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Colin Morris obituary | History books

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When did the concept of the individual emerge in western Europe? According to the Swiss historian Jacob Burckhardt, writing in the mid-19th century, it was during the Italian Renaissance, from the late 13th century onwards. However, in 1972 Colin Morris, who has died aged 93, provided a strong challenge to that still widely held orthodoxy with his book The Discovery of the Individual, 1050–1200.

Using evidence drawn from a wide range of written sources, Colin argued that the “long 12th century” saw the first flowering of autobiographical writing in the west; new, more personalised forms of religious practice, notably private and individual confession; a new relationship with God and the saints; and, in the secular world, new representations of human love. As a reviewer wrote in 1975, “every future exploration of this subject will have to begin right here”.

Articles on the Crusades, pilgrimage and saints’ cults were followed by The Papal Monarchy: The Western Church from 1050 to 1250 (1989). In it Colin outlined the emergence of a papal power, which, supported by a sophisticated legal and administrative structure, led to a growing centralisation of ecclesiastical authority at Rome and a corresponding shrinkage of local autonomies, and inevitable conflict with secular powers, such as Henry II of England or the Holy Roman emperor Frederick Barbarossa. At the same time, control of lay belief and religious practice was promoted through teaching and legislation.

Colin Morris at the Bishop’s Palace, St Davids, Pembrokeshire
Colin Morris at the Bishop’s Palace, St Davids, Pembrokeshire

But this panoramic study ranges far wider than the papacy, for it examines both the church’s internal dynamics and tensions and its external strategies towards outsiders, whether within the western world, such as Jews and heretics, or beyond, in the eastern Church and Islam. Massive scholarship is deployed with an elegance and liveliness that I became very familiar with from a colleague who was a considerable raconteur.

Colin’s research was always informed by a deep interest in medieval art and architecture, particularly of France and Italy. His study Bringing the Holy Sepulchre to the West: S Stefano, Bologna, from the Fifth to the 20th Century (1997) details the seven churches of Santo Stefano, an extraordinary complex of buildings intended as a literal representation of the holy places of Jerusalem, which were increasingly difficult to access after Crusading initiatives eventually fell away in the 13th century.

The Sepulchre of Christ and the Medieval West: From the Beginning to 1600 (2005) utilises visual evidence to great effect to demonstrate how the tomb of Christ served as a focus for Crusading ideology before the fall of Jerusalem in 1187, became a model for the new churches of the Templars, including the Temple Church in London, and then provided a template for the creation of “alternative tombs” in new devotional and pilgrimage centres throughout Europe, such as the Jeruzalemkapel in Bruges, and Holy Sepulchre in Görlitz, Saxony.

After gaining first-class degrees in both history and theology, Colin Morris served as chaplain of Pembroke College, Oxford, and later as professor at Southampton
After gaining first-class degrees in both history and theology, Colin Morris served as chaplain of Pembroke College, Oxford, and later as professor at Southampton

Born in Hull, Colin was the son of Kitty (Catherine, nee Metham) a tailoress, and Harry Morris, a commercial traveller, who died when Colin was 11. At the age of nine he won a scholarship to Hymers college, Hull, and from there a scholarship to the Queen’s College, Oxford, where he gained a first-class degree in modern history (1948).

Following 13 months of national service he returned to Queen’s for another BA, again first-class, in theology. After studying at Lincoln Theological College, in 1953 he was ordained deacon and appointed chaplain and fellow in medieval history at Pembroke College, Oxford, and in 1954 he was ordained priest.

Two years later he married Brenda Gale, a psychiatrist.

At Oxford Colin joined a stellar group of medieval historians, including Richard Hunt, Beryl Smalley and Richard Southern, who were transforming understanding of the intellectual, cultural, and religious landscape of the central middle ages, as their contemporaries Giles Constable and Robert Benson were doing in the US. He later served for a while as acting head of his college during a vacancy, a rule he described as republican. This was also a time of student unrest, to which he, always a man of the left, was broadly sympathetic, particularly for its internationalist concerns.

In 1969 he went to Southampton University as professor of medieval history. His leadership there during often difficult times was marked by good-tempered even-handedness and support for all the university historians in his care. In 1993 he retired as professor emeritus, and continued his research unencumbered by university duties. Throughout he held to the principles of being truthful, kind and curious. In 2007 he was elected a fellow of the British Academy, and two years later an honorary fellow of Queen’s.

Brenda survives him, along with their children, Christopher, Gillian and Michael, and grandchildren, Alice, John, Marc and Colin.

Colin Morris, medieval historian, born 16 September 1928; died 18 September 2021

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