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Richard Southern

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Richard Southern

For the British theatre designer, see Richard Southern (theatre designer).

Sir Richard William Southern (1912–2001), who published under the name R. W. Southern, was a noted English medieval historian, based at the University of Oxford.


Southern was born in Newcastle-upon-Tyne and educated at the Royal Grammar School, Newcastle, and at Balliol College, Oxford, where he graduated with a first-class honours degree in history. At Oxford, Southern's mentors were Sir Maurice Powicke and Vivian Hunter Galbraith. He was a Fellow of Balliol from 1937 to 1961 (where he lectured alongside Christopher Hill), Chichele Professor of Modern History at Oxford from 1961 to 1969, and President of St John's College, Oxford, from 1969 to 1981. He was president of the Royal Historical Society from 1969 to 1973.[1]

Southern was awarded the Balzan Prize for Medieval History in 1987. He was knighted in 1974. He died in Oxford in 2001.

Southern is one of twenty medieval scholars profiled in Norman Cantor's Inventing the Middle Ages: The Lives, Works and Ideas of the Great Medievalists of the Twentieth Century. Cantor considers Southern's The Making of the Middle Ages one of two best single volume books on the Middle Ages written in the 20th Century for inspiring a revolution in the study of period. However, Southern declined to lead the revolution by forming a programmatic research institute. Cantor describes him in Arthurian terms, with a group of devotees (including Cantor) who surrounded their master following the publication of The Making of the Middle Ages. Like Arthurian legend, Southern's story does not have an entirely happy ending, and Cantor describes his sense of disappointment when Southern fails to live up to expectations.

In addition to the influence exerted by his works, Southern had several prominent students who carried his influence into the next generation. Robert Bartlett and R. I. Moore, for example, share Southern's interest in the development of Europe in the High Middle Ages, and Valerie Flint had some of Southern's tendencies towards iconoclasm.


Southern's Making of the Middle Ages (1953) was a seminal work, and established Southern's reputation as a medievalist. This pioneering work, sketching the main personalities and cultural influences that shaped the character of Western Europe from the late tenth to the early thirteenth century and describing the development of social, political, and religious institutions, opened up new vistas in medieval history, and has been translated into many languages.

Southern made major contributions to the areas he studied, and was not afraid to attack long-held views. Southern's monographic studies of St Anselm and Robert Grosseteste, for example, have had significant influences on their historiography. Never afraid of controversy, Southern's interpretation of Grosseteste made a dramatic attempt to revise the chronology of Grosseteste's life. Further, Southern saw him as a particularly English figure (in contrast to earlier scholarship which had seen Grosseteste's connections to French schools as being of particular importance).[2] Similarly, Southern also took a revisionist line in his re-interpretation of the School of Chartres, an argument stated first in his Medieval Humanism and then refined in his Scholastic Humanism and the Unification of Europe. Southern argued that scholars in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries had built the "School of Chartres" into a romanticized edifice out of all proportion with the documentary record. The figures in the School of Chartres were actually much more active in Paris than in Chartres itself, according to Southern; Chartres did indeed have a school, but it did not surpass the usual level of cathedral schools of the time. Southern's revisionist or iconoclastic approach was continued by some of his students. Valerie Flint, for example, attempted to make significant revisions to the interpretation of Anselm of Laon.

Southern's final major work, Scholastic Humanism and the Unification of Europe, was unfortunately destined to remain unfinished at his death. Southern never managed to finish the third volume of the work. The first two volumes of the work do represent a major contribution to medieval scholarship, however. In the work, Southern argues that, from the twelfth century on, medieval scholars aspired to systematize all human knowledge in a comprehensive system. Furthermore, this scholarly vision (the "scholastic humanism" of the title) was to have a major influence on Western culture beyond the schools, as scholars and school-educated men moved out of the schools and took important roles in the government and the church.

In addition to these major works, Southern also wrote several works that have not had quite as much influence on medieval scholarship. His brief Western Views of Islam in the Middle Ages represents a relatively early effort to describe medieval attitudes towards Islam, identifying three stages in their development. His Medieval Humanism and Other Studies states first several themes that would be later developed in Scholastic Humanism. His Western Society and the Church in the Middle Ages is a textbook survey like The Making of the Middle Ages, but has not received quite as much attention as his earlier work.


  • "Ranulf Flambard and Early Anglo-Norman Administration", Alexander Prize Essay (1933)
  • The Making of the Middle Ages (1953)
  • Western Views of Islam in the Middle Ages (1962)
  • The Life of St Anselm, Archbishop of Canterbury, by Eadmer (as editor and translator) (1962, 2nd ed. 1972)
  • St Anselm and His Biographer (1963)
  • Western Society and the Church in the Middle Ages (1970)
  • Medieval Humanism and Other Studies (1970)
  • Robert Grosseteste: The Growth of an English Mind in Medieval Europe (1986, 2nd ed. 1992)
  • St. Anselm: A Portrait in a Landscape (1992)
  • Scholastic Humanism and the Unification of Europe, Vols. I & II (1997, 2001)
  • History and Historians: Selected Papers of R. W. Southern, edited by Robert Bartlett (2004)


External links

  • Gifford Lecture biography - By Dr Michael W DeLashmutt
  • Palmer, William. "Sir Richard Southern Looks Back: A Portrait of the Medievalist as a Young Man", Virginia Quarterly Review, Winter 1998.
  • obituary
  • WorldCat catalog)
Academic offices
Preceded by
John David Mabbott
President of St John's College, Oxford
Succeeded by
Sir John Kendrew

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