Angeliki Laiou: Influential and highly regarded scholar of Byzantium
Thursday 26 March 2009
Angeliki Laiou was a leading historian of Byzantium's economy and society, and a pioneering woman in the international academic world and in the Greek government. She impressed first with her precocity: she obtained her PhD at Harvard at the age of 25, held various positions in American universities (Harvard itself, Brandeis, Rutgers), and was back at her alma mater as Professor of Byzantine History when she was only 40. In addition, she spent two years as an MP and was briefly Deputy Secretary of Foreign Affairs in her native Greece.
Laiou was born in Athens in 1941, to a family partly of Pontic origin, refugees from the Black Sea coastal area. She studied at the University of Athens where her interest in Byzantine history was sparked by her studies with the leading historian Dionysios Zakythenos. She went on to Harvard, studying there under the great specialist of the Crusades, Robert Lee Wolff.
Her doctoral thesis, published in 1972 as Constantinople and the Latins: The Foreign Policy of Andronicus II, 1282-1328 and based on research in the French national archive and the Vatican library, was the first landmark of her lifelong interest in the history of the relations between Byzantium and the West.
Like Steven Runciman, she held the Crusades responsible for the destruction of the civilisation of the Greek Orthodox Christians, and the topic was one of her favourite courses at Harvard, and highly popular among undergraduates. On the anniversaries of the launching of the First Crusade (1095) and the disastrous capture of Constantinople by the Fourth Crusade (1204), she organised and contributed to two congresses, one at Dumbarton Oaks, the results of which were published as The Crusades from the Perspective of Byzantium and the Muslim World (2001), the other in Athens, which prompted The Fourth Crusade and its Consequences (Urbs Capta, 2005).
Early on, in the Seventies, her research took an innovative turn. Her book Peasant Society in the Late Byzantine Empire (1977), based on censuses preserved in the monastic archives of Mount Athos, was a path-breaking study of family structures, demography and the distribution of the surplus between farmers and landlords. For this she employed a primitive computer ("of index cards and knitting needles" as she described it) to assist in demonstrating economic concepts. Therein lay the seeds of the two important themes of her further work: family and gender, and the economy, which had hitherto hardly been touched in scholarly literature about Byzantium.
Her engagement in contemporary issues, her interest in the work of Harvard colleagues from all disciplines, and her wide reading filter through into all her publications. Without showing off or making anachronistic connections, Laiou always managed to throw new light on the subject.
From peasant family structures she easily moved to the larger theme of sex, marriage and the status of women in Byzantium. Her numerous studies, some of them assembled in a 1992 Variorum CS (collected studies), started with a pioneering report to the International Congress of Byzantine Studies in Vienna (1981) and included a series of lectures published as Mariage, Amour et Parenté à Byzance Aux XIe-XIIIe Siècles (1992) and originally delivered in her excellent French at the Collège de France in Paris in 1989. She submitted archival documents and the historical and the legal sources to rigorous analysis. Out of complex and only partially preserved material she was able to give a clear, if qualified, picture of marriage conditions and strategies, consent and coercion, as well as sexual practices.
Her greatest achievement was the three-volume Economic History of Byzantium: From the Seventh Through the Fifteenth Century, which was published in English in 2002, and in Greek in 2007. She initiated, managed and edited this massive collective study (to which she contributed no less than eight important chapters) which went some way to catching up with the more advanced Western economic histories. It filled also the almost complete lacuna in the scholarly literature at that time. Later, in collaboration with myself, she offered a more integrated and updated synoptic view in The Byzantine Economy (2007).
The Economic History of Byzantium enterprise is exemplary of Laiou's unusual talent and leadership. Her strong will, formidable energy and clear mind made her the first woman chair of the Harvard history department, the first woman director of Dumbarton Oaks (DO), Harvard University's foundation in Washington DC, and the second woman to be elected a permanent member of the Academy of Athens in 1998.
During her nine-year tenure as director at DO she ensured support for major projects of the institution, among which The Oxford Dictionary of Byzantium (1991), edited by Alexander Kazhdan, has proved a lasting contribution to the field. She organised, contributed to and edited many inspiring conferences, among them Consent and Coercion to Sex and Marriage in Ancient and Medieval Societies (1993) and Studies on the Internal Diaspora of the Byzantine Empire (1998, in collaboration with Hélène Ahrweiler). In 1994, in celebration of the 50th anniversary of the conversations at Dumbarton Oaks towards the end of the Second World War that led to the creation of the United Nations, The Dumbarton Oaks Conversations and the United Nations 1944-1994 was published.
In April 2000 Laiou returned to Greece and became a Member of Parliament (a position she retained until June 2002). Following the success of the Socialist Party (PASOK) in the elections, she was named Deputy Secretary of Foreign Affairs in the government of Constantine Simitis. In charge of relations with the Greek diaspora communities, she trailed the world from Australia to Europe, Russia, Turkey and the Far East.
Although her energy, culture and polyglot abilities perfectly suited the job, she was soon disappointed by the unrewarding results, and after six months resumed her scholarly activities, now divided between Cambridge, Massachussetts and Athens. She was intending to teach at Harvard in the present academic year, until she was struck in September by an anaplastic carcinoma of the thyroid, which she courageously fought, for less than three months, in all lucidity, before her untimely passing.
Although she could appear forbidding and was severe in her judgement, colleagues will retain the memory of an exceptional force and critical mind, an imposing, elegant and impressive figure. Angeliki Laiou guarded her privacy well, but behind the scenes she displayed generous and loyal support to friends and members of her staff, who will remember her with devotion.
Angeliki Laiou, historian: born Athens 6 April 1941; Dumbarton Oaks Professor of Byzantine History, Harvard University 1981-2008, Chairman, History Department 1985-88; Director, Dumbarton Oaks 1989-98; Member of Parliament, Greece 2000-02, Deputy Secretary of Foreign Affairs 2000; married Stavros Thomadakis (marriage dissolved, one son); died Boston, Massachusetts 11 December 2008.
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