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

[clock] 26-MINUTE READ ISSUE:  Winter 1998

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 10th 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 pan-European 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. Southern devoted much of his attention to such relatively subordinate figures as Peter of Blois, Gratian, and Peter Lombard. At the same time, there was no reference to Thomas Aquinas, the greatest intellectual figure of the Middle Ages, and only one to the Magna Carta, its greatest document. Such events as the Norman Conquest of England, the evolution of medieval law, and the Agricultural and Commercial Revolutions received little attention. There was little material included on demography. Nor did Southern display much interest in such prominent political figures as William of Normandy, Henry II of England, or Louis VII of France, nor in Peter Abelard, second to Aquinas as the greatest intellectual figure of the period.

Instead, The Making endeavored to recreate the mental world of a number of figures, mostly noble and clerical, and usually somewhat modest, of the High Middle Ages. While Southern acknowledged no special debt to them, his book echoed the approach of the great French historian Lucien Febvre and his pupils, who developed the subfield of the history of mentalites, the study of the world views and mindsets of important individuals and groups. Southern’s approach very much echoed theirs. For example, Southern devoted a great deal of space to Gregory VII, the powerful pope who tried the most vigorously to assert papal rights against imperial and secular authority. Most historians might have begun with a chronologically based narrative of Gregory’s life and achievement. By contrast Southern assumed basic knowledge of Gregory’s achievement, and instead related some anecdotes about him and identified some key phrases from his writings, (“I have loved righteousness and hated inequality”) to demonstrate the intensity of his personality. At the same time, while Southern was quite interested in the ideas of St. Anselm, Archbishop of Canterbury under Henry I, he was more interested in what they told us about Anselm than in trying to place them, as most historians would, into the context of other lines of medieval thought.

But The Making was an idiosyncratic book in many other ways, something very odd for a historical classic. It assumed a great deal of background knowledge, and there were few guideposts in the text to lead the uninitiated reader to the promised land. The Making began with of all things a discussion of western Christendom and its neighbors, especially Islam and the Byzantine Empire, a subject generally ignored by most other historians, who maintained a decidedly Western focus in their writing.

Another idiosyncratic feature of the book was its presentation. While it was brief (about 250 pages) and engagingly written, it was hard to locate a thesis statement. The book was more a series of interpretive essays than an integreted whole. While Southern offered an alternative to the political and constitutional emphases of decades of historical writing on the Middle Ages, there was no strident point of departure, no gauntlet laid down to erring predecessors. If Southern intended a revolution, no more unassuming revolutionary can be imagined.

But the most idiosyncratic feature of the book was the way it abandoned conventional historical narrative. Most historians specify a theme that they wish to develop, cite a barrage of facts and supporting materials, consider contradictory evidence and the ideas of other historians, and conclude by explaining why their new perspective is infinitely better than the old one. In The Making Southern rarely adduced facts to support his generalizations, and rarely explained how his ideas fitted into earlier explanatory frameworks. Instead, he often demonstrated his contentions with anecdotes, usually derived from vast reading of printed chronicles. Thus, a point about the importance of marriage in aristocratic life was supported by a lengthy discussion of the problems posed by the marriages of Henry I’s bastard daughters. The Making of the Middle Ages unfolded by anecdotal illustrations of particular points, almost in the manner of an impressionist painter. A point about church power was illustrated with a marvellous story about Pope Leo IX visiting the cathedral City of Rheims on Oct. 1, 1049, the day of the Feast of St. Remigius. A large collection of the higher clergy had been summoned to join him. At their convocation Leo made an unusual request. He asked each bishop and abbot to rise and declare whether they had paid any money to obtain their office. A tense drama ensued in which some clergy tearfully confessed and others engaged in all manner of evasion. The bishop of Langres fled during the night. The anecdote conveys better than any assertion could the personal power and majesty exercised by medieval popes.

This symphony of seemingly disconnected anecdotes and analysis along with the use of relatively subordinate figures gave the book a vague and ethereal quality, which seemed almost deliberate. A discussion of the bonds of medieval society began with a discussion of several episodes in the life of the 11th-century German empress Agnes of Poitou, not someone that most historians would place in the center of high medieval politics. A chapter on the ordering of Christian life began with the suggestion that church life before the 11th century could be best glimpsed in Catalonia and followed by a discussion of the importance of a Catalan noble named Wifred the Hairy and his descendants. Neither Catalonia nor Wifred had ever figured greatly if at all in earlier accounts.

