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.
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.