Professor Sir Peter Russell

Iconoclastic Hispanist who was for 28 years King Alfonso XIII Professor of Spanish Studies at Oxford


Peter Edward Lionel Russell Wheeler, Spanish and Portuguese scholar: born Christchurch, New Zealand 24 October 1913; adopted the surname Russell by deed poll 1929; College Lecturer, St John's College, Oxford 1937-53; College Lecturer, Queen's College, Oxford 1938-46, Fellow 1946-53; University Lecturer in Spanish Studies, Oxford University 1946-53, King Alfonso XIII Professor of Spanish Studies 1953-81 (Emeritus), Director of Portuguese Studies 1953-81; Fellow, Exeter College, Oxford 1953-81 (Emeritus); FBA 1977; Kt 1995; died Oxford 22 June 2006.

Peter Russell was one of the very few scholars who achieve equal distinction in historical and literary studies. He wrote major, strikingly original books and articles on the history of late-medieval Castile and Portugal, Prince Henry "the Navigator" and the Portuguese expansion, Anglo-Spanish historical and literary relations, the Castilian epic, the dialogue novel Celestina, Cervantes, and the theory and practice of literary translation in the late Middle Ages; his work ranged from the early 13th to the early 17th century.

Born in New Zealand (like so many of the leading British medievalists), Russell was educated at Cheltenham College and at Queen's College, Oxford, where he read Spanish, French and Portuguese. He was of the first generation of British Hispanists to take a first degree in their subject (those appointed to chairs of Spanish in the 1920s and 1930s had first degrees in Classics, English, or even Mathematics).

After graduating in 1935 he began research for a thesis on 14th-century Iberian history under the supervision of William J. Entwistle. The thesis was never completed, but the research soon bore fruit in two substantial articles (1938 and 1940) and, in unusual circumstances, in a short book, As Fontes de Fernão Lopes (1941).

Russell had given a lecture in London, showing that Lopes, unlike the generality of medieval historians, made extensive use of archival material in his chronicles; this discovery revolutionised studies on Lopes and, more widely, on late-medieval Iberian historical writing. Posted to Lisbon in the Second World War, he found in a bookshop a small book on his own subject, and closer inspection revealed that he was the author: a Portuguese colleague who had borrowed the typescript of an expanded version of the lecture had, without telling him, translated it into Portuguese and arranged for it to be published. In due course, a much bigger book was to come out of that research, the massively authoritative The English Intervention in Spain and Portugal in the Time of Edward III and Richard II (1955).

He began teaching in 1937, only two years after his BA, as a Lecturer at St John's College, Oxford, and, from 1938, at Queen's, but the war soon supervened. He was commissioned in the Intelligence Corps in December 1940, rising to lieutenant-colonel. He had a good war, exciting and mysterious. It should be said that he did little to dispel the mystery: when a colleague asked him long afterwards whether he had been in MI5 or MI6, the answer was: "Both."

He was posted to Lisbon to keep an eye on the Duke of Windsor and - if we are to believe persistent Oxford rumours - to shoot him if he tried to defect to Germany. Later, from 1942 to 1946, came service (enigmatically described as "specially employed") in the Caribbean, various parts of West Africa, and the Far East (where, again according to Oxford rumour, he spent some time up a tree in Java with a short-wave radio).

Demobilised, he returned to Oxford, and was promptly appointed a University Lecturer and elected a Fellow of Queen's. He became a steadily more effective tutor (one of his pupils was Robert Pring-Mill, who was to follow him into the British Academy). And he was, when I first heard him in 1950, a remarkable lecturer: his lectures were clear, well structured, grounded in wide reading and much thought, and from time to time iconoclastic.

In autumn 1951 he told a startled audience that the best-known Spanish epic, the Cantar de Mio Cid, was not, as we had all believed, composed by a minstrel soon after the hero's death, but was the work of a learned poet, probably a lawyer, writing a hundred years later. The reasoning behind this was cogent, the evidence massive. How could anyone have missed the point? Yet I doubt whether Russell would have noticed without a collision of two worlds, his historical research and the need to give a course of lectures on the Cantar.

When this discovery was published in the Modern Language Review the next year, the journal's Hispanic editor was so alarmed that he wrote to the great and venerable Spanish scholar Ramón Menéndez Pidal to assure him that no disrespect was intended. That article was a turning-point in epic studies, and although details have been modified the main structure stands, towering over the academic landscape. Its 50th anniversary was celebrated by a symposium at which Peter Russell spoke (the papers were published within a few months, in time for his 89th birthday).

Other iconoclastic studies followed. In 1953 an article showed that literary relations between Protestant England and Catholic Spain in the 17th century were closer than had been supposed. A lecture given in 1960 questioned the reputation of a Portuguese culture hero, Prince Henry the Navigator - questioned it so thoroughly that the Portuguese Embassy leant hard on the lecture's sponsors to prevent publication (they failed).

