Last week Sir Richard William Southern died in his home in Oxford. He was 88. He was one of the most influential people in my life whom I’ve never met. He was the only man ever knighted for his accomplishments in medieval studies.
In 1953 he published The Making of the Middle Ages, one of the most groundbreaking books on medieval intellectual history in the 20th century. Southern instantly established himself as a visionary scholar, a man of massive erudition, and a stylistic titan.
I read Making in 1994. A year has not passed since then in which I have not read something by RW Southern. Robert Grosseteste. St: Anselm: A Portrait in a Landscape. Scholastic Humanism and the Unification of Europe. Western Society and the Church in the Middle Ages. The list goes on and on.
As much as any of my teachers RW Southern has guided my education. His books are on every reading list. His studies and monographs have been the models for my own. I have tried to hold my own candle next to his blast furnace of wit and erudition. Though I inexorably fail, I know RW Southern would have encouraged me to fight the good fight.
This is a tremendous blow to the discipline. I feel as though I have lost an old godfather. Though the connection between us was purely imagined, it was strong all the same.