It was, if my memory does not deceive me, a bright and mild December afternoon in 1997 when I entered Oxford’s Examination Schools in white bow-tie and long academic gown, walked up the stairs that rise to the right of the entrance hall, then made my way across the small balcony that looks down upon the same hall, before entering a room where two distinguished scholars awaited me. They were Prof. George Holmes and Prof. A. C. de la Mare — and let us pause to remember those the world has lost, since they have both passed away in the intervening years. At that point, though, they were very much in good health and ready to begin my doctoral viva.
I remember their kindness to me: George opened the discussion by telling me what their recommendation would be, which helped dissipate any nerves I had had (though, equally, it did little to help me focus for the next two minutes — I wanted to be able to go out, cheer, and then return for the serious work). I also remember feeling cheated at the end of the two hours: is that it? can we not stay here for longer, even if the lengthening shadows suggest it is nearly sunset? When you have lived with a subject for five years and more, it is rare that you can find anyone who is as passionate about it as you are, so to have two learned specialists before you who had read every word of the thesis (my then partner had tried, but she fell asleep, leaving my father being the only other person who had suffered it all) and who at least have to appear interested in your work provides an opportunity you do not want to end.
What I replay most in mind, however, is a question they posed that was not related to the intrinsic quality of the work. ‘And what’, George asked, ‘about publication?’ I responded without a pause: ‘Well, I certainly don’t want to publish it as a book’. That, in retrospect, was The Wrong Thing To Say, a career-endangering failure to appreciate the developing dynamic — some would say the duty — to present one’s doctoral research to the world in a monograph. The worst thing is: I stand by what I said.
Appreciate the context: when I began my thesis, the usual expectation was that one would complete it and then move on, leaving the work available for consultation in the relevant university library. Only the exceptional should be put into print and, even then, some of the very best were not, as, indeed, was the case with one of my examiners — Tilly de la Mare’s tour-de-force of a doctorate, on Vespasiano da Bisticci, was never sent to a publisher and, until recently, could only be read by those who visited Senate House in London (it is now, though, available on the web at the excellent British Library ETHOS site).
I should, perhaps, have recognised the changes going on around us and that, by the late 1990s, there was already an increasing expectation that a thesis would see its way into bookshops, that more and more would follow a route once reserved for some of the exceptional, to the extent that being ‘outstanding’ now made one part of the crowd. Certainly, in the last decade, it has become a sine qua non of one’s academic credentials that one should be able to point to one’s doctoral research on the bookshelves — and so the assumption has become that, if a dissertation is not published, there must surely be something really wrong with it.
That dynamic, I would contend, is unsustainable, for two reasons. First, it has spiralled out of control: publishers have noticed the market (niche though it may be) and increased the number of theses they produce, to the extent that, now, university employers take as a sign of quality not whether your thesis is published but where it has been. These shifts have a tendency to be applied retrospectively so that a good thesis published a few years ago with a press now considered to be of dubious quality may be looked on with suspicion. Of course, the true test is not in where it is published — or, indeed, whether it is printed — but in the text itself, though that assumes people would have time to read the words before short-listing or appointing to a job. Bless.
The result of the spiral may well be that the smaller thesis-printing publishers will, over time, find their market dwindles. However, there is another factor that is making the dynamic not just unsustainable but obsolete. That is the increasing desire of institutions to host their alumni’s work on their websites. The number of theses now available through those sites and through ETHOS means that the research is already available, in the original form of the dissertation. It would take the truly obtuse not to realise that, in this new paradigm, making a thesis available in print, even in revised form, will usually amount to otiose duplication.
When that realisation has sunk in, the consequences could be to the advantage of those who have recently received their doctorate. Rather than working away further on the same subject, they can graze in new pastures, developing their knowledge and their skills further. Not that they should never return to the work which saw their first steps in academe but, rather, that they should be able to revisit it later, recast and rewrite in the mature style they have developed in subsequent years.
None of what I have said, though, is intended to assert that anybody completing their doctorate should have taken the self-denying ordinance I did. I repeat: it was, in the objective terms of the job market, probably the most foolish thing I have ever done (and I have done a fair few). But, in my case, it was also the right thing to do. I had never envisaged my thesis becoming a book and, indeed, it was designed for different ends. It was intellectually ambitious, telling two stories at the same time, as a way of attempting to demonstrate my potential range. It was also overlong: an Oxford doctoral dissertation has to be under 100,000 words (including footnotes), unless you have a dispensation for an appendix of original material. I was granted an extra 50,000 words to provide a collection of manuscript descriptions. That added to the work’s usefulness but also would have made it a much less attractive proposition to a publisher.
