Sir Rees Davies: Ralph Griffiths Commemorates the Recently Deceased Historian of Medieval Wales and Britishness

By Griffiths, Ralph | History Today, September 2005 | Go to article overview

Sir Rees Davies: Ralph Griffiths Commemorates the Recently Deceased Historian of Medieval Wales and Britishness


Griffiths, Ralph, History Today


Robert Rees Davies died on May 16th, 2005, after a lengthy illness, aged sixty-six. He was an extraordinarily gifted man and a historian of international repute. His writings are of marked originality, and each of his books and essays, constructed like pieces of fine architecture, is an exemplar of the historian's craft. He was unremitting in asserting the vital importance of a historical awareness for a mature, civilized society. He is without rival as an interpreter of relationships between the peoples of medieval Britain, especially between Welsh and English, and the significance of these relationships for subsequent generations.

If his intellectual horizons were of the broadest, his heart lay in Wales. Rees grew up on a modest hill-farm near Cynwyd (Merioneth) overlooking the River Dee, not many miles from Glyndyfrdwy, the home of Owain Glyn Dwr, stories of whose exploits were familiar fare in his Welsh-speaking home. He was educated in Welsh at Cynwyd's primary school, where his historical imagination was awakened by an inspired lesson on William Caxton. In 1959 he graduated with distinction from University College London, with which he maintained a close connection, readily acknowledging the influence of teachers like Geoffrey Barrow and May McKisack, and also Alfred Cobban, the social historian of France. At Oxford, his research was supervised by Bruce McFarlane, whose capacity for nurturing talent to exacting standards received an eager response from Rees. His apprenticeship was rounded off at the University of Wales in Swansea in 1961-63, where Glanmor Williams recognized Rees's promise and became a life-long friend. He had his first experience of lecturing at Swansea, developing a crisp, shapely style that appealed to the attentive student.

His career was spent in English and Welsh universities equally--which seems utterly appropriate. From Swansea, he returned to University College London until he was appointed Professor of History in the University of Wales at Aberystwyth (1976-95). In these two institutions he dedicated his formidable energies to the research and thinking that were the foundation of most of his writings. In 1992 he became president of the Royal Historical Society; three years later, he was appointed Chichele Professor of Medieval History and a Fellow of All Souls in the University of Oxford, posts which he occupied until retirement in 2004.

Rees was dedicated to elucidating the complexities of the social development of the British Isles, in a European context and especially during those centuries after the Norman Conquest when peoples collided and Britain experienced fundamental changes of direction, the legacy of which is with us still. One of his earliest essays was on the French social historian, Marc Bloch. Many of the convictions which Rees saw in Bloch he was to hold dear himself: the relationship between the evolution of landscape and society and social institutions, the significance of 'collective mentalities' in the Middle Ages, and the value of a comparative approach to understanding the development of European rural society.

Six ground-breaking books, from Lordship and Society in the March of Wales, 1282-1400 (1978), to The First English Empire, 1093-1343 (2000), gained him a commanding reputation. Never content with easy generalizations, the Welsh March was the first of several fields in which he addressed sophisticated concepts of identity, race, ethnicity, lordship and nationality, marshalling his evidence as expertly from medieval literature and law, myth and landscape as from documentary sources. Where he sought to construct patterns of development, it was to identify the fundamental forces of social change, and in contexts well beyond the March. His exhilarating and accessible survey Wales, 1063-1415 (1987) focused on the social and cultural implications of 'conquest, coexistence, and change'.

Rees's modesty and integrity made him regard his own insights as provisional, while their originality and clarity make them appear to others as flashes of profound understanding. …

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