Obituary: Bob Scribner

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The Independent Online
BOB SCRIBNER was the leading scholar of his generation in the English-speaking world in the field of German Reformation history. His research transformed our understanding of how the reformers' message was able to win over layfolk who were deeply wedded to the practices and rituals of the Catholic faith, however much they criticised the Church as an institution and the behaviour of individual priests.

Scribner argued consistently that the Reformation was not an event, but a process, beset by contradictions and reversals, in which the responses of layfolk played as creative a role as the reformers' theology itself.

These insights were first developed in his major study For the Sake of Simple Folk: popular propaganda for the German Reformation (1981), in which he discussed the importance of visual and oral communication alongside print (for too long regarded as holding the key to the Reformation's dissemination and impact). But he also insisted on the complexity of such media: visual propaganda works at several levels; it needs to be read as a system of signs; its semiotics require careful decoding.

None of these findings would have been possible if Scribner had not been so well grounded in cultural theory and anthropology. He subsequently elaborated the ideas in a vast outpouring of research: at his death he had published nigh on 90 articles, as well as editing numerous collections of essays.

This extraordinary achievement can only be properly assessed against a background which had more than its share of adversity. Scribner was born into a working-class Catholic family in Sydney; his grandparents had been German immigrants on his father's side, Irish on his mother's, and it was his grandmother who took on responsibility for his upbringing.

After winning a place at Sydney University, where he majored in history, he was appointed as teaching fellow on the recommendation of Bruce Mansfield, who encouraged him to embark on historical research. In 1967 he gained a first class master's degree, with a thesis on the social thought of Erasmus. At that time Australia was being rapidly drawn into the conflict in Vietnam, and Bob Scribner belonged to the circle of radical Catholic teachers and students who voiced the first opposition to the war and to the military draft.

Although he enjoyed his time at Sydney University (acquiring a reputation as an accomplished hoaxer), Scribner could see that his future lay elsewhere. He came to Europe in 1968, spending nearly two years as a research student in Marburg and Freiburg (picking up German on the run, as he put it), before embarking on a PhD in London under Geoff Dickens; he worked as a night porter to help finance his studies. Even then, he shunned the easy option by choosing to work in the Thuringian city of Erfurt, at that time in the German Democratic Republic. The bureaucratic obstacles to archival research in the way of anyone not a party member were formidable, as was the cost of accommodation at "tourist rates".

His first academic post, with very heavy teaching duties, was at Portsmouth Polytechnic. Yet by the mid-1970s a string of path-breaking articles, combining meticulous research with broad theoretical interpretation, began to appear. In 1979 Scribner moved to a lectureship at King's College London, where he spent a not very congenial two years among colleagues deeply suspicious of his sociological approach to religion.

With his appointment to a lectureship in Cambridge in 1981 and a fellowship at Clare College Scribner at last began to gain the recognition he deserved. That culminated in his promotion to Reader in 1993, having already been awarded a prestigious two-year research readership by the British Academy. But it was with his move to a chair in the Divinity School at Harvard in 1996 that at last the prospect beckoned of being freed from administrative chores and undergraduate teaching to concentrate on research and supervising more graduate students than had been possible at Cambridge. Within months of arriving in Massachusetts, however, cancer of the oesophagus was diagnosed.

Those who saw Bob Scribner in his last days will not forget the exemplary courage and clear-sightedness with which he faced the end. His iron will and intellectual clarity (underpinned by a quiet faith) never deserted him. The single-mindedness with which he pursued his scholarly vocation - he was one of the hardest-working men his friends had ever known - at times placed strains upon his family, but it was matched by a wonderful openness and informality.

He never set himself up as an authority, or expected to be treated with professorial reverence. Rather, he was a constant enquirer, eager to share his curiosity and enthusiasm. That is why he was such a good teacher. He wrote, not to create tablets of stone, but to engage in dialogue, to be part of a process; just as he viewed the Reformation itself.

Tom Scott

Robert William Scribner, historian: born Sydney 6 September 1941; Lecturer, Portsmouth Polytechnic 1972-78; Lecturer, King's College London 1979-81; Lecturer, Cambridge University 1981-93, Reader in the Social History of Early Modern Europe 1993-96; Professor of Divinity, Harvard University 1996-98; married 1972 Robyn Dasey (marriage dissolved), 1989 Lois Rutherford (one son, one daughter); died Arlington, Massachusetts 29 January 1998.