Obituary: Professor James Cross

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The Independent Online
James Cross was one of the great Anglo-Saxon scholars of his generation. For 20 years he was Baines Professor of English Language at Liverpool University, but continued an active research career after his retirement in 1985.

He had a wide range of scholarly interests in the early period, from Old Swedish to late Middle English literature, but his principal contribution was in the study of what might be called the intellectual underpinning of Anglo-Saxon writing: the use of motifs from Isidore, images from St Augustine, exotic details from neglected Irish Latin writers. He was an indefatigable researcher who could never believe that others might not share his boundless enthusiasm for the latest discovery, and would daily arrive in the senior common room in Liverpool to tell of the significant reading which would trace a detail to this authority rather than another.

The channels by which knowledge passed in the early Middle Ages were a particular passion with him. His forte was not the massive scholarly book, decades in the making, but the short article or monograph that was almost work in progress, turned out at the rate of three or four a year and with the ink barely dry; editors became used to Cross's need to rewrite in proof because he had continued to turn up new evidence since submitting an article. His discoveries were always provisional because he worked with material that had seldom been investigated, and there was no false embarrassment about returning to a subject and acknowledging that an earlier piece had been overtaken by his own subsequent research.

In his early years he worked on identifying the influence of leading patristic authors and themes on Anglo-Saxon poetry; but increasingly his interest turned to prose - and to the influence of lesser-known Latin texts or particular versions of them known in England. He made a major contribution to the understanding of the sources for lfric of Eynsham's work, and more recently produced a series of studies which demonstrated the range of learning which lay behind the ninth-century text the Old English Martyrology. A particular interest of recent years was the influence of little-known Irish writing on the Anglo-Saxons.

Cross was born in 1920 in the Forest of Dean, and went to Bristol University in 1938. After Second World War service in North Africa and Europe, he returned to Bristol and graduated in 1947, with first class honours in English. A further year at Bristol studying for the Diploma in Education was followed by two years in Sweden, teaching at Lund University, and he then returned to Bristol as a lecturer in English, being promoted to Reader in 1962 (a year which also saw his award of a doctorate by Lund University for his collected publications).

Then in 1965 he became Baines Professor of English Language at Liverpool University, in succession to Simeon Potter. There, as head of the English Language department, he worked in mostly amicable partnership with the head of the English Literature department, Kenneth Muir; and subsequently negotiated the combination of the two departments with Muir's successor, Philip Edwards. He was passionately committed to the work of the Language department in all its manifestations, determined to encourage appointments in Old Norse and Linguistics as well as the mainstream activities in Old English and Middle English. He taught Old English and Chaucer with particular enthusiasm, and had an unshakeable belief in the importance of encouraging the young.

As a head of department he was generous and positive, especially in encouraging research, and widely trusted as a fair and honest university administrator who always spoke his mind - even if at times it occurred to him afterwards that it might have been better not to.

Liverpool offered few opportunities for Cross to build up a significant research school, and his impact might have been greater if he had found himself working in a larger research community. But he compensated by his own assiduous participation in international projects and conferences, and by his enthusiasm for enlisting colleagues in collaborative ventures. The verbatim transcript of discussion at the Toronto meeting which launched the new Old English Dictionary in 1971, subsequently published in the proceedings, includes a delightful record of Cross's interventions, apercus, and thoughts-in-progress.

More recently he played an important part in the early development of twin projects on the inter-relationships of Anglo-Saxon writings and their Latin antecedents - the American-based project, Sources for Anglo-Saxon Literary Culture, and the British-based Fontes Anglo-Saxonici. In 1982 he produced in collaboration with Tom Hill of Cornell University an edition of two esoteric collections of Anglo-Saxon lore, Solomon and Saturn and Adrian and Ritheus, with voluminous commentary on sources and analogues for the stranger details, and in the same year, this time in collaboration with Joyce Bazire of his own department, an edition of anonymous Old English Rogationtide homilies.

With retirement, in 1985, he became a full-time researcher and his output increased further. In 1987 he published an analysis and partial edition of a Latin homiliary preserved in a Pembroke College, Cambridge manuscript, whose importance as a source-collection for anonymous Old English homilies he had been the first to identify. In 1993 he produced, in collaboration with Jennifer Morrish Tunberg, a facsimile edition of a Copenhagen manuscript containing a range of texts associated with Archbishop Wulfstan. A month before his death he published an edition of two more anonymous Old English texts with their manuscript sources, having identified for the first time the actual manuscript of a Latin source used by an Anglo- Saxon writer. And he was working on another important collection of Anglo-Saxon texts when he died.

His distinction and achievements were increasingly recognised abroad: in 1996 he was awarded an honorary doctorate by the University of Jaume in Spain, and the International Congress of Medieval Studies at Kalamazoo included a symposium in his honour.

Jimmy Cross owed much to the support of his wife, Joyce, and his excursions were in recent years restricted by his concerns over her own ill-health; but with her encouragement he continued the total commitment to research in Anglo- Saxon literature and learning which had marked the whole of his career.

James Edwin Cross, Anglo- Saxon scholar: born Forest of Dean, Gloucestershire 20 July 1920; Baines Professor of English Language, Liverpool University 1965-85 (Emeritus); married 1944 Joyce Bower (one son, one daughter); died Birkenhead, Merseyside 18 December 1996.