Those manuscript descriptions have been on-line for some time now, and I am always grateful to scholars who contact me to say they have found them of value. It is time, I have decided, that they should be accompanied by some prose that is over fifteen years old. Today, I am uploading nearly the entirety of my thesis onto this site, for those who may be by some chance interested. I am doing it because a very few people have asked to see it, and it seems to me best, as I have gone to the trouble of turning old World files into pdfs, that it should be freely available. There is a disadvantage: with the hard-copy in the Bodleian, one signs the register of readers before consulting a thesis and that is not possible on-line. What I ask is if you do look at it, send me word so I know you exist. I am doing this, then, because it seems to me that the virtual world of the web is the appropriate half-light in which a thesis should appear. I am doing this so that it never need be published in print.
To access the chapters of the thesis, go the dedicated page on this website.
Soon after Prof. Holmes’ death, I wrote a few words. At the time, I lamented that there had not been any obituaries of him in the broadsheets. That has now been rectified by columns in both The Times and The Telegraph. There will, in the fullness of time, one assumes, be a memoir to him in the Papers of the British Academy, of which he was a Fellow. Similarly, I can state with some certainty that Renaissance Studies, which unusually for a learned journal demonstrates its humanity by including obituaries of leading scholars in the field, will devote a few pages to a description of his life and work. I have been asked to write that piece.
If you know of any other obits that have or will appear, please do add a comment to this post.
It was 29th January 2009 when Prof. George Holmes died. I was in Rome at the time – one of George’s favourite cities – and so I did not have the chance to attend his funeral or to mark his passing. When he was Chichele Professor of Medieval History in Oxford, organising and chairing seminars for new graduates I was starting my doctorate, and, a few years later, he was the internal examiner for my doctorate, so I remember him with real respect and affection. I have not seen the standard type of obituaries in the broadsheet newspapers. Presumably there will be a memoir to him eventually in the Proceedings of the British Academy, of which he was a Fellow. But it occurs to me that, now, in the months immediately after his death, we should reflect on the loss of not only a very human scholar but also of a style of historical writing which he represented. With him, I sense, there dies something of a particularly British tradition of Renaissance scholarship. I am not competent to write on his personal life so what follows are simply some thoughts on an intellectual obituary.
George’s wide-ranging publication record reflected the way his life was a mental odyssey. He began his academic career, in Cambridge, as an historian of late medieval England, his doctoral work published as The Estates of the Higher Nobility in fourteenth-century England (Cambridge, 1957). That research continued, with a text-book on later medieval England (Edinburgh, 1962) and, a decade later, his dissection of The Good Parliament (Oxford, 1975). At the same time, however, his interests broadened beyond the Channel, inspired originally (I think) by his interest in the Italian bankers whose reach – to their own peril – stretched to England. The mercantile connexions between Italy and England was to become a topic he would return to on several occasions in significant articles. Those studies inspired an interest in Florentine history and, now based in Oxford, he set about learning Italian, for which he showed an enviable facility. His fascination led him to produce the work for which he is probably best remembered, his writings on the Italian Renaissance. These included his tellingly-titled The Florentine Enlightenment, 1400 – 1450 (Oxford, 1969) and Florence, Rome and the origins of the Renaissance (Oxford, 1986). He was not to be confined in either one country or one century.
Even this brief summary does not do justice to his interests. One of his works that I certainly still find useful in teaching was his text-book on late medieval Europe in the Fontana series, Europe: Hierarchy and Revolt, 1320 – 1450 (London, 1975 [2nd ed: Oxford, 2000]). The study for that book kindled an interest in the Hussites, an interest which is reflected in the space given to them in that work.
What strikes me about George’s learned publications is the combination of detailed, specific articles alongside books in which he provided a lucid overview of a subject. A volume like Florentine Enlightenment or his later Renaissance (London, 1996) provide readable texts with forceful (if understated) arguments driving them forward. These seem to me to sit at the end of a tradition of British historical writing that goes back to Addington Symonds or even Roscoe: the ability to make accessible to an English-speaking audience a broad vista of Italian history. As his articles demonstrated, George could present a forensic analysis of a tightly-defined topic – what is now the main mode of academic writing – but that other style is perhaps less appreciated. It is less recognised as a mode of presentation because it is a particularly British style, a specifically British contribution to the understanding of the Renaissance.
George remained active until his last days. He had suffered two bouts of serious ill health in the previous decades – experiences that shaped and perhaps mellowed his view of the world. He was a regular presence in the Upper Reading Room of the Bodleian. The disappearance of his jacketed, open-necked, blue-shirted figure will leave the library a colder place.