Obituary: Joy Russell

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The Independent Online
Joyceline Gledhill Dickinson, historian: born Bradford 29 July 1919; Librarian, St Hugh's College, Oxford 1953-80, Official Fellow 1959-80, Lecturer in Modern History 1962-69, Tutor in Modern History 1969-80, Emeritus Fellow 1980-93; married 1967 Donald Russell; died Oxford 19 March 1993.

JOY RUSSELL, though by inclination a Renaissance historian, was directed into the particular path of diplomatic studies by her experiences in the war and subsequently.

As Joy Dickinson, from Bradford Girls' Grammar School, she entered Somerville College, Oxford, in 1937 as the senior scholar of her year. In the summer of 1940, immediately after completing her History Finals, she joined up. She entered the ATS as a private but was soon commissioned, and served at the War Office in the Adjutant General's Department. After the war, she served for a year with Unesco in London and Paris. Her experiences in this year inspired her return to Oxford with the intention of working on late medieval international relations. The particular direction of her early research she owed to the expert guidance of her supervisor John Armstrong.

Her thesis, which became her first book, examined the making of the Treaty of Arras in 1435. The treaty, though a landmark in Burgundian-French relations, did not achieve the general peace that its papal patron had hoped for. Joy Dickinson, however, was as much interested in the matter as in the matter of the treaty. In The Field of Cloth of Gold, the first book she published after her marriage in 1967 to the classicist Donald Russell, she extended her exploration of the social and political setting of diplomacy. She enjoyed the spectacle of Renaissance diplomacy, but saw through it to the backrooms where all the hard work was done.

In Peace-Making in the Renaissance (1986) her focus of interest shifted to the conventions and machinery, including propaganda, of peace-making. Diplomats at Work (1992) - as it proved to be, her last book - contains a highly original discussion of the importance of the language and linguistic conventions of diplomacy. If Renaissance diplomacy was her main concern as a scholar, Joy Russell nevertheless had wide historical interests, and her friends were never surprised to receive the illuminating postcard with a reference she had chanced to come by, on the making of ale in the 15th century, or the idiosyncrasies of medieval costume.

Joy Russell's work on Renaissance diplomacy lay in an area now unfashionable with most English-speaking historians. (Things are different in Germany.) Her writings, then, although highly respected and universally cited, did not at first provoke the critical debate that they always deserved. From her first book onwards she was in fact suggesting an important reorientation of diplomatic history, whereby it became a reflection of contemporary culture, as well as a matter of hard bargaining which to some extent of necessity had its own rules. Her description of 15th- and early 16th-century diplomacy, based as it was on what she would have much disliked hearing described as a multi-disciplinary and multi-cultural understanding of the world her diplomats inhabited, contained more insights into intellectual and political change than that of many other authorities. Her diplomats and the rulers they served were always described with the same humane, but never uncritical, amusement as that with which she regarded colleagues in faculty and college.

She talked rapidly, and with few pauses, yet her partners in what could rarely, in truth, be called a dialogue always came away feeling that they had made witty and intelligent observations. They came away, too, with the conviction that a friend of rare generosity of spirit truly shared their own interests and concerns.

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