Obituary: Professor Edmund Fryde

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WHEN EDMUND Fryde became a university teacher, at the University College of Wales, Aberystwyth, in 1947, he began to use his talents to exceptional effect in inspiring generations in the study of history. A colleague, J. Killa Williams, spotted the potential of the new arrival, convincing him of the value of teaching and the importance of the lecture as theatre. Fryde needed little encouragement to take centre-stage.

Once his students adjusted to his rapid and often excited delivery in a unique accent of Polish combined with English public school, they were transported by his ability to breathe life into the apparently dullest of topics and to talk of his subjects as if they were there in the room. Fryde remained in Aberystwyth throughout his career, although he had opportunities to move elsewhere. In 1973 he was appointed to a personal chair, and in 1988 became a Fellow of the British Academy. He retired in 1990.

During the course of his career, Fryde lectured and published on a considerable range of subjects, from medieval history, Tudor history, on which he ran a special subject, 18th-century French history, to 19th- and 20th-century Russian history. In each case he brought his own vision and sense of values to the study. He melded Jewish Enlightenment beliefs with democratic socialism in a special way. His sympathies lay with the underdog, but he always had time for those who had acted as well as could be expected in their circumstances. He did not believe that it was necessary to like those whom one studied, as his own book on the corrupt medieval financier, William de la Pole, Merchant and King's Banker (1988), testifies, but it helped.

Later in his career he began to teach art history, where his love of beauty and truth had free reign. For the first time, he thought that he was teaching something which was entirely life-enhancing. In retirement, he tended to undervalue his achievements as a teacher, yet he continued to demonstrate his peerless qualities as a writer and researcher. Arguably his most notable achievement was his two-volume study Greek Manuscripts in the Private Library of the Medici 1469-1510 (1996), the fruit of years of research made possible by his linguistic and technical abilities and his profound intellectual curiosity. It deserves to be read as a series of studies in Western intellectual history.

Fryde's personal history reflected the terrible vicissitudes of the early to the mid-20th century. He was born into a well-off Jewish family of Czestochowa in south-eastern Poland. His father, Mieczyslaw Fryde, had had a chequered career. During the First World War Mieczyslaw had been active in the revolutionary Communist underground. He was a brilliant mathematician and, when he was imprisoned because of his convictions, he spent the time solving mathematical problems.

After the war he had a brief career at the University of Warsaw, but in 1923, the year of Edmund's birth, he left to study law because of the impediments to a successful university career facing a Jew. He rose quickly in the legal profession, becoming an adviser to the Polish Ministry of Finance and Foreign Office. His diplomatic status gave him and his family entry into Britain in 1939, where he served in the office of the Polish prime minister in exile. After the Second World War, he was a member of the Inter Allied War Commission, and Edmund helped him to prepare the prosecution briefs.

Edmund was the only child of Mieczyslaw Fryde's marriage to Sarah Rosenweig, and was the beneficiary of her enthusiasm for European literature, languages, art and travel. Embodying the interests and abilities of his parents, he would become a truly Renaissance man.

Having been educated initially at the Miklaj Rej Gymnasium in Warsaw, at the age of 16 he was sent to Bradfield College, which he compared unfavourably with his Alma Mater in Poland. Edmund never tired of telling the story of how his fees at Bradfield had been paid by his father's negotiating a deal for the Shell Oil Company. Shell had unwittingly broken Polish company law and Mieczyslaw Fryde got them off the hook by channelling their illicit profits into a pig farm. It may also have been useful to have had Edmund in England as cover for his father's secret diplomatic activities on behalf of the Polish government and perhaps others too. At one time, Edmund discovered that his father had acted as a courier for money destined for the Communist forces in the Spanish Civil War.

During the Second World War, Edmund Fryde studied history at Balliol College, Oxford. Again, he found his teachers wanting in many areas, and Oxford self-referential and often anti-Semitic. However, he went on to postgraduate study of medieval financial history under Goronwy Edwards. Fryde's extraordinary abilities as a researcher soon become apparent: his mastery of languages and his numeracy enabling him to unlock arcane secrets of medieval finance, his exceptional memory, his persistence in the intellectual quest and his sheer delight in uncovering new evidence. A series of studies on the finances of Edward III would begin a publishing career marked by his formidable range and erudition.

Fryde's later life was a sea of calm in comparison with his early years, but it was far from uniformly happy. He lost most of his relatives in the Holocaust, and his mother died tragically in 1942. In compensation, he sought strong attachments, which were sometimes misplaced. In 1966 he married a former student, Natalie Davies. It was not a success and the marriage ended in 1981.

He was incredibly generous towards his friends and students. But he could be exasperating as well as charming, especially to his colleagues. He made the rules as he went along and hated bureaucracy. In the era of the cutbacks of the 1980s, Fryde became something of a thorn in the flesh of the college authorities at Aberystwyth, being deeply critical of their handling of their financial assets, and their failure to make economies without sacrificing crucial disciplines - in the humanities, philosophy, classics and music.

The Polish Jew who had arrived in the Welsh outback in 1947 was amused, while attempting to save music, to be told by the Plaid Cymru politician Gwynfor Evans that he was "more Welsh than the Welsh".

Martin Fitzpatrick

Edmund Boleslaw Fryde, historian: born Warsaw, Poland 16 July 1923; Lecturer in History, University College of Wales, Aberystwyth 1947-73, Professor 1973-90 (Emeritus); FBA 1988; married 1966 Natalie Davies (marriage dissolved 1981); died Aberystywth, Cardiganshire 17 November 1999.