Professor John Thomson
Medieval historian specialising in heresy and the Lollards
Tuesday 07 September 2004
John Thomson was Professor of Medieval History at Glasgow and a leading historian of the 15th century.
John Aidan Francis Thomson, historian: born Edinburgh 26 July 1934; Lecturer, Glasgow University 1960-94, Professor of Medieval History 1994-2000 (Emeritus); married 1970 Katie Bell (one son, one daughter); died Denny, Stirlingshire 2 September 2004.
John Thomson was Professor of Medieval History at Glasgow and a leading historian of the 15th century.
Born John Aidan Francis Thomson - and known to all as "Jaft" - he would assure people that he was very grateful his parents had not followed their initial inclination to name him Donald. It seems unlikely that his parents ever were so inclined, but the discrepancy between the careworn "elder-of-the-kirk" voice and the twinkle in the eye meant you left his company feeling that you had once again underestimated a man whose unaffected manner disguised a piercing intelligence and quietly subversive sense of humour.
He came from an academic family and attended George Watson's College in Edinburgh and Edinburgh University, doing his National Service in the Intelligence Corps in Libya during the Suez Crisis of 1956. Like many Scots of his generation he pursued graduate research south of the border, winning a scholarship to Balliol College, Oxford, in 1957.
In Oxford Thomson was profoundly influenced by K.B. McFarlane, who dominated research into the 15th century in the same way his colleague and bitter rival A.J.P. Taylor did the modern era. Although McFarlane's mind was equally brilliant his published output was meagre because of his insistence on mastering all of the largely unedited material relating to his subject. His reputation survives through the achievements of his students. Thomson was one, another was Alan Bennett, both of whom met regularly in the cramped Reading Room of the old Public Record Office in Chancery Lane, before Bennett found fame in other spheres.
Thomson developed McFarlane's interest in popular religious dissent with a DPhil thesis, "Clergy and Laity in London, 1376-1531" (1960), and first came to prominence with an article restoring the reputation of the 16th-century bishop John Foxe, famous for his Book of Martyrs. The historical side of Foxe's work, in which he recounted the often gruesome fate of medieval heretics whom he regarded as the precursors of English Protestantism, had long been dismissed as inventive propaganda, designed to give spurious antiquity to the new faith and fuel the wrath of his co-religionists against the Catholic Church. While in no way sharing Foxe's view of history, Thomson, by the laborious process of checking surviving bishops' records, proved that factually Foxe was mostly correct.
There had been plenty of cases of heresy in pre-Reformation England and, on the eve of the Reformation, the Church, far from being complacent, had its machinery of persecution running smoothly. The piece stimulated a new interest in Foxe as a historical source, the fruits of which are still being gathered today.
The most important offshoot of Thomson's doctoral work was his book The Later Lollards, 1414-1520 (1965) in which he dealt with the religious dissidents, loosely affiliated to the teachings of the late-14th-century Oxford theologian John Wyclif. The opening sentence explained that, in comparison with the early years of Lollard history and the transition from Lollardy to Protestantism, "the middle period had been left neglected".
In one sense it was easy to see why. Thomson's work took him to county and diocesan archives the length and breadth of England and beyond; modern researchers accustomed to centralised collections of documentation which they can scan digitally for perusal at their leisure can only wonder at the sheer industry of the man.
The intellectual rewards were immense. Thomson showed that, while the link with Wyclif's teaching was tenuous, there were thriving heretical communities all over England in the 15th century. Rather than being proto-Protestants they had their own distinct tradition, "an opposition which never came to power". Methodologically, too it was a breakthrough, by moving the study of heresy away from its literary and intellectual focus to one of popular belief, often in obscure provincial towns and villages, Thomson foreshadowed more famous studies such as Christopher Haigh's study of Lancashire in the Reformation ( Reformation and Resistance in Tudor Lancashire, 1975) and Emmanuel Le Roy Ladurie's book on heresy in a remote Pyrenean village, Montaillou (1975).
By the time The Later Lollards appeared Thomson was in post at Glasgow University, where he was to remain for 40 years. While producing a steady stream of research articles, including several detailed analyses of chronicle sources for the War of the Roses, he found time to help excavate a broch in Orkney as well as attending events in the Classics Department. At one of these he met Katie Bell, a temporary lecturer in Ancient Greek, whom he subsequently married.
None of his later publications had quite the impact of The Later Lollards, but they still amounted to an influential body of work. Generations of undergraduates have been grateful to his guide through the labyrinth of 15th-century society, The Transformation of Medieval England, 1370-1529, first published in 1983 and still in print. Any general reader wondering why Christian Europe never became a theocracy would be well advised to look at his The Western Church in the Middle Ages (1998). In between he used his broad range of knowledge to edit a volume on medieval towns ( Towns and Townspeople in the Fifteenth Century, 1988) and produce a medievalist's view of the Reformation in The Early Tudor Church and Society, 1485-1529 (1993).
The emphasis on textbooks in the later part of his career stemmed from Thomson's profound belief that within a university teaching and research should be intimately linked. Needless to say he was a superb teacher; the most "unshowy" of lecturers, he nevertheless had a dramatic presence, dressed in his full-length black doctoral gown. Despite a teaching load which would be considered punishing even by today's standards, he seemed almost universally knowledgeable and completely unflappable. When one cocky second-year undergraduate suggested that Lollards might not have actually existed, he replied that he would not be a bit surprised and invited him into his office to discuss the source material. The student concerned is now a Fellow of All Souls.
He received a personal chair from Glasgow in 1994. It was a mark of his care for students that he was worried that increasing deafness was making it difficult to hear what they had to say in seminars. Occasionally, he could turn his disability to advantage. Once, when the History department was being told that it had nowhere near enough "teaching aims and learning objectives" by the University Quality Assurance Officer, a forceful Australian with a shock of white hair, the Professor of Medieval History leaned across to his neighbour and commented in a whisper which could be heard throughout the room on the speaker's resemblance to Radovan Karadzic. He pretended to be oblivious of the ensuing embarrassed silence, broken only by the stifled laughter of colleagues, but the speaker took the hint, moderated his manner and even started to listen to his audience's point of view.
Thomson retired in 2000, but continued to write and research. One late article on "Scots in England in the Fifteenth Century", drawn from taxation records and chancery letters, showed that economic migration was alive and well in the Middle Ages, belying the impression still sometimes peddled of a stagnant and parochial economy. In his last illness a steady stream of colleagues and former students still benefited from bedside discussions of their own work and insights which Thomson was developing for a further book on 15th-century Europe that he had almost completed at his death.
Yet there was far more to Thomson than academic scholarship. He really was an elder of the kirk in the Church of Scotland, had a great love of music and, typically, because he believed in the democratic alternative, stood as a Liberal Democrat council candidate in the unwinnable territory of the Scottish Central Belt. He was a devoted family man and was immensely proud that both his children had inherited their parents' love of teaching and had begun promising careers in education, the one at Ampleforth, the other at Queen's University, Belfast.
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