflexions sur l’évolution des droits banaux en Italie méridionale (XIe-XIIIe siècle)” in Hélène Débax (ed.), Les sociétés méridionales à l’âge féodal (l’Espagne, Italie et sud de France Xe-XIIIe s.). Hommage à Pierre Bonnassie, Méridiennes 8 (Toulouse 1999), pp. 339–344. Richard is easily most famous for The Crusades, c. 1071–c. 1291, transl. Jean Birrell (Cambridge 1999), one of the only textbook histories of the Crusades that gets beyond the Fourth one.

2. Embarrassingly, I now can’t work out what work it was that I was then reading; I apparently didn’t make notes on it, and several of the obvious things came out too late. It could, just about, have been, G. Constable, Three Studies in Medieval Religious and Social Thought: The Interpretation of Mary and Martha; The Ideal of the Imitation of Christ; The Orders of Society (Cambridge 1995), then very new, and may more likely have been idem, “Renewal and Reform in Religious Life: Concepts and Realities” in Robert L. Benson (ed.), Renaissance and Renewal in the Twelfth Century(Cambridge MA 1982), pp. 37–67, but one could also mention Constable, The Reformation of the Twelfth Century (Cambridge 1996) or idem, The Abbey of Cluny: A Collection of Essays to Mark the Eleventh-Hundredth Anniversary of its Foundation, Abhandlungen Vita Regularis: Ordnungen und Deutungen religiosen Lebens im Mittelalter, 43 (Münster 2010), as only two. For me especially, there’s also the quite out-of-area Constable, “Frontiers in the Middle Ages” in O. Merisalo (ed.), Frontiers in the Middle Ages, Textes et études du Moyen Âge 35 (Turnhout 2006), pp. 3–28.

3. Constable, “Forgery and Plagiarism in the Middle Ages” in Archiv für Diplomatik Vol. 39 (München 1983), pp. 1–41; idem, Monastic Tithes from their Origins to the Twelfth Century, Cambridge Studies in Medieval Life and Thought 2nd Series 10 (Cambridge 1964).

4. Respectively, Ellenblum, Frankish Rural Settlement in the Latin Kingdom of Jerusalem (Cambridge 2003); idem, Crusader Castles and Modern Histories (Cambridge 2007) and idem, The Collapse of the Eastern Mediterranean: Climate Change and the Decline of the East, 950–1072 (Cambridge 2012).

5. Ronnie Ellenblum, “Were there Borders and Borderlines in the Middle Ages? The Example of the Latin Kingdom of Jerusalem” in David Abulafia and Nora Berend (edd.), Medieval Frontiers: concepts and practices (Aldershot 2002), pp. 105–118.

6. While it doesn’t cover his whole œuvre by any means, I guess one has to mention Mango, Byzantium: The Empire of New Rome (New York City, NY, 1980), idem, Le développement urbain de Constantinople, IVe-VIIe siècles, Travaux et Mémoires du Centre de recherche d’histoire et civilisation de Byzance, Collège de France, Monographies, 2, 2nd edn (Paris 2004) and idem (ed.), The Oxford History of Byzantium (Oxford 2002). Even that omits a number of critical source translations and a vital textual anthology of sources for Byzantine art, idem (ed.), The Art of Byzantine Empire (New York City NY 1972), and I could go on.

7. M. T. Clanchy, Abelard: a medieval life (Oxford 1999).

8. Clanchy, From Memory to Written Record: England, 1066-1307, 3rd edn (Chichester 2013); one should probably also mention his England and its Rulers, 1066–1307, 3rd edn (Oxford 2006).

9. Clanchy, “Remembering the Past and the Good Old Law” in History Vol. 55 (London 1970), pp. 165–176.

3 responses to “Historians to remember

  1. I knew about Clanchy, because I’m using his famous book in a class, and one of my students looked him up and told us. But I followed the link to his daughter’s essay and then was too gutted to comment here the day I read it. I’m sorry to hear about all of these losses.

    • I do see why she needed to write that essay, but I do also rather wish I personally hadn’t read it. I could hear Michael in his quotations and picture his distress much too easily. I’m sort of sorry to have linked it, but it seemed untrue to life not to. I’m just sorry his going was so troubled.

  2. Speaking from experience not so dissimilar to his daughter’s, the going of a Parkinson’s patient is almost bound to be troubled, but yes, that did seem particularly unnecessarily so.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.