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Professor Norman Cohn

Historian and linguist of rare erudition whose masterpiece was 'The Pursuit of the Millennium'

Norman Cohn, historian and French scholar: born London 12 January 1915; Professor of French, Magee University College, Derry 1951-60; Professor of French, King's College, Durham University 1960-63; Director, Columbus Centre for Studies of Persecution and Genocide, and Professorial Fellow, Sussex University 1966-73, Astor-Wolfson Professor of History 1973-80 (Emeritus); FBA 1978; married 1941 Vera Broido (died 2004; one son), 2004 Marina Voikhanskaya; died Cambridge 31 July 2007.

Norman Cohn wrote three great histories, each thematically related to the other. His first book, The Pursuit of the Millennium (1957), showed how apocalyptic beliefs fuelled medieval heresies and, in the 20th century, Nazi and Communist orthodoxies. His second, Warrant for Genocide (1967), exposed that arsenal for anti-Semites The Protocol of the Elders of Zion for the forgery that it was. His third, Europe's Inner Demons (1976), showed how the idea of the satanic pact was at the heart of the European witch-craze. In 1948 the great Annales scholar Lucien Febvre had written his (then) startling essay, "Witchcraft: nonsense or a mental revolution?" Cohn's published writings would provide the most satisfying answer to that question.

But first the nonsense had to be got out of the way. Not just the history – Nazi reliance on a dodgy document. But the historiography: credulous readers' reliance on Margaret Murray's fiction of witchcraft as Christianity's ancient religious rival. Cohn, the most modest and gentle of men, swept her 1921 romance The Witch-Cult in Western Europe into the dustbin. His weapons were, as in all his inquiries, patience, scrupulous testing of evidence and empathy into minds of very different cultures, all backed with formidable linguistic skills.

It was as a linguist, not a historian, that he had begun his academic career. The son of a Jewish father and a Catholic mother, Cohn had graduated from Christ Church, Oxford, with a First in Modern Languages. Wartime service in the Intelligence Corps may have reinforced his interest in the persecutors and the persecuted and ultimately in the ambition to write their history.

From 1946 until 1951, he was Lecturer in French at Glasgow University, then Professor of French at Magee University College in Londonderry from 1951 to 1960, and then at King's College, Durham until 1963. That year he was appointed Director of the Columbus Centre for Studies of Persecution and Genocide at Sussex University of Sussex. In 1973 he became its Astor-Wolfson Professor of History (Emeritus in 1980). He was elected a Fellow of the British Academy in 1978.

Cohn was as accessible as he was erudite. Generations of undergraduates thrilled to The Pursuit of the Millennium. Scholars continue to raid his works for fresh insights. In the current Journal of Ecclesiastical History there is a review of a new French book on witchcraft, which grapples with the great question: where was the link between witchcraft as attested in early medieval folklore and the apparently sudden and unprecedented emergence, at some point after 1400, of a belief in a conspiracy between witches and the devil? The reviewer likes the book, but his final message is: go back to Cohn!

Sometimes the very boldness of the presentation leads to a failure in his readers to appreciate the subtleties behind it. Cohn never said – although he has been credited with saying it – that millenarianism inevitably produces revolutions. But his brilliant evocations of John of Leyden's reign of terror in Munster – and those flagellants who seem to have walked straight out of The Seventh Seal – once encountered by the reader stay in the mind. Cohn intended them to do so, but not at the price of failing to realise that millenarian speculations could have stabilising effects as well as destabilising ones.

He was particularly sensitive to the power of belief in a Last World Emperor as a secular companion figure to the Angelic Pope. There are 31 entries on the Emperor cult in The Pursuit of the Millennium index, which will surprise only those who accept a simplified reading of the Cohn thesis.

His treatment of the writings of the 13th-century mystic Joachim of Fiore, is exemplary in this respect. Here was a prophet who looked forward to a Third State in history and a thousand years of godly rule. Boldly Cohn relates Joachism to "the Marxian dialectic of the three stages of primitive Communism, class society and a final Communism" and the final Nazi "Third Reich of a thousand years". But he is no less fascinated by the Prophet's ability to stay (just) this side of orthodoxy, win the backing of Popes or, like Francis of Assissi, end up indeed as saint rather than heretic or rebel.

Cohn shared with fascination with Joachim with another great long-lived scholar, Marjorie Reeves. It was fitting then that Cohn should have been invited to attend a memorable meeting at St John's College, Oxford, in July 1974, for intended contributors to her Festschrift. Although in the end he was unable to contribute to the 1980 volume, for all who attended the earlier meeting, the highlight was the debate on Joachim between the two giants in their field.

The Cohn legacy is in good hands with younger colleagues like Stuart Clark. The very Cohn-like title of his work Thinking with Demons (1997) reveals his concern to treat the "demonologists" – and keep them wrapped up in their inverted commas – not as obsessionals, but as men who turned to the subject to make sense of their other concerns "as theologians, priests, philosophers". Cohn would have said "Amen" to that. His was a life which was spent on thinking with demons, and we have been immeasurably the richer for it.

William Lamont

Only a few days before his death, I spent a delightful afternoon with Norman Cohn at home in Cambridge with his wife Marina, writes Professor John Gray. Norman was in superb form – full of an intellectual vitality that entirely belied his 92 years.

I first read his masterpiece The Pursuit of the Millennium (1957) over 30 years ago, and was convinced then that unless Cohn's account of the millenarian myths animating avowedly secular revolutionary movements was digested, the history of the 20th century could not be fully understood. Events since that time have only enhanced the power of Cohn's seminal analysis, and the book is now more acutely relevant than ever for its examination of the eschatological underside of modern politics.

The long conversation I had with Norman a few weeks ago ranged widely over the vast changes that had taken place during his lifetime. He recounted some of his experiences in the Second World War, recalling them vividly from memory and commenting on the stoical determination to fight on which he observed among ordinary Britons even at the darkest moments.

As in every conversation I had with him, Norman's observations and judgements were wise and penetrating and delivered with characteristic gentle humour. I feel privileged to have known this great scholar, whose rare erudition was combined with an insight into human affairs that is rarer still.