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Dr Mark Whittow - a tribute


Byzantium, for Mark Whittow, had no boundaries. The sure-footed gusto with which he ranged across continents and centuries made him a Global Medievalist long before that now fashionable label was invented. A discussion might begin in the safely Byzantinist ground of the sixth-century Nile Valley and its Christian schisms, but within five minutes Mark would have you deep in the demography of early Tang China. Then mid-way through a careful recapitulation of statistics on population growth (and the numbers always wore a human face: what mattered to him here would be the implications for the prospects of textile workers) there would be a yelp and a cry of ‘And have you read…?’, and suddenly you would be among the Christian missions to the nineteenth-century Ibo, exploring the agencies—who was prodding whom, and with what, and how—at work there. This was not a dilettante’s erudite rambling. You could be sure that you would end up back in the Nile Valley, but now the place would look excitingly different. To sit down with Mark was always to brace yourself for a journey, exhilaratingly bone-shaking; and there would be laughter, too, ‘shrieks and giggles’, all along the way. Sharing the world of Late Antiquity with him meant, and will continue to mean for all who knew him, having him always eagerly at your shoulder as you read and as you wrote, stabbing a footnote with a huntsman’s excited cry, or else simply urging you on to the next page. 

 Mark's qualities as a historian were already apparent in his first major publication, a precocious paper in Past and Present, 1990. Not for him anything as mundane as the rehashing of his doctoral thesis. Instead, ‘Ruling the Late Roman and Early Byzantine City: A Continuous History’, was a careful and breathtakingly assured shepherding together of two constituencies which had had little to do with each other, the institutionally-minded classical historians who plotted decline and fall through law-codes and literary texts, and the Byzantine archaeologists who were increasingly finding material that did not seem to suggest decline at all (if the two groups talk to each other more today than they did in 1990, this has much to do, in this city at least, with Mark’s tireless commitment to interdisciplinary dialogue); and Mark took evident pleasure in re-reading the texts in such a way as to support an upbeat conclusion, finding in eighth-century Thessalonica, for example, ‘a lively, thriving community’. There was also a relish in the specifics, as he surveyed the society of sixth-century Emesa to discover ‘a world of innkeepers, grog shops, fast-food sellers (lupins!), glass-blowers and amulet-makers’; that most unacademic exclamation betrays the glee. And above all, there was already an insistence on the need to think comparatively—nearly thirty years on, it remains somehow thrilling that a paper on the late antique city should end in Medieval Coventry. 

The same features are still apparent in two recent papers, both from 2013. ‘Rethinking the Jafnids: New Approaches to Rome's Arab Clients’ again brings together two formidably erudite, and notoriously esoteric, disciplinary groups, the Byzantinists and the early Islamicists (noting wryly the ‘dialogue of the nearly deaf’ among the latter), again rejects defeatism in pointing instead to ‘a golden age of intensive agricultural exploitation’, and again reaches out towards new horizons, new points of comparison—in this case the Ottoman Near East, the ‘Five Civilized Tribes’ of early nineteenth-century America, and, the trump card played in the conclusion, the Moors of Roman North Africa. In the second paper he asked ‘How Much Trade was Local, Regional and Inter-Regional? A Comparative Perspective on the Late Antique Economy,’ and his answer involved a sustained debate with Geoffrey Parker and his seventeenth-century crisis, and again focused on the speed and robustness of recovery rather than the catalogue of disasters. Here Mediaeval England provides the key comparative case study, and provides a framework from which he swoops down, in his conclusion, to reexamine a fifth-century Tuscan peasant farmstead and to find green shoots among the potsherds. Mark's heroes, more and more explicitly in his later works, were hardworking ordinary people, and he had a rare gift for bringing to life the rewards that hard work could yield even in the most adverse circumstances. In these papers, too, we glimpse the lineaments of the book that he would never see to the press, on the transformations in the agricultural economy that constituted the ‘feudal revolution’. But even without the book, enough is already on record (for Mark’s careless generosity bequeathed a remarkable number of papers to obscure conference volumes, to the occasional despair of his faculty’s research output coordinators) for the outlines of his case to be clear.    

One vital quality in all his published work is its sheer lucidity. These are specialist papers in a field not known for its accessibility, which nevertheless make a point of inviting in outsiders, setting out for them the currents of ongoing controversies, showing what is at stake for the opposing parties, and encouraging the amateurs to make up their own minds. No wonder that his name features so prominently in undergraduate reading lists. And there is, above all, the book, The Making of Orthodox Byzantium, 600-1025 (1996), still fresh now two decades on, and the catalyst acknowledged by many of the current generation of Byzantine historians as the key to their conversion. This is a meticulous and reliable textbook which contrives simultaneously to be a mischievously unorthodox invitation to subversion. The Christian sectarian divisions that are so central to most previous accounts of the period are brushed aside, with Christianity becoming just another ingredient to a complex cultural compound, ‘a useful morale booster’ (p. 47); Latin pretensions are similarly dealt with in a lovely downplaying of the coronation of Charlemagne (p. 304); Byzantine mythologizing is likewise punctured by the reality check to which Basil the Bulgar-Slayer is subjected (p. 387-388). The key to the book is the emphasis on historical geography, and the Eurasian world comes alive in the snapshots informed by years of intrepid autopsy: witness, for example, the agricultural potential identified in the ‘hot-house climate of steamy heat on the Caspian coast’ (p. 30). There is also the familiar Whittovian delight in the particular detail, and the aficionado can enjoy the three separate occurrences of drinking from human skulls (pp. 150, 262, 276); and again there are the comparisons, best of all that between Maurice’s unfortunate chastisement of the Slavs and the Massacre of Glencoe (p. 69). 

It is a joy to teach with the book, in large part because the book reflects so well Mark’s own vision of teaching. And teaching was absolutely central to his idea of himself as an academic. He was a compelling lecturer, who not only understood the theatrical requirements of the task but was equipped to deliver the necessary sound and signification—‘where most can only give shy AmDram, with Mark you had the full RSC’, as a colleague put it to me. But his genius, as is clear from reports from his students, was for tutorial teaching. Again and again, their awestruck comments come back to the ability of this most electrifyingly articulate of men to keep silent, and to coax them into the fray with an encouragingly raised eyebrow, or a friendly nod. Mark’s colleagues knew just how much it meant and mattered to him that his students should emerge from their shells and find their voice: six weeks into term, he would bound into lunch with his face split apart in an irrepressible smile, just because the most reticent of his flock had finally spoken up. Although he was stern with the feckless and with the empty blusterers, here too severity was always tempered by hope; and there was beaming pleasure, and quasi-paternal pride, whenever one of the villains reformed.

More than merely professional patience was at work here. Mark actively enjoyed the company of his students, with an anthropologist’s dispassionate curiosity about their peculiar cultures. He fed them cream buns as well as wisdom; he cut an unexpectedly fastidious figure as he fussed over the coffee pot. His parties effervesced. Wherever he nested would become a hub of lively sociability; even the grim concrete bunker of the Proctors’ office came to life under his auspices, as the sandwiches were handed round.

But the happiest hub of all was always home. The house in Holywell Street played host to a giddy cycle of conviviality, with the doors thrown open to any number of stray transients. And here, as he grilled the mackerel and fumbled for corkscrews and ineffectually barked his orders to a household that knew better than to listen, Mark would be glowing with a quiet fire that made instant sense of so much else. His Byzantium was a family business. Just a glimpse of the domestic context made it abundantly clear how much he was sustained by his family, and how entirely that sunny, attentive geniality, which he bestowed so munificently on colleagues and students, on college and faculty staff (his ‘stars on toast’) and passing strangers, was fuelled by the steady warmth of the hearth of Holywell Street.

