Philip Jones

Historian of the Italian city-state who controversially questioned the significance of the Renaissance
Click to follow

Philip James Jones, historian: born London 19 November 1921; Assistant in History, Glasgow University 1949-50; Lecturer in Medieval History, Leeds University 1950-61, Eileen Power Memorial Student 1956-57, Reader in Medieval History 1961-63; Tutor in Modern History, Brasenose College, Oxford 1963-89, Fellow 1963-89 (Emeritus), Librarian 1965-89; FBA 1984; married 1954 Carla Susini (died 2004; one son, one daughter); died Oxford 26 March 2006.

Philip Jones was one of the most distinguished, complex and challenging of medieval historians. His works on the Italian city-states of the 13th to 15th centuries, and on Italian economic history, are monuments built to last, and will not be surpassed in the foreseeable future, if ever. This was the man who dared to question the myth, as he saw it, of the bourgeois city-state, and the significance of the Renaissance. "In Italy his name inspires awe," a colleague once commented, "and his is altogether a stunning body of work."

His father was a primary-school teacher in south-east London, and Philip's secondary education took place at St Dunstan's College in Catford. He later said that he had never set out to become a historian, but had "drifted into it", and part of that drift started at school, where his history teachers urged him to apply to Oxford. He was an undergraduate at Wadham College, obtaining a first class degree in Modern History in 1945, having also briefly served in the Army - which taught him, he later said, how to clean shoes.

In 1946 Philip Jones won a senior scholarship at Magdalen College, Oxford, to start his graduate studies. There he joined the circle of pupils of K.B. McFarlane, the influential historian of the late-medieval English nobility, from whom his lasting, but not sympathetic, interest in the formation and mores of historical aristocracies possibly derived. He at first set to work on the topic of Carlo Malatesta's role in the closure of the schism in the 15th-century Church, but under the supervision of Cecilia Ady this developed into a much broader study of the Malatesta, the ruling family in late-medieval Rimini.

For this he spent much of his time in Italy, and it was in Florence that he first met his future wife, Carla Susini. It was typical of the man that he wooed her with gifts of books. His love of things Italian was strengthened by Carla, and they eventually married in 1954. For many years, they had a marvellously located flat on Piazza Pitti in Florence, where they would spend the summer months.

Jones's first full academic post, from 1950, was as Lecturer at Leeds University, where he made lifelong friends. He was Reader from 1961 until 1963, when he moved to Brasenose College, Oxford. Although he did once apply for a chair in another university, his modesty and aversion to authority meant that he did not seek further promotion. He had a great sense of loyalty to his college, which he served for many years as (academic) librarian.

His first publication, in 1952, "The Vicariate of the Malatesta of Rimini", in the English Historical Review, sprang from his doctoral research, but he had already switched his main area of interest from Rimini to Florence (and then to the whole of Italy) and from political to economic history. A series of major articles, still influential today, began to appear on aspects of agrarian history, culminating in his contribution to the Cambridge Economic History of Europe (1966). Much of this ran against the current: while the dominant focus was on cities and on the mercantile class, Jones's interest was in the countryside and the aristocracy, both rural and urban; while the dominant focus was on Florence, Jones stressed Florentine exceptionalism within Italy.

This broader approach - all of Italy, both urban and rural - was evidenced in two major Italian publications. Of these, Economia e società nell'Italia medievale: la leggenda della borghesia ("Economy and Society in Medieval Italy: the myth of the bourgeoisie", 1980) triggered considerable debate in Italy, where it was labelled as polemical and iconoclastic. This was because of Jones's conclusion that, once all due weight was given to the revolutionary achievements of the Italian mercantile class, the city-state remained more aristocratic than bourgeois.

His doctoral thesis was belatedly published in 1974, but he had already in the mid-1960s announced the future direction of his work, in an extraordinary article on the city-state in late-medieval Italy, "Communes and Despots", published in the Transactions of the Royal Historical Society. This was when he began to lay the foundations of his later book The Italian City-State, part one of which appeared in 1997; part two now lies unfinished. Few in contemporary academia - under the RAE's pressure to publish - can any longer afford to design books on this intellectual scale.

Jones's writing was marked by four distinctive features: a monumental architecture, in which a composite and often paradoxical whole was built up from large blocks of pro and contra argument; a certain world-weary impatience with what others perceived as novelty; a command of the sources and historiography that will remain unequalled; and an inventive and ludic joy in the choice of words. Henry James was one of his models. Those features were the result of great effort: "I struggle sentence by painful sentence with a never-to-be-completed book, " he once wrote. Consequently, his works are demanding and require long attention spans, but can be hugely rewarding.

At the same time his writing is marked by a sententiousness which (now out of fashion) has given Italian medieval and Renaissance history some of its most enduring points of reference: "the history of Florence, even at its most democratic, remains in large part the history of its principal families". He was drawn to other axiomatic historians such as Sir Ronald Syme, and applied to medieval Italy Syme's dictum that "in all ages, whatever the form and name of government, be it monarchy, republic or democracy, an oligarchy lurks behind the façade".

In his lengthy piece on Italian economic history for the Storia d'Italia ("History of Italy") published by Einaudi in the 1970s, Jones opened with the statement, "In history as in fiction, the first problem is always that of choosing the point of departure." This is itself an opening into his approach to the historical problem of the "Renaissance". It was totally inadequate, in Jones's view, to start the history of this revival in the 15th, or even the 14th century, or to conceive of it in narrowly cultural terms, for the "renaissance" had to be put against the much longer, larger and more important history of the transformation of the classical world and of various forms of "revival", political, economic and social, from the 12th century onwards. If a renaissance happened at all, it occurred in the 12th and 13th centuries, and the content had more to do with the rebirth of an urban ruling class and of the republican city-state than with painting and philosophy. The recreation of an "economically developed, urbanised, unified, European and Mediterranean society . . . was the real Renaissance", he wrote.

Philip Jones was a man of enormous learning and breadth of interest: 19th-century novels, all kinds of detective fiction on the page or on screen, French film of the 1930s and 1940s, classical theatre, Romantic music. He had a wonderfully playful, waspish and irreverent sense of humour, and in turn loved the great humorists, from ITMA and the Marx brothers to contemporary satirists. Politically, his instincts were always progressive, but he was beyond party politics ("Blairism, Thatcherism, what's the difference apart from the spelling?"), and he signalled his engagement with the contemporary world more in his support for human rights charities and disaster relief, especially in Africa.

As a tutor and supervisor at Brasenose, Philip Jones was formidable, rigorous, intimidating, but these qualities were mixed with compassion, tolerance and humour. True to his "unflorentine" bent, he planted graduate students in some of the less attention-grabbing cities of medieval Italy (Padua, Verona, Ferrara, Siena). They never formed a "school" or had any common methodological approaches, but they took their enthusiasm for Italian history, bearing in varying degrees a Jonesian imprint, into posts in universities in the UK and Italy, and into the non-academic world.

He was elected a Fellow of the British Academy in 1984 and was awarded the Serena Medal for Italian studies in 1988. He retired the following year.

Jones did not always make life easy for his family, but he was deeply affected by the death of his wife in 2004, and lost some of his characteristic focus and momentum.

Trevor Dean