Tag Archives: obituaries


Dead scholars’ books II

This gallery contains 4 photos.

In very late August 2014 I found myself the recipient of a slightly morbid parcel of books that had once been in the library of Professor Nicholas Brooks. His academic library was sold off via Amazon to raise money for … Continue reading


Obviously there are deaths all over and many much less expected or peaceful than these, but nonetheless, with Terry Pratchett yesterday and Daevid Allen this morning, to the latter of whom I still owed a hug as well as years … Continue reading

We have lost Nicholas Brooks

Heavy news reached me in mail this morning, followed by several more mails and finally a flurry of SMSs as the world of early medieval studies in Britain reacted to news of the kind no-one wishes to arise. The news was, as you may already have heard, that Professor Nicholas Brooks died yesterday in hospital after his long illness suddenly took a turn for the worse. If you hadn’t heard, I’m sorry to be the messenger but this kind of news is never one to postpone.


I last saw Nicholas only two weeks ago, when he was one of the very few people to come out for a paper I was giving at extremely short notice; he had one of his characteristic questions that wasn’t really a question so much as a request for a justification of an assumption I hadn’t spotted lying behind my interpretation of the evidence, and it was as welcome as those can get. Afterwards he, I and Allan McKinley talked about the relief Nicholas could feel in getting the edition of the Christ Church Canterbury Anglo-Saxon charters out at last; I hadn’t even thought about factors like mortality weighing on his mind, he showed no sign of a weight on his mind at all. He looked and sounded no iller than he had done for years, and this morning’s news came as a really unpleasant surprise.

I first met Nicholas because of Allan, in fact, who had roped him into our first Problems and Possibilities of Early Medieval Diplomatic session in 2007. He was of course the perfect gent and gave us an early version of his paper on knight service under Cnut which came out in 2011; I was sorry not to have been allowed to include it in our book but very happy to be able to start citing it.1 It was towards the end of what will presumably have been a fifty-year publication career, and it was careful, detailed, almost undeniably-argued work resetting a small part of the field. At the other end of that career is a 1964 paper on the forts of the Burghal Hidage which is still cited and perhaps most of all a 1971 one on military obligations in Mercia that is still the starting point for most work on the development of royal government in Anglo-Saxon England.2 His 1971 work was still as solid and important as his 2011 work and both had reset the debates into which they’d interjected, and we could note several other milestones in that time of equal importance. Of whom else can we say such things? This is a loss that we shall feel badly. And also, you know, he was a really nice man. Allan and I, among others, were able to lift a glass in his memory this evening at the next instalment of that same seminar, but there’ll need to be more.

1. Nicholas Brooks, “The Archbishopric of Canterbury and the So-called Introduction of Knight-Service into England” in Anglo-Norman Studies Vol. 34 (Woodbridge 2011), pp. 41-62.

2. Idem, “The unidentified forts of the Burghal Hidage” in Medieval Archaeology Vol. 8 (London 1964), pp. 74-90, repr. in idem, Communities and Warfare, 700-1400 (London 2000), pp. 91-113; idem, “The development of military obligations in eighth- and ninth-century England” in Peter Clemoes & Kathleen Hughes (edd.), England Before the Conquest: studies in primary sources presented to Dorothy Whitelock (Cambridge 1971), pp. 69-84, repr. in David A. E. Pelteret (ed.), Anglo-Saxon History: basic readings, Garland Reference Library of the Humanities 2108 (New York City 2000), pp. 83-105 and in Brooks, Communities and Warfare, pp. 32-47. Something like a full assessment of Nicholas’s work as it then stood can be found in Julia Barrow, “Introduction: Myth, Rulership, Church and Charters in the Work of Nicholas Brooks” in Barrow & Andrew Wareham (edd.), Myth, Rulership, Church and Charters: essays in honour of Nicholas Brooks (Aldershot 2008), pp. 1-10.

