Friday, July 15, 2016

The Local Historians: 10 Richard Britnell

I never met Richard Britnell, although I became aware of him. His mother came to teach at Wolverton Grammar School and although she did not teach me, and I believe his sister used to come in with her on the bus every day. Mr Britnell moved to Lavendon to become head of the school there and the village was at the time at the extremity of the catchment area for Wolverton Grammar School.  Richard travelled east to Bedford Modern so although we were near contemporaries I never met him. He was born in 1944 in Wrexham.

He went to Cambridge to read history and after graduation he was offered a teaching post at Durham University. He stayed there for his entire career and became a full professor in 1997.

Naturally enough he cut his teeth on the history of Lavendon, and the articles he wrote, originally for the Bucks Standard, have been preserved on a Wordpress site maintained by Nigel Stickells. It can be found here.

In addition to, or perhaps part of his professional studies, he published an article that effectively dated the foundation of StonyStratford. The Origins of Stony Stratford. records of Bucks,. Vol. XX Part3, 1977.

He was well-recognised and highly respected in his professional field but sadly he did not enjoy good health in his later years and died in 1913. I reproduce his Guardian obituary below.

Richard Britnell obituary
Economic historian who showed that commerce played an essential part in medieval life
Christopher Dyer, Thursday 26 December 2013

As we struggle with current financial crises, we might be tempted to look fondly back to times when economics were plain and simple. The middle ages are sometimes imagined as a time of self-sufficiency, when we grew our own crops and made our own bread. Richard Britnell, who has died at the age of 69 after a long illness, made his name as a historian by showing that trade and money played a central part in medieval life.

His book The Commercialisation of English Society, 1000-1500 (1993) set out clearly and comprehensively the view that change, most rapid in the 13th century, was driven by markets, urban growth and expanding trade. The inhabitants of even the remotest village and the most traditional feudal lord sold their surpluses of grain, wool and animals, and as money flowed, better methods of keeping accounts were introduced, farmers specialised in the most profitable crops, and industries multiplied in both country and town.

Those reading Richard had to banish from their minds a picture of slow-witted peasants concerned solely with routines of ploughing and planting. They were, for example, often making decisions about the sale and purchase of parcels of land.

Richard's student days at Cambridge, from 1961 to 1966, had coincided with a period when the ups and downs of the medieval economy were thought to depend on the expansion and decline of population. The idea had a strong logic, but did not explain the dynamics behind, for instance, the rise of towns. As a research student, he analysed landed estates in Essex, explored their sales of grain, and then moved on to look at weekly markets, which operated not only in towns but also in villages in growing numbers in the 13th century.
He immersed himself in the records of the important provincial town and port of Colchester – Growth and Decline in Colchester, 1300-1525 appeared in 1986 – while at the same time keeping track of the farming and rural society of eastern England, both during the period when Colchester was booming, and when its prosperity diminished. All of this culminated in the commercialisation book, which surveyed five centuries of history, and used general economic ideas applied to evidence relating to the whole country.

There had been a general trend among economic historians in the 1970s and 80s to give medieval trade and towns more prominence, but Richard summed up the whole process, gave it a sharper focus, and developed it into a new explanation of change. The concept of commercialisation received the stamp of his authority and the book is still much quoted. He went on to further high-quality work on markets and society, but also ventured into political history, especially in the years around 1500.
After Cambridge, at the age of 22 he was appointed a lecturer at Durham University and there he stayed, initially in the economic history department, in which he taught mainly the modern period, and then in history. He became professor in 1997, but six years later ill-health forced him to take early retirement, and for 10 years as emeritus professor he continued to publish and to be involved in the university and the city. He was elected a Fellow of the British Academy in 2005.
Medieval economic historians usually have a local specialism. Richard was born in Wrexham to teacher parents, Ronald and Edith (nee Manson), and brought up in north Buckinghamshire, attending Sir William Borlase's grammar school, Marlow, and Bedford modern school. However, for his initial studies he found that the documents were more plentiful in Essex. Later he became an expert on the north-east, drawing on the rich archives in Durham.
Not many academics can be said to have moved the boundaries of their subject, yet no one meeting Richard encountered any pretension or flamboyance. He was restrained and modest in manner, but you were soon aware of an acute mind and great reserves of wisdom. He was careful in his writing and presentations, and criticised (usually gently) those who ventured into rash or unjustified generalisations. He was a skilled organiser of conferences, in which he quietly established a friendly atmosphere. He nurtured some talented postgraduate students, helped research assistants to find jobs and edited or co-edited books of essays (nine in all) to which scholars at the beginning of their careers contributed.
Richard found time to co-operate with other disciplines. For example he became interested in literacy and language, on which he collaborated with his wife, Jenny, herself a lecturer in French at Durham, whom he married in 1973. Unknown to most of his academic friends, he enjoyed acting, played the piano and organ (serving as organist in his local church) and helped to run Durham's Rotary Club.
Jenny died in 2011, and he is survived by his sons, John and David.
 Richard Britnell, economic historian, born 21 April 1944; died 17 December 2013

No comments: