Sir Richard Southern Looks Back: A Portrait of the Medievalist as a Young Man

By Palmer, William | The Virginia Quarterly Review, Winter 1998 | Go to article overview

Sir Richard Southern Looks Back: A Portrait of the Medievalist as a Young Man


Palmer, William, The Virginia Quarterly Review


In 1953 a book entitled The Making of the Middle Ages was published by Hutchinson and Company, an established English academic publishing house. Its author was Richard Southern, at the time a rather obscure Oxford don with only a modest record of publication. Originally commissioned as a textbook, The Making of the Middle Ages was quickly recognized as much more, a seminal work, decisively altering the landscape of medieval history, and its success catapulted Southern somewhat unwillingly into academic prominence. A recent observer has dubbed Southern "the once and future king" of medieval studies. Still in print after more than 40 years, The Making has gone through more than 30 editions and can still be regarded as one of a half-dozen or so of the best books ever written on the Middle Ages.

What accounts for its success? Part of the answer is quite conventional. The book attacked, with prodigious learning and subtlety, an important subject, the formation of Western Europe as a coherent entity from the late lOth through the early 13th centuries. During this time leadership roles passed from Germanic rulers and nobles to men of Romance speech who made Europe, and in particular Western Europe, for centuries, "the chief center of political experiment, economic expansion, and intellectual discovery." Unlike many English medievalists, Southern had a panEuropean vision, ranging widely across the river valleys of France and Germany, the mountains of Italy and the papacy, and to the eastern borders of European Christendom. The Making also delivered flashes of profound insight on unexpected topics. A brief discussion of the medieval conception of freedom described the paradox that the more freedom one had the more laws one had to obey. One might have expected it to be the other way around. Southern also observed that the celebrated battle of Marathon in 490 B.C. in which the Athenians defeated the Persians receives considerable discussion in historical works. By contrast the medieval battle of Lech in 955 in which Otto the Great of Germany defeated the Magyars is barely noticed in historical annals. In Southern's eyes they should be regarded as equally important. Both were essential in determining and ensuring the territorial boundaries and stability of Western Europe.

But a second part of the answer to the question of the appeal of The Making concerned its divergence from the main currents of medieval history as they existed in the early 1950's. Medieval historians at that time focused on several themes. The first centered on the assiduous examination of surviving court and administrative records for the major governments of Europe, primarily because these documents had survived in the greatest profusion. Medievalists have often been concerned to elucidate the medieval bases for modern constitutional government. For decades in the Round Room of the Public Record Office in London, one could watch the students of medieval English government poring over these records, which are usually preserved in long, now faded and crumbling manuscripts, called rolls, propped up on large, easel-like stands to facilitate their reading. Another subject of great attention is the study of the ideas of the great medieval thinkers. One attraction of this subject is the fact that most of the materials involved are in print and are easily accessible in most university libraries. And of course medievalists have flocked to the study of the Church along with the study of church and state relations, a subject of particular appeal to the clerical types so often drawn to the Middle Ages. By the 1950's there were also smaller groups studying economics, demography, and peasant life as well as those who studied popular religion and the operations of the individual dioceses and parishes.

In The Making of the Middle Ages Southern eschewed almost all of these themes, and the book reflected his dissatisfaction with traditional emphases, especially those on constitutional and institutional history. …

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