Michael Clanchy, 1936-2021

From Kate Clanchy on Twitter:

This is thread for my father, Michael Clanchy, who has died aged 84.

Michael was born in 1936, and travelled at 6 weeks old to Moscow where his father was Naval Attaché. In 1939, he was on the last train back, a journey he never forgot. Aged 5 he was at prep school, and from there he went to Ampleforth, and Merton College Oxford.

Michael was one the most distinguished medievalists of his time. He wrote the textbook everyone still uses, England and its Rulers, and the groundbreaking From Memory to Written Record, about why we started to write things down.

If that makes him sound conventional, he wasn’t. He didn’t get a first, he never worked in an Oxbridge college. He was just original and tenacious and wrote wonderfully clear prose. The medieval world was always near to him: he could make you see it.

I second this. His scholarship was first-rate, and he was personally very kind and helpful to me when I was researching my dissertation in London. 

Ernst Kantorowicz

From the Chronicle of Higher Education (hat tip: Paul Halsall), a remembrance of a mildly famous mid-century episode:

The Right-Wing Medievalist Who Refused the Loyalty Oath: On Ernst Kantorowicz, academic freedom, and “the secret university.”

In 1950, Ernst Kantorowicz, a distinguished professor of medieval history, was fired from the University of California at Berkeley for refusing to sign an oath of loyalty, which had been mandated, in a fit of Cold War panic, by the University of California’s Board of Regents. Kantorowicz principally objected to the Board of Regents’ requirement that all professors with U.S. citizenship declare in writing that they upheld the Constitution and were not members of any organization advocating the government’s overthrow.

Kantorowicz was by no means alone in his refusal to sign. Across the UC system, another 36 tenured professors lost their jobs alongside him. As it turned out, California’s Supreme Court overturned the sackings. By then it didn’t matter much for Kantorowicz. He had already found a job at the Institute for Advanced Study in Princeton.

Looking back, this incident may seem trivial enough: just another display of Cold War paranoia, just another demonstration of supine conciliation on the part of university authorities.

But we shouldn’t let Kantorowicz’s firing fall out of institutional memory. If anything, his act has become more rather than less significant, because, paradoxically, the reasons he gave for his refusal were so peculiar, so out of touch. They were remote from ordinary ways of thinking about the professoriate’s role and status then. They are even more remote now. This very remoteness can suggest new ways for professors to relate to the university system today, as it becomes unmoored from centuries-old traditions and legitimations and as the empire of obsolescence expands.

In refusing to sign the loyalty oath, Kantorowicz did not appeal primarily to the notion of “academic freedom” as articulated by John Dewey and others earlier in the century. Nor did he refuse to sign because he was any kind of leftist. To the contrary, he was (as he put it in the pamphlet he wrote about the affair) a “conservative” who, as a volunteer fighter against the Munich 1919 uprising, had actually killed Communists.

His reasons appealed to a different conceptual or institutional tradition than any acknowledged either in modern politics or by modern academic administration. He believed that a professor is “entrusted with” an office in a particular “body corporate,” or corpus mysticum, i.e., a university. That status was defined in medieval Europe when universities were established as a universitas magistrorum et scholarium — as bodies made up of students and professors and nobody else.

As a corporation, the university had a particular legal status. It could not be identified with the sum of its members; it was rather a disembodied entity, permanent and immortal. What enabled the scholar to participate in the university was professorial office, which endowed its bearer with “dignity.” Dignity, thus conceived, is not a personal comportment but a quality essential to office. Or rather: In a permanent, mystical institution, dignity fuses office to the private personality, as Kantorowicz put it in his most famous book, The King’s Two Bodies (1957).

As a corpus mysticum, the university is a corporation in a different sense than the modern business enterprise. Because students and professors were the embodied corpus mysticum, regents or janitors, for instance, do not themselves belong to the university proper. They are attached outsiders. Janitors, for instance, merely keep the campus clean. Regents ensure that formal university procedures as mandated by the state are observed. But as members of the university’s body corporate, professors were not employees at all.

In other words, for Kantorowicz, a professorship was a public trust. No one had control over professors. No one measured their performance. The dignity of the professorial office called upon its bearers to act according to their “conscience,” which was held to be inseparable from the professor’s “genuine duties as member of the academic body corporate.” Furthermore, dignity required them to enact their conscience with “passion” and “love.” It involved a willingness to sacrifice their embodied self for the sake of the office: a concept of sacrifice whose historical origins included God’s sacrifice of Christ’s humanity.

