Susan Reynolds

I quite liked this remembrance of Susan Reynolds, by Jonathan Jarrett:

In celebration of the life of Susan Reynolds

It has become all too frequent a thing, as I get older and those who have helped me along my career remain the same distance older than me, that I have to put aside whatever I had meant to post on a given blog day because news reaches me that somebody who deserves celebration or memorial has sadly died, and thus it is today. Susan Reynolds, whom I feel as if I’ve mentioned on this blog a hundred times, passed away on Thursday morning, with family and friends around her, I am told. (There don’t seem to be any obituaries up yet; I have to thank Fraser McNair and David Ganz for making sure I knew.) She was 92. I am very sad about this, because I enjoyed her work and indeed her company a lot and I know I’m not alone in this, but I’ve had a couple of goes at writing this as tidings of doom, and it just won’t write like that because everything I remember of her was basically uplifting and encouraging. So I blog not to mourn Susan but to celebrate her, and I hope that if you knew her you can do likewise.

I suppose that for most people, or rather for people who didn’t have the privilege of hanging around the Earlier Middle Ages Seminar at the Institute of Historical Research in London a while, Susan Reynolds is a name one knows primarily from her books, and especially Kingdoms and Communities in Medieval Europe and the almost-infamous Fiefs and Vassals. There were actually more than that, including two Variorum collections of essays and her last actual monograph, completed in 2014 when she was a mere 85, plus a plethora of useful and incisive chapters and articles I could cite, but those two books especially kept her on reading lists across the English-speaking world within quite a short space of their publication and will continue to do so for a while yet. That’s because there are few people who could deal as well as Susan did with all the difficulties of interpreting massed textual sources by people whose thoughtworlds were a millennium removed from our own and still extract some kind of synthesis about what they did and why, often over really quite a scale. So there’s all that, the kind of scholarly legacy we might all hope to leave but must know that few of us will, but if you know Susan’s name it’s because you know some or all of that already. What might not be so obvious, without having met her or talked to her, is quite how remarkable it was that any of that came to be, because Susan’s passage through the life academic was not by any means what would now pass for normal.

Now, I’m not going to recount her life here, partly because who am I to do that and so on, but mostly because she did it herself, in an interview for the IHR in 2008, and it’s online here. The sound file is gone from there, but happily, if ironically, the Internet Archive has preserved it where the IHR’s own archive pages have not, so there you can not just read it but hear it—and you don’t have a full impression of Susan unless you know how she talked. So I very much recommend giving that a listen. But, either in text or in sound, gather in the first fifteen minutes or so, in which she laid out her scholarly biography, because it’s sort of amazing, for at least these reasons:

  1. she did not get a first at undergraduate, she had no MA, no Ph. D., and her only postgraduate qualification was a diploma in archive management;
  2. she was never a professor; in fact I’m not sure she was ever promoted in any of her jobs; and
  3. much of her substantial work was only begun, let alone published, after she retired at age 58 from what was only her second university post; even Kingdoms and Communities only came out three years before that.

It’s easy to say to all that, well, things were different then (and she repeatedly stressed those differences in the interview), but that makes it sound as her work also dates from some distant era, whereas actually, Fiefs and Vassals came out when I was an undergraduate; Kingdoms and Communities went into its second edition just as I finished being an undergraduate; and her last book came out when I was working in Birmingham. And this was a retiree, turning out work that overthrew or updated whole subfields in ways that young ambitious scholars would have suffered greatly to achieve. In her sixties into seventies, in other words, Susan Reynolds became a whole new big thing in the field. If anyone’s life demonstrates that it’s never too late, surely this is it.

Read the whole thing

Donald Kagan, 1932-2021

From YaleNews:

Donald Kagan, celebrated historian of the ancient world and revered teacher

Donald Kagan, Sterling Professor Emeritus of Classics and History, prominent for his scholarship, teaching, and social and political commentary, and a longtime colorful figure at Yale, died Aug. 6 in a Washington D.C. retirement home. He was 89.

Kagan, who came to Yale in 1969, was a distinguished scholar of Ancient Greek history. His monumental four-volume history of the Peloponnesian War (1969–1987) was characterized by George Steiner as “the foremost work of history produced in North America in the 20th century.” Of the same work Joseph Manning, William K. and Marilyn M. Simpson Chair in History and in Classics, remarked, “Despite the vast mountain range of scholarship on Thucydides and the war that has been published since Kagan’s four-volume study, it remains required reading by all historians.”