In memory of Timothy McFarland

Term ending has somehow not decreased the number of things that are urgent-for-tomorrow as much as I’d hoped and hence the blog still languishes, sorry. I have a post-that-may-really-be-a-paper nearly ready and many many seminars to write up but first, alas, must come this, which is already delayed more than its subject deserved. Timothy MacFarland was a specialist in medieval German literature, especially I believe Wolfram von Eschenbach, and had retired as a Senior Lecturer of University College London. I didn’t know him from his work but because he was a regular at the Institute of Historical Research’s Earlier Middle Ages seminar, which makes for so much of this blog’s contents. He was always interested in what was being said, and generous in his comments. This was all despite the fact that the seminar never came very near his own subject; he was just interested in many things and was consequently himself interesting. I had noticed he hadn’t been around for a while but was still shocked and dismayed when his death and funeral were one of the announcements at the seminar three weeks ago. Almost ineluctably, I was within days of submitting a piece of work on which he’d actually given me useful advice some years before… I can’t add anything much of use about his life and work: I haven’t been able to search up more of an obituary than this and don’t want to besmirch his memory with half-remembered anecdotes, but if anyone would like to add memories in comments please do do so, I would love to read them and this post should be around a bit longer than that site’s ephemeral guestbook. Regularly-irregular programming will resume shortly but, even this late, I wanted to put his death on record somehow. I liked Tim and I’m sorry he’s gone.

Mark Blackburn

This, this was not the kind of funerary inscription I meant but as with the last time I had to bump a post for this reason, the reason cannot be brooked. Mark Blackburn, Keeper of Coins and Medals at the Fitzwilliam Museum, Fellow of Gonville & Caius College Cambridge and half-a-dozen other rôles and dignities, also my erstwhile boss, died of cancer on Thursday morning, this 1st of September. To some this is going to be a nasty shock; others closer will know that Mark had had a running battle with melanoma for the last twenty-two years, and that two years ago when the latest lump appeared on his skin the doctors examined him, found more and told him that he probably had only a year to live. Mark, with the help of the tremendous oncology department at Addenbrookes Hospital whose research case he willingly became, went on to stretch that prediction by 100%, which is about right: Mark was a 100% kind of guy. In the intervening time he was awarded several prizes and medals, saw a volume of his collected papers and two of the department’s outstanding publications to press and was still available to write references, answer e-mail and so on as far as his circumstances would permit. Meanwhile, almost the first thing he did when he got the terminal prognosis was to go on holiday with his children. This will surprise no-one who knew him and will hopefully give those who didn’t some idea what he was like.

Mark Blackburn receiving a cake bearing the cover of his new volume of collected essays

Mark Blackburn receiving a cake bearing the cover of his new volume of collected essays; my apologies to my erstwhile colleague Rory Naismith, whom I've rudely disembodied, but I wanted Mark to get centre stage here. The bow tie was customary.

I think this is the worst news, personally, I’ve ever put on the blog, but when I justify that by saying that Mark was a mentor and teacher to me, an involved and trusting boss, a ready source of academic help and advice and a patron without who I could not have generated the career profile I have or indeed got the job I now have, for which he cheerfully wrote me a reference, I am keenly aware that I can think of four or five people straight away who could say as much, perhaps twice that again with a bit more thought and that there must be many many more I don’t know about; there are probably a hundred people with as much reason to grieve that he’s dead as I have, because he was genial, helpful and supportive to so many people. Compared to many of them, not least his family who were so important to him, I’m distant and though obviously I’m upset it’s not going to slow me down or prevent me driving on with the projects I was doing for him which will still, dammit, be done. It had become clear in recent weeks that he wouldn’t see them completed and I was already expecting the phone-call when finally it came, as I think were most of those in the Department and close by, but the projects were important for more reasons than his involvement and we will get them done for him and for those he intended them to be for.

He was mostly unconscious in his last few days, apparently, but did rouse enough to assent to having some tea when asked, the day before he died. On getting it, too, he managed to get it understood that he wanted a different, better, tea, and that (“Dimbula“) was pretty much his last intelligible word. Now, there are an awful lot of things one could have learnt from Mark, and not just about numismatics although there were few people indeed from whom you could have learnt so much about coins so easily as from Mark. He was a colossus of productivity, even if one didn’t always see that when one only knew about parts of what he was working on; there was so much that only he knew about it all. But he was also a great example of how to enjoy yourself; he had friends right round the globe from collaborations and research trips, he’d been to a great many places and while I worked with him I was many times impressed by how much guiltless fun this top academic managed to get out of his holidays, his job, meeting people, eating and drinking and of course his research; he really did make the absolute most of his life, though I know he would have been pretty happy to make more of it also. So, though his scholarship will stand unsurpassed for a good long time and it’s a crying shame there won’t be more of it, even those who are not bothered with coins can learn a few things from Mark, lessons to take to heart, and the ones I’m trying to take are: (i) do what’s important, do it now and don’t fret about the rest while you’re doing it; (ii) make sure and enjoy what life gives you, especially if you made it yourself, and (iii) if all else fails, demand really high-quality tea in your final hours. I salute you, Mark, you were one of a kind and one of the best, and you fought on for longer than anyone should have to against an adversary who couldn’t stop you having fun.

