Maurice Keen RIP
It was with genuine sadness that, on my return from holiday, I read the news of the recent death of the medievalist and former fellow of Balliol, Maurice Keen. It is several years since I have seen him — he often could be spied walking in his tweeds and cap, with a walking stick, a few steps apart from his wife, though with an invisible but perceptible thread of intimacy making the space between them one of proximity rather than distance. It is several more years since I last spoke to him. But, recalling now my earliest university days, I realise how formative an influence he was on me: his England in the Later Middle Ages was part of the reading I did in the summer months before coming up to Christ Church. And I remember his lecture series on the medieval nobility — given in the unlovely surroundings of Balliol’s concrete basement in Staircase XXIII, with (or is this memory playing tricks?) a pipe always hovering close but not meeting the lecturer’s mouth — as one of the very first that I attended as an undergraduate.
It was only after my first degree that I came to know Maurice better. One small incident remains particularly translucent in my mind. It must have been at some point early in 1991 that I had gone to see him to discuss the possible directions of my doctoral research. A few months later, at the end of Trinity, was the traditional time at which ‘Keen Drinks’ were held — when he would invite students, colleagues and people in between to have a glass of wine on Balliol’s lawn. I did not receive an invitation but I happened, one day, to be going into his college; he was in the lodge and, on seeing me, stopped his conversation with the porter and rushed after me to invite me to the event. I remember most clearly his raised hand and his invocation to gain my attention: ‘Sir, sir!’. He understandably did not remember the name of a naive student he had only talked to once and so addressed me in the only way a true gentleman could. And, indeed, that is how I remember Maurice Keen: above and beyond the prodigious scholarship, the ability to be an English historian while understanding England could only be studied in a wider European context — above and beyond all that, I will remember him simply as a true gentleman.