Obituary: Professor Michael Wilks

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MICHAEL WILKS's chief early work, The Problems of Sovereignty in the Later Middle Ages, tackled a subject as diffuse and difficult in the period with which he was dealing as it is today.

The nature of sovereignty and where it resides has always been a thorny question and furious debate has raged amongst political theorists throughout the ages. Wilks was fortunate to find in the period 1250-1350 a vigorous contemporary defence of the papacy, with its claim to universal sovereignty, against the new concept of popular sovereignty within developing states, where the promotion of individual interests was paramount. His great achievement was to set in its political context the Summa de potestate ecclesiastica of Augustinus Triumphus of Ancona (died 1328), a complex defence of papal supremacy in more than half a million words. This treatise, described as "one of the half dozen most influential and important works ever written on the nature of papal supremacy in the Middle Ages", formed the basis for Wilks's innovative study.

Published in 1963 by the Cambridge University Press, this substantial volume established him in the first rank of international scholars and is still acknowledged as a definitive work in this field.

Wilks was born in 1930. After taking undergraduate and postgraduate degrees in History at Trinity College, Cambridge, where he worked with the great medievalist Walter Ullmann, Wilks was awarded a Research Fellowship at Trinity and later, in 1958, the Prince Consort Medal, an honour for which he never ceased to feel pride. Although throughout his life he remained a loyal disciple of Ullmann, he was both receptive and generous to those of differing views, such as Michele Maccarrone, the value of whose work on the nature of papal power he appreciated far more than did his teacher.

Following his success at Trinity, many avenues opened before him but he willingly chose to meet the challenge presented by the tradition of mature study at Birkbeck College within London University, something which he was to defend vigorously throughout the whole of his life.

During this time, a great number of his articles appeared in learned journals, all of them stimulating to his peers and contributing still more to Wilks's academic reputation in Europe and the United States. At Birkbeck he proceeded from Lecturer in 1957 to Reader in 1967 and was appointed to a personal chair of history in 1974.

The History department of Birkbeck College has a tradition of mature students in full-time employment undertaking evening study for honours degrees of London University. This demanded a gruelling routine of daytime administration and evening teaching during which Wilks's enthusiasm never waned. He was an exceptional teacher.

Generations of students benefited from his academic rigour, tinged as it was with a healthy dose of scepticism. Many, full of awe that they might not manage to attain the high standards he demanded of them, found that with his wise and generous advice they could indeed succeed. It was not only mature students who were impressed by Wilks. When he met and talked to young undergraduates from the other colleges of London University taking the Special Subject Course on "The Pontificate of Innocent III", his keen and erudite mind provided the stimulation which younger students so much need and appreciate. The very large attendance at his farewell presentation at Birkbeck in the summer of 1992 bore witness to this exceptional gift as a teacher across the whole spectrum.

He had much left to complete, in particular a biography of John Wyclif which had occupied his later years. Wilks, a modest and friendly man, had a multiplicity of talents and a mind singularly wise in his generation. In his teaching, writing and presentation to fellow academics, his intellectual capacity, coupled with an inborn humility, shone through most attractively.

Wilks was a founder member of the Ecclesiastical History Society, in which he served for many years as Treasurer and notably as its president in 1985. He was also Treasurer of the British National Commission of the Commission Internationale d'Histoire Ecclesiastique Comparee (CIHEC) and gave papers at CIHEC conferences held in the Netherlands, Poland, Sweden, Spain, and France. His interest in local history was reflected not only in his membership of the Carshalton Society, near his home in Carshalton, Surrey, but in his several publications on the water-, wind- and gunpowder mills of the Wandle Valley.

Michael John Wilks, historian: born Bedford 13 August 1930; Lecturer, Birkbeck College, London 1957-67, Reader in the History of Political Thought 1967-74, Professor of Medieval History 1974-92 (Emeritus); married (two sons); died London 11 May 1998.