But this was so much the charm of The Making, to explore other roads, the blue highways and off-ramps of medieval history, to consider who and what had not been considered before, and to consider it in a collective, anecdotal style, derived from extensive readings of printed chronicles and works of other historians in several different languages. Southern’s greatest gift seemed to be a sensitivity for the revealing episode, the telling anecdote. This sensitivity was derived in part from the nature of tutorial teaching at Oxford at that time. The superior Oxford tutor possessed the ability to take an otherwise banal and predictable theme, especially one which might appear on final examinations, and make it come alive in terms of an episode or document. In a sense one was taught idiosyncratically by the idiosyncratic to be idiosyncratic.


I have always been interested in the intellectual and personal development of historians, so in the spring of 1996, I visited Sir Richard at his home in Oxford. He was then 84 years old, totally deaf. His wife welcomed me into their house and summoned Southern, who was at work in an upstairs room. His wife, also elderly, uses crutches and requires a lift to get up the stairs. After some delay, Southern appeared, dressed in a blue cardigan sweater, white pin-striped shirt, and a red tie. He is slight of build, with long, slim fingers, like a violinist, and a mass of white hair. He was as handsome as a movie star in middle age, with many striking features, including a strong jaw and straight brow. Though small, he exuded a quiet, almost spiritual, strength. As he had informed me earlier, all of my questions would have to be written out, since he is totally deaf.

Like many great English historians, including G. M. Trevelyan, A.J.P. Taylor, and Hugh Trevor-Roper, Southern is a child of England’s North. He was born in Newcastle in 1912, the middle of three brothers. His father was a timber merchant. His brothers eventually entered the family business. Southern, who admired his father very much, planned, as a youth, to enter it as well. But he was also his father’s favorite, and his father sensed that there was something special about him, and wanted something better for his middle son.

The Southerns were a lower middle-class family, and Southern attended the elementary and grammar schools in the area. While he was a superior student, the education he received was probably inferior to that received by the wealthier boys educated in public schools. Here Southern was extremely fortunate. Fifty years before, Oxford might have paid but scant attention to the son of a lower middle-class timber merchant from a grimey industrial city. But the Oxford of Southern’s time, while still steeped in Gibbon’s port and prejudice, still worshipping pedigree and position, was changing. In the late 1800’s Balliol College, under its formidable master, Benjamin Jowett, had implemented a series of reforms designed to improve the quality of tutoring and the quality of the pupils. Balliol became the closest thing in Oxford to a meritocracy. By the early 20th century, Balliol had produced such scholars of distinction as Lewis Namier and Richard Tawney. More than most Oxford colleges, Balliol was committed to recruiting a breadth of pupils, especially those with intellectual promise, including grammar school boys, and Southern was offered a scholarship to Balliol in 1929.

The core of Oxford is its tutorial system. Unlike American students who take classes in a variety of disciplines and eventually select a major, Oxford pupils are admitted to “read” in a particular subject with a series of tutors. Generally, once a week, pupils, either individually or in small groups, meet with their tutors. The pupils have usually been assigned to write an essay on a particular topic. One pupil usually reads his essay which serves as the basis for discussion. Beyond the enhancement of learning and refining of writing skills, the purpose of the tutorial is in large part to prepare students for their final examinations, called “schools.” These examinations are taken at the end of three years of instruction. Much depends upon them. The goal of the top pupils is a “first-class” degree or a “first,” which is a virtual guarantee of successful entry into English life, either into government service or university teaching.

At its best Oxford provides a magnificent undergraduate education. Oxford pupils receive highly individualized instruction, and the discipline of writing of the weekly essay and its scrutiny by the tutor helps produce a graduate with estimable writing skills and is often said to account for the superior prose of historians trained under it. The reality of course is occasionally different. Tutoring can be dreadful. Oxford abounds with stories of tutors falling asleep while pupils read their essays, and of tutors who are more interested in claret at high table or the performance of the college in rowing competitions known as “eights” than they are in education.

