Obituary: Professor Richard Fletcher ; Historian of Medieval Spain

Article excerpt

RICHARD FLETCHER was a distinguished historian who made weighty contributions to the study of medieval Spain, Anglo-Saxon England and the Christianisation of Europe.

He was born in 1944 and educated at Harrow School and Worcester College, Oxford. Upon gaining a well-deserved first class degree in Modern History, in 1965 he started research. Rejecting a suggestion that he should make a study of the medieval herring trade, he set out on a lifelong intellectual adventure in medieval Spain. His thesis was published as his first book, The Episcopate in the Kingdom of Len in the Twelfth Century (1978). His exact and energetic work enabled him to make important advances in the study of the Church in Spain in an epoch of determinative change.

In 1969 Fletcher was appointed as a lecturer at York University. He thus joined one of the youngest and most vital and successful history schools in the land. A cursus of promotion followed, culminating in his appointment to a personal chair in 1998. He was a scrupulous, generous, and illuminating teacher. His taking early retirement in 2001 did not indicate reduction in his affection for York University. But it was partly due to his becoming increasingly unable to tolerate the bureaucratisation, almost industrialisation, imposed from outside.

He published a new book every few years. Four of his works were on medieval Spain. After his published thesis came Saint James's Catapult (1984). This was a study of Compostela during the prelacy of Diego Gelmrez (1100- 40). It made new and powerful use of a major source, the Historia Compostellana, and put forward important arguments on the strange, mysterious, and probably shady origins of the cult of St James at Compostela.

The Quest for El Cid (1989) is a brilliant description and analysis of the life of the 11th-century military leader Rodrigo Daz, "El Cid", as a player in frontier politics. It undermines, indeed demolishes, the view long held in Spain, that he can be seen as a national Christian hero. For this book Fletcher was awarded the Wolfson Literary Award for History (1989) and the Los Angeles Times Book Prize for History (1990).

In 1992 came Moorish Spain, which is modestly presented as a quasi-popular introduction, but is really much more. The Cross and the Crescent (2002) was a further product of his Hispanic studies. It is a brief but pregnant description of the relations between Islam and Christianity over many centuries.

His published work on Spain represents a lifetime's scholarly achievement. It is surprising, indeed astonishing, that he could have found the time to write on other subjects. But he did, and well he did. Who's Who in Roman Britain and Anglo-Saxon England (1989) is a biographical dictionary, chronologically arranged. It can be read as a sharply intelligent introduction to Anglo-Saxon history. Bloodfeud (2002) is a study of painful episodes in the 11th and 12th centuries. It is written with elegant learning and with a particular enthusiasm that owes something to much of the action's being in Yorkshire.

The Conversion of Europe (1997) is his longest work and that with the widest scope. It rests on wide reading and is brilliantly presented and deeply reflective. It is yet another of his books which is in many ways the best on its subject. At the time of his death Fletcher had in hand a book on the fall of the Roman Empire; an obviously challenging subject. He would have been equal to the challenge.

Deep consideration was characteristic of him. So too was the fluency of his prose and his skill in composition. His style bears analysis: one notes the skilful variation in the structure and length of his sentences and the way in which he deploys sometimes the expository style of formal instruction, sometimes a disarmingly conversational mode. …