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Obituary: Georges Duby

In French, the word histoire means both history and story. The great scholar Georges Duby was both a historian and a teller of stories. His main theme was the daily life of the Middle Ages in France, a period he brought vividly to life with a display of erudition so gracefully presented that one is hardly conscious of reading a work of scholarship, for he was first and foremost a fine writer, with a gift for capturing his readers' attention in his seemingly casual arrangement of the mosaic of human pains and pleasures that underlay a firm, clear grasp of the movements of history. He was one of the most prolific, and most popular of medieval historians.

"I always wanted to put myself in the skin of the men and women of the Middle Ages," he once declared. "When I was studying Saint Bernard, I tried to think as he did." Such an approach is the privilege of the serious novelist. To find it in a historian was for me a revelation of what history really meant, for I had detested the subject at school, where I already felt that history taught us nothing. Duby utterly transformed the recreation of historical times. "In fact," he wrote, "social history is the whole of history."

He was born with an acute sense of social values, and from his childhood in the ancient Marais district of Paris, where his father was a feather- dyer for both haute couture and the extravaganzas of the Folies Bergere, he was able to observe all layers of society at first hand. One might almost say that in the Marais he was already familiar with the essential social structures of the medieval world, both courtly and crude, both luxurious and labouring. Perhaps that is why he claimed he became a historian only by accident.

He started off as a student of geography, a solid base for historical comparisons between the tides of men and the evolutions of countrysides and cities. After graduating in 1942, he started teaching and working for his doctoral thesis which centred on medieval society in the region of Macon. It was then that he gained a vision of what history signified: "A society, like a landscape, is a system whose multiple elements determine its structure and its evolution; and the relations between these factors are not demonstrations of cause and effect, but of correlations, interferences . . ." He did his fieldwork on foot and on bicycle, and as he plunged into the treasures of research afforded by the documents of Cluny, he found obscure place names he was already familiar with on his daily explorations of the countryside. That intense intimacy with the very roots of human behaviour and everyday culture was to illuminate and bring to immediate life the various themes of all his works.

He became assistant professor of medieval history at Besancon in 1949, and in 1951 was made full professor at the university of Aix-en-Provence, a post in which he spent the rest of his academic life, in a country house near the slopes of Cezanne's Mont Sainte- Victoire.

Duby loved art and architecture, and was an excellent artist who counted many painters among his close friends. Among them were Andre Masson, whom he persuaded to create designs for works by Mallarme, Coleridge, Sade and Malraux, and to undertake one of his masterpieces, the ceiling of the Odeon in Paris. He often visited Soulages at his studio in Sete, and advised him on the designs for the windows he fashioned for the abbey church at Conques, in which we can see a combination of medieval scholarship and a passion for the use of modern art in ancient architectural settings.

Duby became professor at the College de France in Paris from 1970, making the journey there each week from Aix. He held the Chair of History of Medieval Societies. In 1974, he entered the Institut and published the three volumes of his Histoire de la France rurale.

But he was no ordinary professor. Together with his academic tasks, he took on public works that were an accurate expression of his inborn sense of social duty to his fellow men. He took on the presidency of a supervisory council for television programmes on Channel 7 (later to become present- day Arte). It was his ambition to make television the tool of art and to educate viewers with the persuasive enthusiasm he himself felt for all forms of culture, for he believed that:

art is the expression of a social organisation, of society in its entirety, in its beliefs and in its ideas about itself. It is obvious that a historic monument can tell us as much as texts and documents about what men of times past were doing and thinking, and because such a monument says these things in a different way, it tells us more than words can do.

The publisher Albert Skira commissioned Duby to compose a three-volume history of art in the Middle Ages (1966-67), and the most popular of these books, L'Europe des Cathedrales, led him to write a sequel, Le Temps des Cathedrales, which he made into one of the most magnificent television art documentaries ever seen, in which the quality of the visuals equals the quality of the writing in Duby's exemplary script - discreet, yet lyrical when necessary, and with touches of irony and malicious wit at the expense of more conventional professors. Only 10 years later, it is hard to imagine such entrancing programmes ever being presented again - or if so, only at two in the morning.

In his later works, Georges Duby turned more and more towards literary and artistic themes, as in the epic historical battle drama of Le Dimanche de Bouvines (1973), and, in 1984, the story of an English knight-at-arms, Guillaume le Marechal, a lively picaresque biography of a courtly hero and his endless tourneys, duels, bravados and other rituals of the sword, based on the 2,000-line verse chronicle by his son Guillaume le Jeune. This book was originally commissioned as a script for radio, one in which Duby displayed his great dramatic flair and literary versatility to the full. He was a passionate cinema-goer, and he was overjoyed at being asked to prepare a scenario for a film of Dimanche de Bouvines. But the materialism of the 1980s and the demands for "easy" viewing gradually extinguished this ambitious project, which could have equalled the battle scenes in Welles's The Chimes at Midnight and the medieval courtly formalism of Eric Rohmer's Perceval le Gallois (1978) with Chretien de Troyes's octosyllabic lines.

In 1987, Duby was elected to the chair of Marcel Arland at the Academie francaise as "the most illustrious of all French medievalists". The other honours showered upon him both at home and abroad are too numerous to list here, but they include election to the American Medieval Academy and the American Philosophical Society, the British Academy and the Royal Historical Society.

But for this man of the present who was also a man of the past the greatest honour was the admiration of thousands of readers all over the world he loved and celebrated in all its varied aspects.

James Kirkup

Georges Michel Claude Duby, medieval historian: born Paris 7 October 1919; married 1942 Andree Combier (one son, two daughters); died Aix-en- Provence 3 December 1996.