Medieval Historian

Medieval Historian

An appreciation.

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Professor Geoffrey Barrow made a fundamentally important contribution to Scottish history as the thriving academic subject it is today. He was one of 15 younger scholars who in 1958 formed the Scottish Medievalists, a group dedicated to providing a new scholarly and intellectual infrastructure for the study of medieval Scotland.

Although the group was far from being a one-man-band, the new architecture of medieval Scottish history, as exemplified in major publications, was built pre-eminently by Professor Barrow, who died on 14 December 2013. These were not only seminal works for Scottish history, but cut new ground for the discipline of medieval history at large.

Robert the Bruce and the Community of the Realm of Scotland, first published in 1965, not only gave us a compelling and scholarly account of the first Wars of Independence, but also, by coupling Robert I with the history of an idea, broke new ground for how to write about a reign. The first two volumes of Regesta Regum Scottorum, published in 1960 and 1971 (the latter with Bill Scott), also set new standards for how royal charters should be presented and discussed. Any scholar dealing with similar material in Britain or the Continent would appreciate this achievement and be inspired by it.

Perhaps the single work of medieval Scottish history that has had the greatest impact beyond the field has been the first chapter of The Kingdom of the Scots, published in 1973. Entitled Pre-feudal Scotland: shires and thanes, it is not only a tour de force of early medieval scholarship, but has been hugely influential on the way historical geographers and archaeologists as well as social historians have thought about early British society.

All students of medieval Scottish history will be familiar with these works. What is not, perhaps, so readily appreciated today is the exceptional courage Professor Barrow showed in dedicating his research and writing to medieval Scottish history at that time. He understood, as we do today, that the scholarly and intellectual challenges posed by the subject make it a rich source of discovery for the discipline of medieval history at large.

However, very few in history departments would have shared this view in the 1960s and 70s. I vividly recall, as a PhD student in the mid-80s, overhearing an eminent professor of medieval history—author of two highly accomplished (although now sadly neglected) monographs on English monarchs —musing out loud that Professor Barrow seemed unable to decide whether he was a medieval historian or a Scottish historian. It would appear to have been inconceivable that someone might be both.

Professor Barrow's first chair was in medieval history at Newcastle from 1961 to 1974. Even for someone in his position, however—indeed, maybe especially for a professor of medieval history—the decision to dedicate his research to Scottish history must have carried grave risks for his academic standing. It is a testimony to the quality of his work that the opposite occurred: indeed, he became a Fellow of the British Academy in 1976, a year before he was similarly recognised by the Royal Society of Edinburgh.

He continued to produce work of fundamental importance until well after his retirement. He also made a fundamental contribution as a teacher who inspired and mentored later generations of scholars, particularly while he was at Edinburgh from 1979 to 1992. His humanity as a scholar, however, extended well outside the circle of friends and students who enjoyed his seemingly endless supply of self-deprecating anecdotes. His generosity with his time with anyone working in medieval Scottish history, the warmth of his interest, and his willingness to share the material he had so meticulously researched, meant that his importance in developing the subject extended far beyond his publications.

His passion for Scottish history was not confined to the Middle Ages, either. In his later years, he began each day by reading the First Statistical Account; throughout his life he walked the Scottish countryside. He had as full an understanding of Scotland's history and topography as anyone is ever likely to have.