Cambridge scholar at the forefront of German medieval studies in Britain and abroad
The distinguished German scholar Dennis Green was a Cambridge institution for more than half a century and an internationally recognised figure in the field of medieval language and literature.
Apart from a year at St Andrews at the outset of his career, Green was a Cambridge figure through and through, a Fellow of Trinity College for nearly 60 years and the holder of two chairs at the university. He was one of the last representatives of a Cambridge tradition, dating back to the late 19th century, in which the study of literature proceeded from philology, from language in its widest sense and manifestations. A formidable linguist (it was never quite established how many languages he spoke or read, but they included Portuguese and Romanian and he taught himself Chinese during the Second World War in order to sharpen his mind), he was at home in all the medieval languages and literatures, Germanic and Romance. His later books on irony, orality and authorship drew on this wealth of sources.
Green came up to Cambridge just before the war to read Modern Languages as a Scholar of Trinity, but he interrupted his studies to serve in the Royal Tank Regiment, rising to the rank of major and taking part in the Normandy landings. He occasionally hinted that he may also have been engaged in intelligence work (he was once arrested for speaking Dutch with a German accent). The discipline and order of military life never deserted him, and his career had elements of a planned campaign to reach the heights of his subject. In May 1945, for instance, he organised military transport to Halle to enable him to acquire a complete set of Niemeyer medieval texts in exchange for rations.
Taking a starred first, but unable to study in war-ravaged Germany, he decided to do his doctoral research in Basel with Friedrich Ranke, joining a small but select band of British Germanists with qualifications from German-speaking universities. A brief period as a lecturer in St Andrews followed and in 1949 he was elected to a Research Fellowship at Trinity, then to a university lectureship in Cambridge.
The Carolingian Lord (1965), a semantic study of forms of address for sovereign authority in Old High German, was a succs d'estime that established him firmly at the forefront of German medieval studies in Britain and abroad. It made him the frontrunner for the chair of Modern Languages at Cambridge which the university established in 1966. With this went the headship of the bizarrely named Department of Other Languages, a miscellany that included Dutch, Portuguese, Hungarian and Modern Greek. It made Green noticeable on a variety of fronts and gave him a presence not least in the Faculty of Modern and Medieval Languages as well as in his own Department of German. It strengthened his ties with various linguistic cultures which he then proceeded to defend in faculty forums with energy and tenacity. …