Obituary: Professor Denys Hay

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The Independent Online
Denys Hay, historian, born 29 August 1915; Assistant Lecturer, University College, Southampton 1939; served RASC 1940-42; War Historian (Civil Departments) 1942-45; lecturer, Edinburgh University 1945-54, Professor of Medieval History, 1954- 80 (Emeritus), Vice-Principal 1971- 75; Literary Director, RHistS 1955- 58; Trustee, National Library of Scotland 1966-88; President, Historical Association 1967-70; President, Ecclesiastical Historical Society 1980- 81; Professor of History, European Institute, Badia Fiesolana 1980-82; married 1937 Gwyneth Morley (one son, two daughters); died Edinburgh 14 June 1994.

DENYS HAY was outstanding among a generation of historians whose careers began shortly before the Second World War, and his contribution to historical scholarship was immense and varied.

Educated at the Royal Grammar School, Newcastle upon Tyne, and at Balliol College, Oxford, Hay held two academic posts and had published his first articles before being called up in 1940. After two years' service with the RASC he was seconded for three years to the Cabinet Office as a war historian. Following demobilisation, he was appointed to a lectureship in the History Department at Edinburgh University, and was Professor of Medieval History there from 1954 to 1980.

They were productive years, not one of them was without some publication of note. Hay's earlier work on the Renaissance historian and man of letters Polydore Vergil was completed with an edition of the Anglica Historica (1950) and a definitive study of the man and his work (1952), and from then on there were three dominant themes in his literary production: the Renaissance in Italy and its impact in other parts of Europe, Religion and the Church in the 15th century, and European historiography. In all three areas he has left his mark. The Italian Renaissance in its Historical Background (1961) - arguably his most important work - was followed, among much else, by Italian Clergy and Italian Culture in the 15th Century (1973) and The Italian Church in the 15th Century (1977). His last book, on Italy in the Age of the Renaissance, written with John Law, appeared in 1989.

Hay was no narrow specialist, nor was he an archive historian, whose scholarship depended upon painstaking work in manuscript repositories. His books and articles in his chosen fields are the product of wide and penetrating historical scholarship, of lively discussion with his colleagues in the historical profession, and they owe much to his teaching at Edinburgh, where he inspired many students. The latter is most evident in his books From Roman Empire to Renaissance Europe (first published in 1953; retitled as The Medieval Centuries, 1964), Europe in the 14th and 15th centuries (1966) and Annalists and Historians: Western historiography from the eighth to the eighteenth centuries (1977), which derived directly from courses which he taught in Edinburgh; but it is also true in some measure of some of his more specialised works. 'Teaching', he once said, 'is what earns us our bread and butter'; in his view it was primary to the academic profession, and few university teachers could do it better. I recall well his beginning a lecture by placing a map of Italy upside-down on the blackboard. When this was drawn to his attention he retorted: 'I know. That is how Dante saw Italy.' You could not readily forget it.

His activity in teaching and writing continued alongside other commitments. From 1955 to 1958 he was Literary Director of the Royal Historical Society, and from 1959 to 1967 Editor of the English Historical Review. Thereafter he served as President of the Historical Association for three years, and was elected a Fellow of the British Academy in 1970. He was Dean of Faculty concurrently with the editorship for two years in the early Sixties, and from 1971 to 1975 Vice- Principal of the university. How he found time for all this is astonishing; but here again the past inspired him: the duality of scholarship and public office which characterised the civic humanists of the Renaissance he admired and wrote so eloquently about, and the example of William Robertson, the historian and Principal of the university at the end of the 18th century, whose portrait by Raeburn, on the walls of the Old Senate Room, presided over many an arduous committee meeting.

Following his retirement from the Chair at Edinburgh in 1980, Hay was Visiting Professor at the University of Virginia, then Professor of History at the European University at Badia Fiesolana, near Florence.

Such a distinguished career owed much to a happy family life, in particular to his devoted and supportive wife, Gwyneth, to an extrovert and engaging personality, and to an impish sense of humour which endeared him to his many friends and colleagues. The Edinburgh Graduate Seminar named after him will miss the incisive questioning which frequently began with 'I seem to remember reading somewhere . . .', to disguise a profound knowledge of the subject to the uninitiated, and both the University Library and National Library of Scotland (of which he was a trustee) have lost a steadfast friend.

Books and libraries were one of his great loves, and those unfamiliar with his work could do worse than to commence with the collection of articles reprinted in his Renaissance Essays (1988). The breadth of scholarship here revealed is truly astounding, and the author's humanity apparent. In 'Fiat Lux', a piece ostensibly on the invention of printing, the past, present and a glimpse into the future of human communication are seen in a continuum, and the conviction voiced that the printed page, which 'illuminates the mind of man and defies, in so far as anything sublunary can, the corrosive hand of Time, will remain the only way by which one age can speak to another'.

To future generations of historians these words could serve as Denys Hay's own commemoration.

(Photograph omitted)