Yeah, I’d say that sounds out of touch! For more on this episode read the whole thing, and the chapter on “The Nazi Twins” in Norman F. Cantor’s Inventing the Middle Ages (1989). 

Historians at Work

Two recent and somewhat disquieting articles:

• T. Becket Adams, “The word ‘historian’ has taken a beating

Has any word suffered as greatly in the Trump era as “historian”?…

Beschloss lambasted President Trump in October, for example, after the commander in chief returned to the White House following a weekend at Walter Reed National Military Medical Center battling COVID-19. Upon his return, the president saluted Marine One from the South Portico stairs.

“In America,” said Beschloss, “our presidents have generally avoided strongman balcony scenes — that’s for other countries with authoritarian systems.”

First, to call this an overreaction to the Marine One salute would be an understatement. Second, the bit about U.S. presidents avoiding “balcony scenes” is not even close to being true. A 10-second investigation of the Associated Press’s photo archives disproves his assertion entirely….

This is to say nothing of historian and Politico magazine editor Joshua Zeitz, who said in June after federal officers cleared protesters from in front of the White House in preparation for an in-person appearance by the president: “Historian here. A head of state using a standing army to occupy an American city, compel citizens off the street, stifle free expression and assembly—using paramilitary forces to smoke clergy out of their churches at the head of state’s whim—is pretty much the founders’ nightmare.” A historian who is apparently unfamiliar with even the basics of the Whiskey Rebellion is not much of a historian at all. 

Adams has his political biases, as you can see, but I think he describes a real phenomenon that deserves disapprobation whatever one’s perspective. I too dislike historians commenting on the news in attention-grabbing, superficial, or just plain false ways, all under the cover of their professional status. Judgment and prudence must always govern one’s actions, even one’s appearances in the media (and even on Twitter!). 

• Graeme Wood, “The Next Decade Could Be Even Worse: A historian believes he has discovered iron laws that predict the rise and fall of societies. He has bad news.

The year 2020 has been kind to [Peter] Turchin [of UConn at Storrs], for many of the same reasons it has been hell for the rest of us. Cities on fire, elected leaders endorsing violence, homicides surging—­­to a normal American, these are apocalyptic signs. To Turchin, they indicate that his models, which incorporate thousands of years of data about human history, are working. (“Not all of human history,” he corrected me once. “Just the last 10,000 years.”) He has been warning for a decade that a few key social and political trends portend an “age of discord,” civil unrest and carnage worse than most Americans have experienced. In 2010, he predicted that the unrest would get serious around 2020, and that it wouldn’t let up until those social and political trends reversed. Havoc at the level of the late 1960s and early ’70s is the best-case scenario; all-out civil war is the worst.

The fundamental problems, he says, are a dark triad of social maladies: a bloated elite class, with too few elite jobs to go around; declining living standards among the general population; and a government that can’t cover its financial positions. His models, which track these factors in other societies across history, are too complicated to explain in a nontechnical publication. But they’ve succeeded in impressing writers for nontechnical publications, and have won him comparisons to other authors of “megahistories,” such as Jared Diamond and Yuval Noah Harari. The New York Times columnist Ross Douthat had once found Turchin’s historical model­ing unpersuasive, but 2020 made him a believer: “At this point,” Douthat recently admitted on a podcast, “I feel like you have to pay a little more attention to him.”

A disturbing proposition, to be sure, although there are no “iron laws” of history. Still, elite overproduction is a very real problem. Read the whole thing. 

Stephen F. Cohen, 1938-2020

From the New York Times:

Stephen F. Cohen, Influential Historian of Russia, Dies at 81

He chronicled Stalin’s tyrannies and the collapse of the Soviet Union, and he was an enthusiastic admirer of Mikhail Gorbachev.

Stephen F. Cohen, an eminent historian whose books and commentaries on Russia examined the rise and fall of Communism, Kremlin dictatorships and the emergence of a post-Soviet nation still struggling for identity in the 21st century, died on Friday at his home in Manhattan. He was 81.