Kagan’s gift was narrative: he was a superb story teller. In just the same way that he could mesmerize friends with a recapitulation of the movie “The Godfather,” or a crucial Yankees-Red Sox game, he could captivate readers when writing about complicated battles of the Peloponnesian wars.

His other scholarly works include “Pericles of Athens and the Birth of Democracy” (1990), which one critic called “faithful to his lifelong fascination with Pericles;” “On the Origins of War and the Preservation of Peace” (1995), which expanded on why states go to war; and his later one-volume synthesis of the war that sundered the ancient world, “The Peloponnesian War” (2003), hailed by one critic as “fresh, clear and fast moving.”

More at the link

Susan Reynolds, 1929-2021

Sad news: the great Susan Reynolds has died, per Pauline Stafford on Twitter. Susan was the author of Kingdoms and Communities in Western Europe 900-1300 (1984), which I found very useful for my work. She was most famous for her book Fiefs and Vassals: The Medieval Evidence Reinterpreted (1994), which launched a great deal of discussion among medievalists about the concept of “feudalism” (i.e. “the f-word”), which she thought was essentially meaningless and should be eliminated from the historian’s vocabulary. She was also personally kind to me when I studied in London as an undergraduate and as a graduate student. Requiescat in pace

No Easy Lessons

From the Financial Post:

In an uncertain time, forays into the past for advice are becoming ever more common. They often make for grim reading, like the attempts to harness the “spirit of the Blitz” in the United Kingdom post-Brexit or equating the crisis of American democracy with the downfall of the Roman Republic. Without proper historical expertise, attempts to draw lessons for policy from what happened in the past often end up wandering in the wilds of history without a map. Historical data is not a house cat that purrs on command. It’s more of a wild tiger that will chew you up if you don’t treat it with respect.

To be sure, instrumental use of history goes back a long way. Nowadays, governments in countries as diverse as Poland, Hungary, and India try to write narratives of the past that fit their current goals. Earlier, communist and fascist regimes excelled in weaponizing history to achieve what they wanted. As did Roman emperors, for that matter. But recently, a different form of this phenomenon has appeared. Backed up this time with spurious “data-based” claims, these sweeping statements are often in the service of a fictionalized and self-serving version of Western history. Most of this is coming not from historians themselves but from scientists or pundits who decide that they have discovered a magic key to the past.

Last September, for instance, neuroscientist Lou Safra and her team attempted to analyze which factors contribute to how “trustworthiness” changes over time using machine learning. The authors examined historical portraiture in order to identify facial features that correlate with “trustworthiness” and discovered that it rises over the period 1500 to 2000 and that this increase correlates with “higher levels of affluence.”

Over the span of the last decade, Peter Turchin and his collaborators have championed a new approach in which history as a discipline will be replaced by cliodynamics, a new way of reading the past through discovering great patterns that explain the course of history and can even predict the future. This is not a new idea in itself. The 20th century, especially 20th-century conservatives, had a love affair with using history as futurology, with varying degrees of credibility. Oswald Spengler and Samuel Huntington wished to see patterns in the historical record that could explain not only why things happen but also how and if they happen. This often meant being very selective with said historical record. It also often meant falling for various forms of Western exceptionalism. Playing loose with history gets worse with every such attempt. Recently, evolutionary biologist Joseph Henrich and other proponents of interdisciplinary use of the WEIRD theory—focusing on societies that are “Western, educated, industrialized, rich, and democratic”—reached a new level of distortion and Western exceptionalism, claiming that the rise of the West is attributable to psychological reasons rooted in the way the medieval Catholic Church directed an overhaul of marriage rules in Europe. The prohibition of kin marriages, they argue, broke down the clannishness of Western societies.

But those studies lack an important element: context. The authors of the “trustworthiness” study did not, as they thought, take big data on human depictions and extract patterns out of them. In reality, they took fashions, cultural norms, and power structures of a colonial European polity and put them into predictions about an arbitrary feature they called “trustworthiness.” The correlations that they thought they had seen between the rise of this arbitrary feature and the rise of affluence were based on a false understanding of the societies that created those portraits and ultimately of what portraiture actually is. This led them into the vast and broad desert of racial, gender, and economic bias.

Read the whole thing. Peter Turchin was referenced earlier on this blog. 

Walt LaFeber, 1933-2021

From the New York Times (hat tip: Sean Mulligan):

Walter LaFeber, Historian Who Dissected Diplomacy, Dies at 87

Challenging convention from all political perspectives, he mesmerized his students at Cornell, many of whom went on to hold foreign policy posts or professorships.

Walter LaFeber, a Cornell University history professor and author whose unvarnished version of American diplomacy drew hundreds of students and spectators to his Saturday morning lectures, and whose acolytes went on to influence the nation’s foreign policy, died on Tuesday in Ithaca, N.Y. He was 87.

Professor LaFeber (pronounced la-FEE-ber) did not like to label himself or others, but he was widely considered to be a “moderate revisionist.” He was a disciple of the so-called Wisconsin School of diplomatic history inspired by William Appleman Williams, which challenged conventional accounts of American exceptionalism by suggesting that United States foreign policy was also motivated by imperialism.

Professor LaFeber valued the roles that institutions played in shaping history, but he never underestimated the influence of individuals. He enlivened his books and lectures by fleshing out characters from Aaron Burr and John Quincy Adams to George W. Bush and even Michael Jordan. His book “Michael Jordan and the New Global Capitalism” (1999) was about basketball as a metaphor for globalization.

While he could condemn without demonizing, he had no compunctions about exposing hypocrisy. Just before Independence Day in 1983, in response to Secretary of State George P. Shultz’s declaration that the United States would not tolerate Central American revolutionaries “shooting their way into the government,” Professor LaFeber wrote in a New York Times Op-Ed article, “Given George Washington’s and Thomas Jefferson’s dependence on American riflemen, it is well for Fourth of July celebrations that Mr. Shultz’s law cannot be applied retroactively.” (Mr. Shultz died last month.)

His scholarly career “indicates that he had imbibed the Wisconsin lessons of empiricism, criticism, and a suspicion of power,” Andrew J. Rotter and Frank Costigliola wrote in 2004 in the journal Diplomatic History.

“In his nearly half-century of writing,” they concluded, “LaFeber has won deep respect among scholars and students of U.S. foreign relations for his ability to analyze a complex historical topic with clarity and brilliance.”

Professor LaFeber thought the war in Vietnam was a mistake, resulting from contradictory policy objectives. He was also a champion of racial justice. But he argued in 1969 that Black students armed with rifles who seized the student union building at Cornell had gone too far. He resigned as chairman of the history department to protest attempts by the university’s president to placate the demonstrators.

“What a university is all about is rational discourse,” he was quoted as saying in “Cornell ’69: Liberalism and the Crisis of the American University” (1999), by Donald Alexander Downs. “What these people were doing was essentially raping the major principle of the university. Once you introduce any kind of element of force into the university, you compromise the institution. To me, that is totally unforgivable.”

He continued: “I’m a relativist in terms of object and conclusion. I don’t think I am necessarily right. What I am absolutist about is the procedure you use to get there. Which means the university always has to be open and it cannot be compromised.”

His students included the future foreign policy experts Samuel R. Berger, who served as national security adviser under President Bill Clinton, and Stephen J. Hadley, who held the same position under George W. Bush; Eric S. Edelman, who was under secretary of defense for policy in the Bush administration; William Brownfield, who served as assistant secretary of state under Barack Obama; former Representative Thomas Downey, a Long Island Democrat; and the history professors Susan A. Brewer of the University of Wisconsin-Stevens Point, Lorena Oropeza of the University of California, Davis, and Nancy F. Cott of Harvard.

“His brilliant lectures on American foreign relations at Cornell persuaded me to specialize in diplomatic history as a graduate student,” Professor Brewer said by email. “Along with the Monroe Doctrine and the Yalta Conference, there was room for Herman Melville, Jane Addams and John Wayne.”

Professor Cott recalled: “Since I was only a student in his large lecture class, I assumed he did not know who I was. But when I published a book about Mary Ritter Beard in 1991, LaFeber, who was a great admirer of Charles Beard, Mary Beard’s husband and sometime co-author, wrote me a fan letter about the book! I was stunned and felt extremely honored by his awareness as much as his praise.”

More at the link

Cyril Mango, 1928-2021

Paul Halsall informs me that the noted Byzantinist Cyril A. Mango has died at the age of 92. Among Mango’s many works are The Art of Byzantine Empire (1972), Hagia Sophia: A Vision for Empires (1997); and The Oxford History of Byzantium (2002). 

His older brother, Andrew Mango, biographer of Kemal Atatürk, died in 2014. 

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