Thus the quality of the tutoring is often the prime factor in one’s success or failure at Oxford. The best tutors at Oxford before World War II tended to be those who lived in college, were committed to the personal and educational development of their students, and took seriously their responsibility to prepare them for “schools.” There was at yet little pressure to publish, and there were few dons working themselves into oblivion to become University professors. In particular Balliol tutors seem to have excelled as teachers, and Southern believes that he owes a great deal to his Balliol tutors, who came in a variety of sizes and shapes. One of them was the famous “Sligger” Urguhart, one of Oxford’s great characters, known for his pastoral care of pupils. Southern did not find Urguhart to be particularly stimulating as a tutor, but Urguhart was willing to lend his books. For his first summer vacation, Urguhart lent Southern his copy of J.A. Round’s Feudal England and John Henry Newman’s The Idea of a University, the books which first kindled Southern’s interest in history and a life in learning.

Two other tutors, Kenneth Bell and Humphrey Sumner, were engaging and friendly, but it was a fourth, V.H. Galbraith, who inspired Southern the most and made him see medieval history as an exciting subject. Galbraith possessed extraordinary vitality and enthusiasm for medieval history and, from his experience as a record keeper at the Public Record Office, could talk about documents as if he knew them. But there was a catch. Southern would return to his room from a tutorial, exhilarated by some point of great moment expounded by Galbraith, write down the point in question, only to find out in the cold light of reflection that it was wrong.

Despite Galbraith’s electrifying presence, the path to a career in medieval history was not straight. In the mid-1930’s, England, like most of the Western world, was being crushed by the Depression. What future would there be in medieval history in such desultory times? Southern tried to get away from medieval history by studying economics. But economics, however contemporary, had its own disappointments. At one point Southern told his economics tutor that he wanted to write an essay on how to cure unemployment. The tutor replied that there was no cure for unemployment, except a drastic reduction in population.

Sufficiently discouraged about economics, Southern went back to history, took his exams, received a first-class degree, wrote a paper on Ranulf Flambard which won the Alexander Prize of the Royal Historical Society for 1933, and won a research fellowship at Exeter College. In those days, promising Oxford undergraduates did not necessarily pursue doctorates; they were awarded research fellowships, which allowed them to pursue an extended period of leisurely, largely self-directed study and reflection.

Southern thus had a virtual carte blanche to study medieval history in whatever manifestation he preferred to explore. The manifestation which attracted him the most was St. Anselm, archbishop of Canterbury under Henry I of England and one of the first to employ reason in the service of faith while insisting that faith remained supreme. “I believe in order that I may understand,” was Anselm’s tolerant creed. Southern was less interested in Anselm as a theologian, diocesan administrator, or player in church and state relations, than he was interested in Anselm as the man who talked about friendship and relationships with other people.

The topic of Anselm was suggested to Southern by Sir Maurice Powicke, a distinguished medievalist, and, since 1929, Regius Professor of History at Oxford. Powicke, an odd and difficult character, became an important figure in Southern’s life, at several stages shepharding Southern through difficult times and providing powerful intellectual guidance. Powicke was a tiny man, with a Napoleonic complex, who was determined to exert complete control over medieval history at Oxford and to upgrade the professionalism of Oxford history schools. He regarded medieval history as the only history worth study. Anything after 1500 was in his judgment journalism. His imperious manner and contempt for the traditional port and high table don made him many enemies at Oxford. But there were many other sides to him. An Oxford undergraduate in the 1950’s who later did very distinguished work on the early Middle Ages remembers seeing Powicke lost in almost saintly meditation in the Merton College chapel. Powicke was also a dynamic teacher and historian to those he favored, and Southern became his prime protege. It was a strange marriage. Southern was handsome, graceful, with a sensitive, gentle manner, who had received the best Oxford had to offer, and was the prize pupil of his tutors. By contrast Powicke, who had failed as a student at Oxford, was fiery and intense, bitter that Oxford failed to crown him as the new Messiah, and he approached academic life like an embattled Norse warrior. Moreover, Powicke was primarily a student of medieval political institutions, while Southern had already begun what would be a lifelong communion with Anselm.

But in one sense Southern and Powicke were very close intellectually. As Norman Cantor has observed, Powicke’s best work concerned what the nobility did outside of court, council, and Parliament. And Powicke was particularly concerned to elucidate the meaning of the idea of a Christian gentleman, contending that as the nobility embraced Christian piety and devotion, their values and behavior changed, and the behavior and values of other classes changed as well. Powicke thus perceived a significant change in mentalite or mindset, much like those Southern would later describe in The Making of the Middle Ages.

After receiving his Exeter fellowship, Southern went to France for a year and worked on Anselm’s letters in Paris. When he returned Powicke wanted him to edit the letters of Peter of Blois, so Southern lived a double life, editing Peter of Blois’s letters while continuing to work on Anselm, and a manuscript he wanted to call “Anselm and his Friends.”


