Tag Archives: obituaries

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.


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.


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.)