Marjorie Reeves

Historian and educationist at St Anne's College, Oxford
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The Independent Online

Marjorie Ethel Reeves, historian and educationist: born Bratton, Wiltshire 17 July 1905; Assistant Mistress, Roan School, Greenwich 1927-29; Research Fellow, Westfield College, London 1929-31; Lecturer, St Gabriel's Training College, Camberwell 1931-38; Fellow and Tutor in History, Society of Oxford Home Students (later St Anne's College, Oxford) 1938-74, Vice-Principal 1951-62, 1964-67; member, Central Advisory Council of the Ministry of Education 1947-61; FBA 1974; CBE 1996; died Oxford 27 November 2003.

The death of the historian Marjorie Reeves, at the age of 98, should not have been a shock, but with plans already in hand for celebrating her centenary, her keen mind and tenacity of purpose had seemed to promise even greater longevity.

Reeves was Fellow and Tutor at the Society of Oxford Home Students (which later became St Anne's College, Oxford), 1938-74, and was the college's Vice-Principal in 1951-62 and again in 1964-67. She played an important part in guiding it to a fully incorporated college of Oxford University in 1952 and in the building development on its north Oxford site. Early experience as a schoolteacher and lecturer at a teacher training college in Camberwell, south London, made her a skilful and conscientious tutor, and she followed her students' careers with searching interest; later visits to her house in Norham Road, Oxford, were like critical tutorials.

Her research career began in London, at Westfield College, with a PhD on medieval heretical mystics. Her concentration on the career of Abbot Joachim of Flora (or Fiore) as her life's work was an inspired choice. Her interdisciplinary skills as medievalist, iconographer and theologian combined to produce historical studies very much ahead of their time in their complex analysis.

Articles deciphering Joachim's manuscripts and symbolic figurae culminated in her major book The Influence of Prophecy in the later Middle Ages: a study in Joachimism (1969). Already it began to trace the profound effect of Joachim's prophetic vision of the stages of world development until the Second Coming on the theology of the Mendicant Orders and on the political theory of kings and emperors.

Further work followed Joachimism in later centuries. Her encouragement inspired many colleagues and resulted in collaborative ventures, notably in her Warburg volume on Prophetic Rome in the High Renaissance Period (1992), which she edited and to which she contributed an article and the unifying introduction. Latterly Reeves worked with Warwick Gould on Joachim of Fiore and the Myth of the Eternal Evangel in the Nineteenth and Twentieth Centuries. Three editions of the book, 1987, 2000 and 2001 completed Reeves's 1969 work by placing the undoubted influence of Joachim down to the end of the second millennium while measuring some of the larger claims made for it.

Retirement suited Reeves down to the ground. She remained deeply attached to Oxford, her life shaped by writing, music, gardening and the liturgical year at St Mary's University Church. She was also able to travel extensively in Europe and the United States. Her contacts with San Giovanni in Fiore in Calabria, where Joachim lived and died, led to the reconsecration of his church and the establishment of an International Centre for Joachimist Studies there. She was made an honorary citizen of the town.

In 1975 Reeves spent a semester at Columbia University, New York and two years later she was Distinguished Professor in Medieval Studies at the University of California at Berkeley. She was thrilled and encouraged by the warmth of her reception in America. Academic and public honours followed. She was made a Fellow of the British Academy, DLitt at Oxford University and she held Honorary Fellowships at St Hugh's and St Anne's colleges. She was a Corresponding Fellow of the Medieval Academy of America. In 1996 was appointed CBE for her services to history and education.

Marjorie Reeves was born in 1907 and educated at the High School for Girls in Trowbridge, Wiltshire and St Hugh's College, Oxford, graduating with a First in Modern History in 1926. She came from a long-established Wiltshire family. Her father manufactured agricultural machinery in the village of Bratton. Her mother's family, the Whitakers, had produced a long line of well-read and independently minded women. Her Nonconformist background continued to inform her life even when she moved to the Anglican Communion. She lived simply, although she enjoyed feasts and festivities in good company. She was generous to her friends, taking them to concerts and to Glyndebourne, her one extravagance.

The link with Wiltshire remained strong even when the family house was sold. She supported the Festival of Church Music at Edington. She also wrote three books using her family papers: Sheep Bell and Ploughshare: the story of two village families (1978), The Diaries of Jeffrey Whitaker, Schoolmaster of Bratton 1739-1749 (1989) and Pursuing the Muses: female education and Nonconformist culture 1700-1900 (1997).

Throughout her life she kept an active interest in the philosophy and practice of education at every level. She sat on the Robbins Committee on Higher Education in the 1960s and was committed to the development of the new universities and the growth of opportunities for students. She edited Eighteen Plus: unity and diversity in higher education (1965) and also wrote The Crisis in Higher Education (1988). In 1970 she was guest of honour at a conference in the University of Malta on the preservation of archives and the writing and teaching of history at school and university level. Thirty years later when the achievements of the conference were being assessed, her inspiration was recalled with respect and affection.

She encouraged innovation in school history books, notably with the "Then and There" series she commissioned with Longman. "Patches" of history using contemporary documents and illustrations that would capture the child's imagination were set in the context of time and place. In 1993 she was awarded the Medlicott Medal of the Historical Association in recognition of her contribution to historical studies.

In a very long life she was not left behind. She never lost her interest in the contemporary world and her tolerance and understanding increased with age.

Ann Williams