In 1937 with Powicke’s help Southern became a history tutor at Balliol, but, by this time, Oxford life became swept up in politics. The Oxford of the 1930’s was a place in transition from the frivolous Brideshead Revisited culture of the 1920’s to the sober realities of Depression and the rise of fascism in the 1930’s. With his family situation, Southern was perhaps more sensitive to left wing ideas than many at Oxford. He was also influenced by his friendship with F.S. Mayer, an American undergraduate at Balliol. Mayer was the founder of the October Club, one of the main Marxist groups at Oxford. Southern attended almost all of its meetings, but neither joined the club nor became a member of the party. Upon reflection, he decided that they would ultimately comprise a new and much more frightening aristocracy than the one they wished to replace. At the meetings Southern did meet another celebrated Balliol undergraduate reading history named Christopher Hill, who would join him as a fellow at Balliol in 1938. With an interruption for military service, they would teach together at Balliol until 1961. In fact Southern remembers vividly the night before his final examinations in 1932 being urged to attend the October Club meeting because George Bernard Shaw had come to speak. Southern decided to study, but Christopher Hill, who was not taking examinations the next day, went, and was inspired to write a book on Bunyan.

The next day, walking to the Examination Schools Building to take his examinations, Southern fell into conversation with another student, Adam Cantroff. Cantroff had been unable to sleep that night, after hearing Hitler speak over the radio. Cantroff was distressed by the fury of the speech and its enthusiastic reception. Southern was impressed with Cantroff’s vivid description, but thought he was exaggerating.

Politics was discussed endlessly at Oxford in the 1930’s. The Spanish Civil War brought many smoldering issues to the surface. Southern remembers being asked by a coal miner in 1938 what he thought about the Spanish Civil War. Southern knew the correct, but to him, unsatisfying, answer was that the left should win. To Southern one side seemed as bad as the other.

When the war came, Southern quickly enlisted. A rather scrawny youth, he was asked by one recruiter if he really wanted to be a soldier. Southern replied that he certainly did. He did not, however, see combat, serving with a group trying to develop new methods with tanks and infantry and later in intelligence. While serving in intelligence, he met his wife, a widow whose first husband tragically had been killed in the Battle of Britain.

Southern returned to his position at Balliol after the war with a wife and child. The war had taken five years of his life and he had gotten out of touch with medieval history. His interest in Anselm remained, but he felt, like many veterans, strangely detached and unfocused. It was his old eminence grise Powicke who provided the spark, inviting Southern to join his group of medievalists and to give a paper to that group in 1946. Joining the group helped Southern regain his focus and revived his interest in scholarship. He knew he wanted to write a book.

But he had to tutor and lecture as well. Balliol imposed a heavy teaching load on its faculty. Increasingly dissatisfied with the constitutional and political emphasis in medieval history, Southern wrote a series of lectures on the spiritual side of medieval life, based largely on his work on Anselm, Peter of Blois, and Lanfranc. At Powicke’s suggestion he decided to turn the lectures into a book, and the lectures proved to be the background for The Making. At the same time, with what we now know of Southern’s intellectual evolution in the 30’s, it is clear that he had been working on the book, without exactly realizing it, for most of his adult life.

In 1949 Southern began to feel rocky. A vigorous man, he suddenly tired easily, and would wake up in the morning sweaty and exhausted. Alarmed, he saw a doctor, who told him he had tuberculosis, often fatal in those days. The college was generous, keeping his position secure and calling in the great expert on tuberculosis at the time, Geoffrey Marshall. If someone who contracts tuberculosis in the prime of their life can be said to be lucky, Southern received a sudden stroke of luck. A wonder drug had just been discovered, but even with the drug, it would take a year of rest before Southern could recover. The drug itself was double-edged sword. It cured his tuberculosis, but it had serious, and, at the time, unknown side effects, and slowly robbed Southern of his hearing.