Russell's 1969 article "Don Quixote as a Funny Book" was convincing in its criticism of some of the more solemn interpretations of Cervantes's work, but unfortunately it encouraged other Hispanists to find humour in less likely places, and one book after another was said to be comic. In 1976 he studied the often-cited but little-read 16th-century commentary on Fernando de Rojas's Celestina and drew attention to the ways in which Rojas's legal expertise affected his work.

In June 1952 Entwistle, the King Alfonso XIII Professor of Spanish Studies, died suddenly and unexpectedly. It was early for Russell to try for a major chair, not so much because of his age (Entwistle had been two years younger when he was elected) but because the war had restricted his publications. Only the short book on Fernão Lopes and four articles had been published, and the 630 pages of the Intervention were not yet ready for the printer. The field of candidates included a senior but weak Oxford Hispanist and an eminent professor from Scotland, but the electors recognised quality and potential, and at 39 Peter Russell took up the chair, which carried with it a Fellowship at Exeter College, and simultaneously became Director of Portuguese Studies.

He held all these posts until his retirement in 1981. This meant a big change in his teaching duties: he continued to give university lectures, but no longer gave tutorials (except in one specialised area), and he began to supervise theses (meticulously and thoughtfully - I was one of the first beneficiaries of this).

The list of publications grew, amply justifying, in their number and their quality, the judgement of the electors. There were two important books (the Intervention and a collection of articles, Temas de La Celestina y otros estudios del Cid al Quijote, 1978), three pamphlets, and 32 articles; moreover, he edited that invaluable work of reference Spain: a companion to Spanish studies (1973).

And retirement did not mean leisure: as well as nearly 20 articles he published Cervantes in the Past Masters series and Traducciones y traductores en la Península Ibérica, 1400-1550, both in 1985, an edition of Celestina, with long introduction and abundant notes, for a leading Spanish series of classics (1991, with revised editions in 1993 and 2001), a collection of his historical articles, (Portugal, Spain and the African Atlantic 1343-1490, 1995), and, as the crowning achievement of a lifetime's scholarship, Prince Henry "the Navigator": a life (2000). It would be hard to overstate the quality and importance of this body of work.

He sometimes said in his last decade that he was stopping research, but he never did: he took great pleasure in checking the Portuguese translations of his two longest books, articles came out almost until the end, and he was working on an edition, left unfinished, of a 15th-century translation of Vegetius.

Election to the King Alfonso XIII Chair did not mean headship of a department, since Oxford had, and still has, no departments of modern languages: there is a Faculty of Medieval and Modern Languages, which in cluded a Sub-Faculty of Spanish and Portuguese (now divided into two). Each has an elected chairman, and in theory the professor has no more power than any other member. But theory is not always a guide to practice: Peter Russell had been in Oxford since he was 19, and because of that, and by temperament, and perhaps because of the nature of his war service, he knew exactly which buttons to press.

And press them he did, ruling unchallenged until his retirement; indeed, he went on pressing them for some time afterwards. He, like other Oxford Hispanists, is portrayed - for the most part quite unfairly - in the novels of Javier Marías, published in the 1990s (an awful warning to professors who think of appointing novelists as language assistants).

It would not have been good for Russell to spend all his time in Oxford after retirement, and he did not need to: visiting professorships at Virginia, Vanderbilt, Texas, and Johns Hopkins gave a generation or two of American students the superb teaching that so many Oxford students had enjoyed.

Honours, richly deserved, came to him in abundance, among them election as Fellow of the British Academy, an Oxford DLitt and, in 1995, a knighthood. He received a Festschrift on his retirement, two more on his 80th birthday, and a fourth in 2002.

Alan Deyermond

May I add two comments to Professor Alan Deyermond's full account of Sir Peter Russell's career? writes Professor Ian Michael.

First, his work in British Intelligence appears to have begun earlier than stated, probably in 1938 during the Spanish Civil War, when he told me that he was detained by the Spanish Civil Guard on the Cíes Isles at the mouth of the Vigo estuary while photographing one of the few Spanish battleships that had not remained loyal to the Republican government. After being interrogated by two German SS officers in the Hotel Atlántico, he was invited to dinner by them and given a stamp in his passport to leave Spain the next day via the international bridge at Túy, en route to Oporto.

Secondly, he was not at all displeased at being the inspiration for the leading character in four of the novels of Javier Marías, whom I appointed to the post of Lecturer by Decree at Oxford from 1983 to 1985. These include: All Souls (1989); Dark Back of Time (1998); Your Face Tomorrow: 1, Fever and Spear (2002) and 2, Dance and Dream (2004) ­ a third volume is in progress. Peter considered that Javier (elected to the Royal Spanish Academy seven days after Peter's death) had offered him literary immortality, and gladly agreed to become a duke in the writer's imaginary kingdom of Redonda in 1999.

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