Professor Philip Grierson

Historian and numismatist who amassed the world's greatest collection of medieval coins
Click to follow

Philip Grierson, historian and numismatist: born Dublin 15 November 1910; Fellow, Gonville and Caius College, Cambridge 1935-2006, Librarian 1949-69, President 1966-76; FSA 1947; Honorary Keeper of Coins, Fitzwilliam Museum 1949-2006; Adviser in Byzantine Numismatics to the Dumbarton Oaks Library and Collections, Harvard University 1955-98; FBA 1958; Reader in Medieval Numismatics, Cambridge University 1959-71, Professor 1971-78 (Emeritus); President, Royal Numismatic Society 1961-66; died Cottenham, Cambridgeshire 15 January 2006.

Philip Grierson, historian and numismatist, had a lifetime of exceptional stability. He went as a student to Gonville and Caius College, Cambridge in 1929; in 1935 he became a Fellow and lived in the college from then on, from 1945 in the same set of rooms overlooking the Market Place.

Thither came history students to be taught medieval history, and a wider circle to enjoy his gramophone records and science fiction - and in later years his videos and classic and horror films, and sherry parties. As time passed, more and more friends came from all over the globe to visit the most eminent living expert on the coinage of medieval Europe. Yet he also greatly enjoyed travel, which took him to Russia, out of curiosity, to Germany in the 1930s to help a Jewish family find sanctuary, to Italy and elsewhere over many years, for research and conferences; and he was a part-time Professor of Numismatics and the History of Coinage in Brussels, an honorary curator in Dumbarton Oaks in Washington, DC, and a visiting professor in Cornell University.

Meanwhile, he defied the iron laws of economics by harnessing a modest inheritance and an English academic salary to finance the world's greatest collection of medieval coins. National museums surpass his score of the coins of their own countries; but Grierson's is supreme as a representative collection covering the whole field. In the process of collecting, he opened windows in every corner of the history of medieval currency.

Grierson's preparation at Marlborough College was primarily scientific; but he became a voracious reader of great works of history. In 1929 he went to Caius and transferred to History, becoming a pupil of my father, Z.N. Brooke. In due course he took a brilliant degree, reflected in the award of the college's Schuldham Plate - and he won the Lightfoot Scholarship for ecclesiastical history.

When Grierson began research, Z.N. Brooke introduced him to the eminent Belgian medievalist François-Louis Ganshof - thus opening for Grierson a lifelong friendship with the Ganshof family and many of their compatriots. In 1935 came a research fellowship at Caius; and throughout the 1930s and 1940s he was at work on the history and chronicles of the Flemish abbeys of the early and mid-Middle Ages.

In 1939, at the outbreak of the Second World War, he was unable to volunteer for military service for medical reasons - strangely enough, for he remained extremely active to an advanced age and celebrated his 80th birthday by playing squash. In due course, he became a teaching fellow and was appointed to university teaching posts. But opportunities for research in Belgium dried up, and his interests began to shift towards more secular economic history.

In 1945 a chance discovery of some coins in his father's study opened a new era. Philip Grierson bought a few to illustrate his teaching, and he was rapidly infected with the zeal of a collector and a scholar's ardent search for knowledge. Medieval coins were not as fashionable then as they later became; even so, exceptional skill and dedication were needed to achieve his spectacular success as a collector.

Over the years he unloosed a flight of articles on all manner of numismatic problems. His subjects ranged from the Sutton Hoo ship to the court of Abd al-Malik, from "Commerce in the Dark Ages" to "The monetary pattern of sixteenth-century coinage". After the articles came the treatises, large and small, on medieval coinage, and above all the great catalogues. In mid-career, he sold his collection of Byzantine coins to the Dumbarton Oaks Center in Washington, DC: this provided funds to enrich his western holdings, yet meant no cessation of his Byzantine interests: he was for some years more than ever involved in cataloguing the Dumbarton Oaks collection, an adventure in which he took a leading share.

In the 1980s, Grierson's colleagues became much concerned to ensure that he himself left a full record of his own collection, and an ambitious scheme was devised, sponsored by the British Academy and the Cambridge University Press, to publish a catalogue which was also a manual of the whole subject: of this so far two volumes of Medieval European Coinage have appeared, the first, in 1986, in collaboration with Mark Blackburn, who came first to Cambridge as Grierson's assistant, and has now for many years been Keeper of Coins and Medals at the Fitzwilliam Museum, where the collection is kept which under Grierson's will becomes the property of the museum and the university. In the other volume, published in 1998, his colleague was Lucia Travaini, now Professor of Numismatics at Milan. Grierson had himself nearly completed two other volumes, and a further eight more are under way.

In the 1950s Grierson was Director of Studies in History, and a conscientious lecturer and supervisor. But his main interests lay in research and in the social life of the college. Many later generations of students enjoyed his records and his films, and played squash with him; and in his last years he became an iconic figure among the students: his appearance in hall for dinner on his birthday each year was greeted with loud applause. For his 90th birthday, two characteristic celebrations were planned: a two-day international symposium organised by the Fitzwilliam Museum on "The Transmission of Ideas between Mints in Medieval Europe" and a 24-hour showing of films by the College Film Society.

In his later years, Grierson received many prizes and honours, including an honorary degree from his own university (1993) and, above all, election as President (deputy to the Master) of Caius, 1966-76. When he presided in hall, his colleagues were expected to eat with dispatch so as not to cut short an evening of research - or at the cinema. He could be brusque and tactless; but his warmth and kindness were well understood by his colleagues, and he was deeply respected and greatly loved.

In November 2005, he completed 70 years as a Fellow of Caius and celebrated his 95th birthday, but, sadly, his health was failing.

Christopher Brooke