Mark Blackburn showing Queen Elizabeth II around the coins displays in the Fitzwilliam Museum, Cambridge

Mark Blackburn showing Queen Elizabeth II around the coins displays in the Fitzwilliam Museum

(I have funeral details if anyone reading needs them and hasn’t got them; e-mail me quickly if so. It will be a full church.)

Michael Richter, RIP

There are some posts it’s worth putting ahead of the queue. I can be amazingly behind the times sometimes: I’ve only just learnt, via News for Medievalists, that Professor Michael Richter died in May. To be fair, this delay in reportage is not News for Medievalists’ fault, as they’re merely pointing to a story in The Irish Times that has also only lately appeared. But even if it’s not news it’s still a real shame. I only met Professor Richter the once, in St Andrews in 2003, where he gave a very courteous ear to my third-ever conference presentation and suggested two useful avenues of enquiry for the paper that eventually became my “Archbishop Ató”. He also revealed himself at the conference dinner to be a man with a richly mischievous sense of humour, which made those parts of his work I’d met much easier to understand; though no-one could question his rigour or application to the source materials, he was also, I thought, having a lot of fun seeing how far he could push them and what he could get away with. He seemed to be enjoying his life far too much to have died only a few years later; I just hope he didn’t have to stop enjoying it before he lost it. His will be a regretted absence.

“We’re all gonna be dirt in the ground”

This post has been in draft a while. I first wrote it in January in a sink of a mood, which its contents may explain, and then the content material got worse. Then it went on hold while I got permission to use some of the images, permission that I’m happy to say was readily given by Professor Martin Carver, whom all praise. (Those known to be in copyright are so marked.1) Now that I’ve given the lecture with which it substantially started, I’m a lot more sanguine about things and have revised accordingly, but, nonetheless, this one merits the gloom gargoyle and I warn you that unpleasant mortuary stuff and sad praise of the dead lie ahead.

Right, consider yourselves warned

December was a month of the dead, and it was a long December running well into January. I was predisposed to notice this, because one of the tasks of the term has been a lecture on burial in Anglo-Saxon England and, though I know something of this, there is certainly a lot more I could know and so I was reading it, specifically and especially the site report from the excavations of 1983-2001 at Sutton Hoo.2 It didn’t take long to creep me out. Did you know, for example, that at Sutton Hoo the soil is sufficiently acid that within a decade—a figure the excavators arrived at by burying some organic material and coming back to it a few years later to see how far it had gone—the bulk of a human body buried in that soil is gone, become merely a crust of dark sand that just about holds its shape when carefully dug round and within which, if you’re lucky, a few bones may survive? They look like this.

Burial 34 from the Sutton Hoo execution cemetery

Burial 34 from the Sutton Hoo execution cemetery, copyright Martin Carver & The British Museum, used by kind permission

When Mr Tom Waits croaked the line I’ve used for my title here, I don’t think he meant it this literally.3 And it gets more morbid. The few bodies that survive even this much at Sutton Hoo are not from the famous burial mounds, of which there were once many but all but two of which were robbed out, probably in the sixteenth century. Instead they are from one of two execution cemeteries that were near what may have been the oldest mound, one cemetery around the mound itself (which perhaps had a gallows set up on it after a few decades) and one nearby around a substantial old tree that later blew down and was replaced with another gallows (which I feel sure, though there’s no way to know and the excavators don’t suggest it, must have been made from the wood of that tree).4 Many of these graves are what we would now call ‘deviant’, that is to say there’s something weird about the burial practice. Around the mound the worst that it gets is probable binding of limbs and face-down burial, though several were also decapitated. Around the tree, however, all kinds of stuff occurs: bodies buried sitting up (with their legs or arms tied), kneeling face-down in the dirt backside skywards, more decapitations, prone burial, sideways with the head somewhere else… It is nasty to read. The strangest is this one.