Southern was thus forced as if by arrest and incarceration to spend a year in a hospital room. He discovered that tuberculosis was not too onerous unless you got up and tried to move around. Thus, confined to a hospital, he had a year without pupils, a year to do what he wanted, and he wrote most of The Making. But Southern did have to contend with another terrifying spectre, almost as frightening as his illness. The nurse in his ward, Sister Barker, detested the slightest untidiness, and historical work requires a certain amount of untidiness. Books, papers, pens, and notes are likely to be scattered everywhere. To continue his work Southern had to hide the forbidden tools of his trade under his blankets and pillows, even behind chamberpots, to avoid detection by the untidiness police. The writing went smoothly, since he already had the notes from his lectures as a base from which to proceed, and he was able to write roughly a chapter a month. By Easter 1950, he had four of a projected five chapters ready, but he couldn’t figure out how to end it. Walking in the Oxford parks near his home, after he was released from the hospital, he came up with the solution, a chapter discussing the transition from medieval epic to romance.

Largely on the fame and reputation which The Making brought, Southern moved up the Oxford ladder. In 1961 he was elected Chichile Professor of Medieval History at All Souls College, which freed him from teaching, and he spent seven productive years there. In 1968 he accepted the presidency of St. John’s College in Oxford.


After interviewing Southern for nearly two hours, I ran out of questions. But, seeking a reason to prolong my visit, I asked him if there was a question I had not asked that he would like to consider. We then discussed several relatively minor matters. Then, almost out of the blue, he said, “religion is an important part of medieval history, isn’t it?” and he began to relate to me his own religious history. He was raised as a member of the Church of England. At the age of 14, preparing for his confirmation, a tutor at Newcastle said something, now forgotten, which offended him, so Southern quit going to church and declared, to the great sorrow of his parents, that he was an atheist. In 1936 in the late stages of his research fellowship from Exeter College, he was working on the Anselm manuscripts in the Corpus Christi College library. The librarian at Corpus, a well-known cleric, normally locked Southern into the room in which he was supposed to work, and let him out at closing time. As the library closed one afternoon, Southern asked if he could come back the next day. The librarian seemed surprised. Had Southern forgotten the next day was Good Friday and the Corpus Library would be closed? And of course Southern should be in church. Excluded from the library, Southern went to church instead and, half paying attention, heard the words “to give light to them that sit in darkness,” and found himself strangely moved. He did not know what to do, but continued to go to church, eventually recovering his faith, and was confirmed within a year.

It is not uncommon for historians to identify with their subjects. So relentlessly did Geoffrey Elton champion the genius of Thomas Cromwell in English government in the 1530’s that he was often accused of wanting to be Cromwell. Several people have suggested that the picture of Erasmus which hung over Hugh Trevor-Roper’s door in his rooms at Oriel College when he was Regius Professor, holds the key to understanding his character. At so many points Anselm figures in Southern’s life, that one suspects a similar connection between historian and his favorite subject. Southern began his serious historical work with Anselm, wrote his first Oxford lectures on him, made him the center of his greatest book, wrote his biography, and he was at work on Anselm when he had one of the most powerful emotional moments of his life.

There are many intriguing parallels between Southern’s life and Anselm’s. Southern, like Anselm, is a man for whom the most important things in life have been his parents, mentors, friends, and family. Southern and Anselm were also golden boys, who showed vast promise at a very early age, were favored by their superiors, and who reached the pinnacles of their professions. More importantly, the two were intellectual revolutionaries, but they were very circumspect in their personal lives and concerned not to trumpet their radicalism. Southern challenged the conventional institutional approach to medieval history; Anselm stressed a Christianity of love and gentleness rather than one of revenge and authority. But neither sought to break with those they challenged. By contrast many medievalists are attracted to Peter Abelard, the courageous, but impetuous scholar who exposed the contradictions between church teaching, the Bible, and the writings of the early church fathers, and who was harassed by church authorities for his bold dissent. Southern clearly preferred the gentle dissent of Anselm.

Southern began to talk about Newcastle again, saying that he loved the city and liked to return to it. He recalled a moment, years before, while he was president of St. John’s College, when the bell rang at his lodgings there. Answering the bell, Southern discovered in front of him an elderly woman he recognized immediately as Miss Logie, one of his elementary teachers in Newcastle from perhaps 50 years before. Southern, naturally, had been one of her favorites. She was in Oxford for the day, and someone asked her if there was anything special she wanted to do. “I want to see Dick Southern,” she said.

As he told me the story, Southern’s voice began to crack slightly and tears welled in his eyes. He required a brief period of silence to compose himself. “It’s so silly,” he said, “to be so moved by something that happened so long ago. I don’t know why I’m so moved.” But it wasn’t silly. Teachers often strive to reach their students without realizing that it is often the students who reach them.


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