bonæ litteræ: occasional writing from David Rundle, Renaissance scholar

In memoriam C. S. L. Davies

Posted in Obituaries by bonaelitterae on 29 September, 2016

It has been announced that this morning Cliff Davies, for forty years Fellow in History at Wadham College, Oxford, has died. He has been so much a presence in my life since I arrived in Oxford as an undergraduate that it has hard to imagine the place without him. It seems to me that today the city has lost part of itself — or that its map has become curtailed, and its intellectual geography reduced. He is no longer here to guide us through its memories.

Cliff, I recall, was an obituary-spotter, commenting on not just where a notice was published but how long after the deceased’s death. He himself deserves the full treatment, with the trajectory of his life outlined, from Wales to London, to Oxford, to Glasgow and back to Oxford, and with his many seminal articles noted in such a way that creates a profile of his impact as an historian. Perhaps that will be done in the Oxford Dictionary of National Biography — I suspect that he would be honoured to be included. But I am not going to attempt this here: the news is too raw and my reaction too personal for that. All I can provide today are a few vignettes, through which might come a sense of how much we have lost.

First meeting Cliff

I knew of C. S. L. Davies before I came up to university: his Peace, Print and Protestantism was required reading at school. I vaguely remember thinking when seeing him that he was rather different from the image I had conjured up for him from his writing: different and, I was to find, rather more. It was, in my first year, at a meeting of the undergraduate history group, the Stubbs Society, that he introduced himself to me. He and Kathleen — that is something else about Cliff, the quiet warmth of his married life — were regular attenders. At perhaps the second or third evening seminar that I attended, he came up to me and said ‘well, you must be coming up to Finals soon’. I said he could not get rid of my quite yet; neither of us could have realised then how long I would hang around this place and around him.

Cliff as a teacher

I have in front of me the Festschrift dedicated to Cliff in 2002. An opening section describes him as a teacher by three of his former students, all now successful historians. What they write captures vividly what I also experienced in that room, at the top of the narrow staircase, overlooking Wadham’s back quad: the silences, followed by a sudden flow of incisive words, often accompanied by emphatic gestures which were all the more memorable for being less than graceful. Cliff, it is fair to say, did not attempt to effect physical poise; if you want your dons debonair, then he was not for you — and that would be your great loss. Being in his presence was a lesson in not being distracted by appearance and learning to concentrate, for what he had to say was both rich and fresh, a product of that moment.

I cannot claim to have had tutorials with Cliff: he took me in my third year of then undergraduate degree for Special Subject classes, run by him and by Jenny Wormald (who too is no longer with us: they have both departed within a year). I remember the awkward pauses and how I felt I needed to do something to break them, torn between thinking that saying something, however asinine, was better than nothing, and realising that, if I did, I would sink even lower in these tutors’ estimation. More than that, though, I recall the sense of challenge, the need to question and to re-think — and, by having both Jenny and Cliff in the room, the realisation that challenge did not take a single form but was incorrigibly plural: we should not just change perspective, we must multiply them.

How I became Cliff’s doctoral student

That Cliff was the long-suffering supervisor of my doctoral thesis was an act of supreme kindness. When I began to think about my research, I wanted to focus on the concept of tyranny in the late Middle Ages. I visited the Professor of Medieval History at the time, George Holmes (he too is gone: this blog sometimes has the feel of a necrology). It was his task to seek a supervisor for me. I remember one response: ‘of course I am happy to supervise Mr Rundle, but does he really want to study tyranny? After all, as Fortescue tells us, there could be no tyranny in England. Would Mr Rundle not prefer to study local government?’ Mr Rundle did not prefer and Cliff offered himself to be my supervisor, on the understanding that there would be a second, who was George Garnett. As my research developed, it transmogrified: tyranny led me to an interest in civic humanism at a time when I was also discovering the delights (thanks to Malcolm Parkes and Richard Sharpe) of manuscripts. The result was that my studies moved yet further away from Cliff’s own specialism — I should say, specialisms, they were so varied — but he persevered and continued to have telling comments at every stage. He was a devoted supervisor, attending each paper I gave as a graduate student, and reading over the 150,000-word draft in a weekend. I hope he realised how eternally grateful I am to him.

In the process, our relationship changed: he encouraged me to think of myself as becoming a colleague. His article, ‘Tournai and Tyranny’, was the first one he sent me in draft, soliciting my comments. He taught me the collegiality of scholarship.

Indeed, possibly collegiality is a key word for him, for he was dedicated to Wadham and to his students. He encapsulated the virtues of a college life which put the fellowship and the teaching before one’s own ambitions — or, rather, they were his ambition. How old-fashioned that now sounds. If he does stand for another era, he himself would be the first to warn against any nostalgia. Every age has it warts and worse. Perhaps, though, that is what I sense Oxford is losing with his passing: not so much part of its map as a stage in its own life.

Conversations with Cliff

After his retirement, Cliff continued to be a visible presence, researching in the Bodleian and breaking for lunch when he would meet with a friend. I was sometimes his companion on those occasions and, as always, the conversation would range widely, across centuries of history and a sweep of Europe, but with the centrepoint always being Oxford’s past and present. In the last year, those conversations moved to his home. What has proven to be the final time I saw him there was just under a fortnight ago: though he was physically weaker, his mind was fearsomely alert and precise in its recollections. I enjoyed my visits and learnt from them as I had always done in my encounters with Cliff. I was expecting those occasions to continue in the coming months and years. It is difficult to come to terms with the realisation that the opportunity has died.

Re-reading what I have just written, I appreciate how much of it is about the momentary: the pattern of speech or the style of gestures. That, of course, is the bulk of life and it is what history can capture only rarely. But that is, fundamentally, what I believe I learnt from Cliff: to construct history from life, not from abstractions or from theories. He instilled that by his writings and his teaching but also by how he lived. How much we and Oxford have lost.



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  1. Ruth Windscheffel said, on 29 September, 2016 at 11:24 pm

    Thank you for finding these words, David. My thoughts have been crowding today with memories of Cliff: a terrifying admissions interview (followed by touching letter to my school saying they would let me in after all despite my having the temerity to choose his ‘hobbyhorse’ of the Reformation to discuss (he always gave candidates such a choice in an act of old-school student-centredness)); tutorials – silences here too whilst he sat reading your essay in front of you; year group meetings fuelled with petrolic white wine; fatherly support before and after the rigours of finals. To those who did not get the chance to know him well, Cliff could appear prickly but he committed something of himself – a deep care and concern – each time he took on a student and he maintained that unstinting commitment lifelong. In his last letter to me he called on historians to retain space for reflection amidst the hurly-burly of contemporary higher education where we’re all pushed to be ‘world-class’ in everything all at once and in double-quick time. It was a privilege to know him and be taught by him and I shall gladly pause and reflect long on the life and achievement of a remarkable historian and teacher.

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