Tag Archives: obituaries

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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Duncan Probert

It is more than two months since I have been able to post here, and though the blog is recently now a full ten years old it is also fair to ask what kind of health it is in. I may now have an answer to that question and time to frame it, but today is not the day where that happens, because news reached me by e-mail today of the unexpected death of fellow medievalist and stalwart member of the black-clad and long-haired, Duncan Probert, a couple of weeks after suffering a stroke. Duncan, who had come to medieval studies as a second or even third career, I met when he was at Birmingham and I was at the Fitzwilliam, and over our occasional meetings at conferences and seminars over the next few years he developed into a respected and highly productive scholar of medieval English names, place- and personal, who could make that work comprehensible to outsiders despite handling large datasets by preference. He worked on many projects, most recently at Kings College London, and managed to combine the hard-headedness of real-world employment experience with an irrepressible belief in the power of human ingenuity to solve problems. He also drew good maps. He will be missed by many; with this post I count myself among them. Rest well, Duncan.

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Signs of the End Times, or, Rock’n’Roll is Dead

This was not what I had planned for this post, but as has regrettably happened often before events outstrip my backlog. The unthinkable has happened: Lemmy, founder of Motörhead and an occasional voice of popular wisdom cited on this blog, is dead, of cancer he hardly had time to know he was facing. We enter 2016 with the army of snarling rock’n’roll sadly weakened. So first and foremost, those to whom this news matters, raise a glass and turn it up.

Now keep that channel running on autoplay and consider this. As I’m sure you know, it was widely considered that Lemmy should have died of general rock’n’roll excess in the seventies or eighties so that his continuing survival could only be some peculiar expression of Providence. That this is suddenly otherwise can surely only be a sign of the encroaching End Times! At which rate, CAN IT BE COINCIDENCE that this is this blog’s 1000th post? I didn’t want to use it for this purpose, but in some ways it’s more fitting than what I had planned; a significance will now attach to it that I will remember. I was lucky enough to see Motörhead live a good few times, once even with Hawkwind supporting and Lemmy guesting on ‘Silver Machine’. An era in which that was possible is now over. I hope for nothing so monumental changing as the blog enters its eleventh century and indeed its tenth year, but these things also should be marked and if they travel only in the wake of Lemmy’s passing, well, that’s as it should be; the breaking of so great a thing should only come with a full-sized helping of what another dead rocker I once knew called The Big Noise.

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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

Aside

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.

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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.