His wife, Katrina vanden Heuvel, the publisher and part owner of The Nation, said the cause was lung cancer.

From the sprawling conflicts of the 1917 Bolshevik revolution and the tyrannies of Stalin to the collapse of the Soviet Union and Vladimir V. Putin’s intrigues to retain power, Professor Cohen chronicled a Russia of sweeping social upheavals and the passions and poetry of peoples that endured a century of wars, political repression and economic hardships.

A professor emeritus of Russian studies at Princeton University and New York University, he was fluent in Russian, visited Russia frequently and developed contacts among intellectual dissidents and government and Communist Party officials. He wrote or edited 10 books and many articles for The Nation, The New York Times and other publications, was a CBS-TV commentator and counted President George Bush and many American and Soviet officials among his sources.

Read the whole thing

Mark Ormrod

From the University of York, some sad news (hat tip: Ilana Krug): 

Obituary: Professor Mark Ormrod

A prolific researcher and leading historian of the later Middle Ages.

Professor Mark Ormrod passed away on 2 August 2020, in St Leonard’s Hospice, after a long illness which had caused him to retire early from the University in 2017 but did not impede his research and publication.

Mark was a leading historian of the later Middle Ages in Britain. He completed his doctorate in 1984 at the University of Oxford and then held a number of positions at the Universities of Sheffield, Evansville (British Campus), Queens University Belfast and Cambridge. In 1990 he moved to a lectureship at the University of York and was promoted to Professor in 1995. His experience of what is now widely known as ‘precarity’ in this early phase of his career always informed his nurturing of students and early career colleagues, whose careers were at the forefront of his mind in the creation of the many funded research projects that he so successfully established.

Mark was Director of the Centre for Medieval Studies from 1998 to 2001 and 2002 to 2003, and Head of the Department of History in 2001 and from 2003 to 2007. He also struck up a very close working relationship with the Borthwick Institute for Archives. He was a natural choice as the first Dean of the newly created Faculty of Arts and Humanities at York in 2009, a position that he held until his retirement in 2017.

While taking up these leadership roles, research remained Mark’s chief joy: he is the author or co-author of at least nine books, fourteen edited collections and well over eighty book chapters and articles. These included the definitive 700-page biography of Edward III (Yale, 2011), an exceptionally complex project that had defeated several earlier scholars. His penultimate book, Women and Parliament in Later Medieval England, was published by Palgrave in July 2020 while his last book, Winner and Waster, was delivered to the publisher just 10 days before he died; a further major collection of essays is forthcoming from the British Academy later this month. Hallmarks of his scholarship included the combination of accessible narrative with major new interpretations of important topics based on scrupulously thorough archival research; a combination of insight and detail that is rarely mastered.

In addition to his own writing he also supervised twenty-eight PhD theses. He was the Principal Investigator on nineteen major externally-funded research projects that were worth over £4m and provided early career positions to many former students. In July 2020 a festschrift compiled by these former students and colleagues was presented to Mark at a tribute to that mentorship (Monarchy, State and Political Culture, ed. Craig Taylor and Gwilym Dodd).

Mark’s externally-funded projects centred on creating public access online to the extensive but often obscure records of medieval government from The National Archives and the Borthwick Institute for Archives. A particularly well-received project, England’s Immigrants 1350-1550, identified circa 70,000 immigrants living in 15th-century England. This last project led Mark into collaboration with the Historical Association and the Runnymede Trust, creating new teaching materials for schools, providing training for teachers and contributing to the content of a new national curriculum in History that focused on the long history of migration to Britain. One output of this work, ‘Our Migration Story’, won the Guardian award for Research Impact in 2019. Other new initiatives that flourished in York because of Mark’s leadership and support include the White Rose College of the Arts and Humanities (the AHRC-funded collaborative doctoral training centre), the Centre for Christianity and Culture, the Festival of Ideas, and the York Medieval Press (an internationally-acclaimed imprint of Boydell and Brewer); all projects that shared his commitment to making scholarship accessible and relevant to the widest possible range of audiences.

Students and colleagues alike remember him above all as a kind and generous man, someone who was always in your corner and wanted you to achieve your best. Underpinning all these achievements was Mark’s very happy home life with Richard, who joined Mark in supporting (and feeding) his extended academic family of students and colleagues. Mark’s professionalism at work was always combined with modesty, good humour, a ready smile, and a generous understanding of colleagues. He laughed a lot and enjoyed life to the full.

