Colin Morris, 1928-2021Historians in the News
tags: obituaries, British history, medieval history
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.
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.