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:
- 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;
- she was never a professor; in fact I’m not sure she was ever promoted in any of her jobs; and
- 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.