Sutton Hoo Burial 27, as uncovered; image copyright Martin Carver and The British Museum and used by kind permission

Sutton Hoo Burial 27, as uncovered; image copyright Martin Carver and The British Museum and used by kind permission

You don’t get like this in a grave by happenstance. Of course, how you see it does rather depend on what way up it should be seen, but I can’t find a rotation that makes that splay of the legs look at all natural. Was he bound at the legs, struggled on the rope and got one leg free, then, I don’t know, they shot him with an arrow in case he got down? But the weirdest thing of course is that we ask this because they put him in the grave in that position, and indeed dug the grave to fit. There’s a danger of chicken-and-egg reasoning here, I suppose, but from not just this but the others in contorted positions the view of the excavators was that these bodies had been placed in the grave in the positions in which they’d died. I can’t get my head round that at all, but I don’t like the alternatives—such as they are: planned in-grave distortion of the body? Why would you? Who’s the audience? which is where it gets nasty again—and would prefer to give the excavators credit where possible. And then those burying him covered him with planks, or something like, and filled it in.

Sutton Hoo Burial 28, face in the dirt, posterior upwards, hands tied behind the back; image copyright Martin Carver & The British Museum, used by kind permission

Sutton Hoo Burial 28, face in the dirt, posterior upwards, hands tied behind the back; image copyright Martin Carver & The British Museum, used by kind permission

For some, at least, a more regular burial was possible; a few around the tree had coffins, and there were several apparently empty grave pits that suggest that, if one’s family were lucky perhaps, it might yet be possible to get the condemned deceased away from where the old (and presumably pagan) king laid in state, presumably to a proper Christian cemetery. But for some, obviously, no such quarter was offered, and they were to rest with the damned. The thought-world there is interesting—conversion doesn’t so much make these places obsolete as recast their significance, it seems—but I’m glad I don’t share it. I was quite glad to get the lecture out of the way and concentrate once more on the living.

Liber mortuorum

With that all said, I don’t think that it was just my temporarily morbid focus that made me notice a recent array of deaths. Obviously millions of people are dying all the time and it just so happens that the odds have swung slightly more than usual towards my circle of acquaintance, but all the same, we do seem to have lost some of the good ones just lately, and I wanted to notice them here: five scholars (and it was two when I started the post, horribly), and two musicians who didn’t have anything to do with my usual subject matter but who should not, all the same, be allowed to go quietly into that great night. I’ve never met any of these people except the last, but I’ve read or listened to their work, and it’s one of the commonalities of both fields of endeavour that one can feel a connection to a creator who by definition only exists, as author of that work anyway, in the past and is no longer ‘there’, either in space and time or in his or her work. This usually gets me when listening to music by people I know, which of course is by them as they were not as I know them, but it should also apply to scholars, really. Anyway. These are the good names gone.

Scholars’ roll of honour

  • Firstly Rachel Bromwich, whose edition of the Welsh Triads was perhaps the first literary evidence this historian ever wrestled with, an eye-opening glimpse into a fragmentarily-preserved world of oral history in which not just the name Arthur, but more interesting more historical names were woven.5 One of these names was Áedán mac Gabráin, Aeddan Uradawc, the Wily, which was why I was interested, but it was a fascinating read even where he wasn’t and it was Dr Bromwich I had to thank for it.
  • Then, Professor Manuel Riu i Riu, about whom I’ve written here before, one of the most important modern scholars of the medieval past in Catalonia and Spain more widely there has so far been, I kid you not. I phrase it thus because I’ve no idea whether to call him a historian or an archæologist, he did both with equal facility, dug sites and edited charters, and could converse across the disciplines meaning that for a while at least, his colleagues and friends were almost uniquely well-informed in their studies about what was going on the other side of the fence, as their footnotes attest.
  • Then, archæologist and enthusiast Geoff Egan, a friend of my old colleagues and a contributor to at least one of my old endeavours at the Fitzwilliam, a man whom many people will miss.
  • After him, the Islamicist son of a Byzantinist father, Professor Oleg Grabar, not a great force in my own work but mourned by people I know, and certainly deserving of a sad mention here.
  • And lastly, I hope for a while, Professor Robert Markus, the chief rival to Peter Brown‘s throne (or Brown perhaps chief rival to his) and someone whose work I soaked up in quantity as an undergraduate. Always clear and convincing and dispassionate without being dull, he was the man who introduced me to Origen, to Chalcedon and the extraordinarily late date (as it seemed to me then) that the canon of Christian Scripture was, well, canonised,6 all of which was very powerful to me back then, escaping from 14 years of school with integral Church of England worship daily; he earnt an obituary by Jinty Nelson no less, which is worth a read.