I second this. Mark was a brilliant and productive scholar, and a warm and kind person as well. He will be missed. 

The Apotheosis of St. Louis

Tom Madden in First Things (hat tip: Matt Phillips):

As a medieval historian, I always cringe when medieval people are judged by modern standards. Their world was very different from our own. Yet the virtue and piety of St. Louis IX of France have always seemed to transcend his age. The crimes leveled against him in this petition are at best misleading. Although praiseworthy today, religious toleration was regarded as dangerous in the Middle Ages. Yet Louis IX (unlike other medieval rulers) still obeyed the Catholic Church’s admonition that Jews were not to be harmed. Like St. Paul, Louis hoped for the conversion of the Jews. Indeed, more than once he served as a godfather for the baptism of a converted Jew. From a modern perspective, Louis’s part in the burning of the Talmud in Paris in 1240 is indefensible and certainly constitutes persecution. The theologians at the University of Paris—the best minds of their age—judged that the Talmud contained heresy and blasphemous references to Jesus. From Louis’s medieval (not modern) perspective, it was a threat to his kingdom and a hindrance to the conversion of the Jews. That does not excuse it. Louis followed the advice of churchmen, yet as St. John Paul II eloquently expressed it, those churchmen made grave errors. The pope sought pardon for “the sins committed by not a few (Catholics) against the people of the Covenant.” He continued, “We are deeply saddened by the behavior of those who in the course of history have caused these children of yours to suffer, and asking your forgiveness we wish to commit ourselves to genuine brotherhood.”…

Left unmentioned by Louis’s modern detractors is his lifelong devotion to issues of social justice in a world that cared little for such ideas. At his own expense, he continually paid to feed and clothe hundreds of Paris’s poor. Every evening he shared the royal table with local homeless and usually insisted that he wash their feet before they left. He established several hospitals for the poor and homes for battered women and ex-prostitutes. He personally visited lepers and washed their sores. After his humiliation in Egypt, Louis refused to don the rich regalia of the French crown, dressing simply and living humbly for the rest of his life. He was the sort of person, like Mother Teresa or John Paul II, whose reputation for piety and virtue was so great that contemporaries had no doubt he would one day be a saint. He was canonized in a record 27 years.

Read the whole thing. My own photo of the statue

The Practice of History

A friend writes:

In practice it seems to have become a norm to say “historians agree,” when when that is not true, or sometimes just on the basis of some recent article or paperback, and which is popular with a certain crowd.

There is almost a tendency to present history as an activity in which some set “findings” have been made that have a fixed meaning.

Such a reality is not true even in many experimental social sciences which at least use statistical significance as a guide to reliability. It is even less the case with history where the nature of the profession precludes such statements. The very historians who do the most detailed archival, philological, and novel work are so often overwhelmed with that that they do not have a very good grasp of other areas of history, and even less the findings of social, psychological, and natural sciences. Whereas those who, because they come across well on camera, who speak most generally often simply do not have enough scholarly depth.

And for people on the left who really really feel that some piece of historiography has totally transformed historical understanding so that they know something that hoi polloi don’t, always keep in mind the sad case of Michael A. Bellesiles [link added].

My favorite example of this phenomenon is provided by Noel Ignatiev’s book, How the Irish Became White (1995). Ignatiev used “white” metaphorically to mean “part of the dominant group.” But since then it has become conventional wisdom that “the Irish weren’t even considered white in the nineteenth century!” One must use metaphors carefully. 

Antonia Gransden, 1928-2020

From the Guardian (hat tip: Chris Berard):

Antonia Gransden, who has died aged 91, was among the foremost medievalists of her generation. Her substantial and sustained scholarship spanned seven decades and continues to guide today’s students and researchers.

She will be best remembered for her two-volume, 1,000-page survey Historical Writing in England (1974, 1982), which covers the period from circa 550 to the early 16th century, from Gildas the Wise to Thomas More. Before that work anyone going in search of the roots of medieval historiography faced churning through the 250 volumes of the Stationery Office Rolls Series, or else had to find and translate the original parchment.

I was lucky to acquire both volumes of Historical Writing in England – it is certainly a very useful work.