In memory of George Holmes
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.