So look, that’s enough. But then there’s the musicians.

Not Going Quietly

Arguably one of the musicians needs no notice either, he’s had so many, but I own a lot of his records, one of his songs was even about archæology (or at least palæontology):7 you will have noticed, probably, that Captain Beefheart died, but it’s still a shame. On the other hand, not only did I never meet him, he stopped making music in 1983, and I never had much of an urge to acquire his paintings; his reputation was secure and he had been ill for a long time, it couldn’t be called a surprise and we had, at least, received most of what he had to give us. Less so from a man I did know, Trev Thoms, who dropped out of contact a few months ago, turned out to have pancreatic cancer and succumbed to it a few days before the good Captain did the terminal shuffle. You won’t have heard of Trev, and probably not of any of his bands either—Inner City Unit, the Imperial Pompadours, Atomgods, Bajina, Mother of All Bands—but you might have seen him, either if you hang around in the pubs in Brighton where they have open mic nights or if you saw the right version of Nik Turner’s various post-Hawkwind outfits such as Space Ritual, or if you ever drop in on what remains of the UK festival scene, which he did quite a lot to assist in his own way. Next one I go to, he won’t be there trying to sell me anything, and I shall be damn sorry about this. So here’s some of his stuff to wrap up with, with supporting photo-montage assembled by others who feel the same way. Ironically or appropriately, it’s a song about another dead man and Trev is guitar and lead vocals.

He made the Big Noise, and he had fun doing it. Bye bye Trev, I hope you’re a star if you’re anywhere to be one. I’ll get back to the Middle Ages in a minute.

1. The colour images from the Sutton Hoo dig are thus taken from Martin Carver (ed.), 2004, The Sutton Hoo Research Project 1983-2001, available at http://ads.ahds.ac.uk/catalogue/resources.html?suttonhoo_var_2004, last accessed 29 January 2011, and here cited as per their copyright notice and requirement. The black-and-white one, I scanned myself from M. Carver et al., Sutton Hoo: a princely burial ground of the seventh century, Reports of the Research Committee of the Society of Antiquaries of London 69 (London 2005), Plate 48 (a), and use here with Professor Carver’s permission. It is not available for further reproduction without his permission; terms for the others are available at the link.

2. Carver et al., Sutton Hoo. This is the basis of what follows: organic preservation in the soil there is covered at pp. 49-53, among other places.

3. Tom Waits, ‘Dirt in the Ground’, on idem, Bone Machine (Island Records 1992).

4. Martin Carver, “Execution Burials of the Eighth to Eleventh Centuries” in idem et al., Sutton Hoo, pp. 315-359 including an appendix, Francis Lee, “Report on the Human Bones”, ibid. pp. 349-359. The feature interpreted as a tree and then a gallows is covered at pp. 324-325.

5. R. Bromwich (ed.), Trioedd Ynys Prydein: The Welsh Triads (2nd edn. Cardiff 1978).

6. I think, on looking back at his bibliography, that the one that must have made a dent on me was his Christianity in the Roman World (London 1974), but now I think I would like to read his The End of Ancient Christianity (Cambridge 1990), which seem to have missed at the time.

7. Captain Beefheart and the Magic Band, ‘Smithsonian Institute Blues’, on eidem, Lick My Decals Off Baby (Warner Bros Records 1970). As he says, “you can’t get round the big dig”. But then if I start quoting Beefheart wisdom we’ll be here all day. Let’s stick with, “everybody’s coloured, or you wouldn’t be able to see them“.