Three years ago, new horizons suddenly beckoned, with the President’s proposal that he become Senior Proctor for the following year. ‘But then again, it might be interesting…’: Mark had just outlined the five very good reasons why he should decline, excellent reasons that involved the still tangled threads of his current research papers, the demands of his nearly-complete book, the continuing reorganization of Masters teaching, the fieldwork project in Turkey that he was itching to set up, and the ambitious plans he was forming to expand the scope of Byzantine studies in Oxford; but with that sentence, as the voice rose in that familiar half-interrogative inflection and the schoolboy grin spread over the face, it was clear that his decision was made. He was never going to say no to ‘interesting’. Mark had a knack for sniffing out potential interest where the rest of us would register only arid desolation, but here the interest went deeper, down to the unabashed fascination for the art of administration that he had had from the beginning of his career. That 1990 paper is in fact mistitled: it is not about ‘Ruling’ the ancient city, but Running it. The focus throughout is the small group of self-appointed trustees who volunteered their time, energy and property to ensure the flourishing of their city; he was interested not in power but in responsibility, and in what was required to achieve the ‘vibrant communities’ that he had identified. Part of the answer was sheer hard work, and Mark was unafraid of the drudgery that his year of administrative servitude involved. Truly masterful in his inactivity when the case was not urgent (as his assistants in editing the Pelican Record can testify), and blithely deaf to those seeking the gratification of instant email responses to their minor queries, he responded with alacrity to any call of duty. None could deal so swiftly and so thoroughly with the heaps of graduate applications that crossed his desk each February, or could work so swiftly yet scrupulously through an examining burden like that which he assigned to himself each June. And he duly found the rewards he had sought during the year in which he held the keys to the university’s administrative secrets. He would be found cycling wearily back to his college room in Merton Street unseasonably late on far too many evenings, but the eyes would be sparkling and there would be one new insight to report, on the decision-making processes (as it might be) of the later ’Abbasid regime.

It was in university politics that the booming, tweedy Edwardianism that made Mark such an instantly recognizable figure proved most usefully deceptive. When he was out for something, he set about the mission with a patient creativity and cunning persistence that quite belied the public persona. Opponents who thought they were doing business with a Bertie Wooster were confounded at encountering instead the suave pragmatism of a Jeeves; it was always far too late that those who expected to find a Blimp wallowing haplessly in his tub discovered that they were dealing with another type of colonel altogether, a David Stirling wreaking merry havoc in their rear. And so a new post was extracted here, and a funding stream secured there.

But only very rarely was Mark out for anything. His natural home, it proved, was in the chair, keeping the business moving while ensuring that all sides had their hearing. How clever were the fellows of Oriel College to see this, and to invite him to become their Provost. It came as a surprise to some who knew him as a backbencher at college meetings, pressing the case for a romantically lost cause; and the studious neutrality of the chair might seem uncomfortably constraining for one with such decided opinions about so many things (not least aesthetics: his schemes for the redecoration of the college common room were frankly terrifying). But the signs were there. It was not just his evident pleasure in steering the small but sometimes fractious Late Antique and Byzantine Studies committee past the reefs on which it would otherwise have foundered, or even the graciousness and skill with which he presided over Byzantine and Medieval research seminars, where he boosted even the lamest of speakers with a sympathetic and constructive recapitulation (which would often contain more fruitful seeds for discussion than the paper itself), and seized with instant precision and unstinting enthusiasm upon what was most significant. We can look back further, to those careful and fair-minded summings-up which feature so prominently in his published work. The signs were already there in the terse verdict delivered, in that very first article of 1990, upon Saint Theodore of Sykeon, the Holy Man idealized by that generation of Byzantinists: ‘not an effective chairman’. Mark’s career, in a sense, was an exercise in teaching the saint how it should be done.

His taste in literature was as boisterously eclectic as that in interior decoration. Among the many unfashionable authors whom he championed (will Robert Smith Surtees find another such advocate again?) was Robert Browning. And Browning perhaps captures best that quality of sunny resilience, of persevering trust that through hard work good can be accomplished in this world, the quality which all of us at Corpus, and across the university, now miss so very much, but which remains and will remain as an example and inspiration to us all:

One who never turned his back but marched breast forward,
Never doubted clouds would break, 
Never dreamed, though right were worsted, wrong would triumph,
Held we fall to rise, are baffled to fight better,
Sleep to wake.  

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