Bruno Neveu

Catholic historian and convivial director of the Maison Française, Oxford
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The Independent Online

Bruno Neveu, historian and university administrator: born Grenoble, France 4 November 1936; Director of Studies, History and Philological Section, Ecole Pratique des Hautes Etudes, Sorbonne 1973-2002; Director, Maison Française, Oxford 1981-84; died Beirut 24 March 2004.

Bruno Neveu was one of the most distinguished and productive historians of the Early Modern Catholic Church. His main contribution lay in the field of 17th-century theology and erudition, though in recent years he had moved forwards in time and was working on the impact of modernism on the Church. He had very close connections with Britain, having been Director of the Maison Française in Oxford in the 1980s and subsequently maintaining a wide circle of friends over here.

Born in 1936, Neveu, the son of an engineer, began his university studies in his native Grenoble. His merits earned him a place at the Ecole Nationale des Chartes in Paris - the school for the study of documents of all periods - and it was as a chartiste with the diploma of "archiviste paléographe" that he first made his mark. He secured one of the coveted scholarships at the Fondation Thiers, which provided him with board and lodging in Paris.

It was during this period, 1963-66, that he obtained a doctorate at the Sorbonne and produced his great work Un Historien à l'Ecole de Port-Royal: Sébastien Le Nain de Tillemont ("A Historian of the School of Port-Royal: Sébastien Le Nain de Tillemont", 1966). It was a careful delineation of the strands of thought and scholarship that underpinned both theology and erudition in the pre-Enlightenment age. Neveu managed to write sensitively about the contribution of Jansenists without hostility to them but also without personal commitment to their cause.

In 1966, he moved to the prestigious Ecole Française de Rome for a three-year period, the first of his many links with Italy, a country which Neveu came to love and visited as often as he could. He obtained a further four years, 1969-73, in Rome as a chargé de mission attached to the CNRS (Centre National de la Recherche Scientifique).

It was a prolific period for Neveu, as he produced a full-length study of another religious figure, Du Cambout de Pontchâteau, in Sébastien Joseph Du Cambout de Pontchâteau, 1634-1690, et ses missions à Rome: d'après sa correspondance et des documents inédits (1969) and edited two volumes of the diplomatic despatches of a papal nuncio at the court of Louis XIV (Correspondance du nonce en France Angelo Ranuzzi, 1973).

In 1973 he was appointed directeur d'études, a post of professorial standing, at the history and philological section of the Ecole Pratique des Hautes Etudes at the Sorbonne in Paris. The Ecole Pratique, a creation of Napoleon III, exists to foster research by allowing its members to devote themselves to it full time with a minimum of teaching in their chosen field. Neveu was truly in his element in this institution, where he remained until his retirement in 2002, with a stint as president of all the sections from 1994 to 1998.

From 1981 to 1984 he had been seconded from the Ecole Pratique to become Director of the Maison Française in Oxford. He threw himself wholeheartedly into Oxford life. He was made an associate member of All Souls College, he joined the Athenaeum - places where his conviviality was much appreciated. He came to love the Anglican establishment with its choir schools and cathedral closes. To him, it was like discovering a vanished world.

The French government could have extended his term, and its failure to do so created a mini-scandal. With his return to Paris, his publications resumed their impressive course. He sat on several bodies and councils involved with history or with the publication of texts, both in France and at the Vatican.

In 2001 he was elected to the Académie des Sciences Morales et Politiques and no fewer than 45 British academics and friends contributed to the purchase of his ceremonial sword. He was honoured by many countries, becoming a Corresponding Member of the Royal Historical Society and the holder of decorations from Italy and Portugal. Last year he was appointed Chevalier de la Légion d'honneur and was also made a Knight Commander of the Order of St Sylvester by the Pope. He took an immense pleasure in wearing his habit vert and his colourful decorations.

A gentle, convivial bachelor, Bruno Neveu remained a very private person. When he learned that someone had described him as having the gait and manner of a Trollopian prelate, he was immensely gratified by the comparison. Not liking the Roman liturgy that prevailed after the Second Vatican Council, but wishing to remain within the discipline of the Church, he practised the Greek Catholic rite. It was on a visit to the Lebanon and at the residence of the Patriarch that he died suddenly in his sleep.

His funeral at the church of St Etienne-du-Mont in Paris was celebrated in the rite that he had come to love, and it was attended by the former French prime minister Pierre Messmer and by numerous friends from many countries.

John Rogister