Obituary: Professor Edward Thompson
Thursday 06 January 1994
EDWARD THOMPSON, a pioneer of the study of Late Antiquity in the English-speaking world, was a scholar of extraordinarily wide interests and a much-loved teacher of many generations of students of Classics at Nottingham University. A man of deep humanity and warm friendships, he carried his learning lightly. If he enjoyed anything more than deflating pretentiousness in others it was turning his wry, ironic wit against himself. When asked why he had got rid of the geese he had been keeping, he characteristically replied 'I found that geese have a very limited sense of humour.'
Thompson received most of his education in Dublin. At school he became a classicist; in consequence, as he later alleged, of the arbitrary choice of the headmaster. He took First Class Honours in Classics at Trinity College in 1936, and proceeded to graduate work there.
A visit to Berlin in 1937-38 as an Exchange Student was to have a powerful influence on Thompson's future. Viewing German militarism with distaste, he then witnessed an incident of Nazi brutality which he never afterwards forgot.
He was on the point of enlisting in the Army at the end of 1941 when an invitation from Professor Ben Farrington took him to Swansea, to teach Greek. Thompson and Farrington became close friends; it was Farrington's influence that converted Thompson to Marxism. His way had been prepared by his experience in Nazi Germany and by the inspiration of his friend the poet Roger Roughton. His reading of Marx, and, especially, of Lenin's The Origins of the Family, left a permanent imprint on his historical work.
Long after his parting with the Communist Party in 1956, when he had come to sit more lightly to Marxist ideology, his interest in the class structure of societies, and in their material basis, continued to give direction to his studies.
Over the 20 years between A History of Attila and the Huns (1948) and his most substantial book, The Goths in Spain (1969), Thompson's interests focused on the barbarian tribes on the borders of the Roman Empire, Huns and Germans, who were to invade and settle in its Western provinces in the fifth and sixth centuries. Everywhere his work shows his fascination with the ways in which a society is affected by change, by the impact on it of its neighbours and its contacts with them.
Thompson's interest in Late Antiquity had been aroused by a chance reading, while still in Dublin, of a passage of the late fourth- century historian Ammianus Marcellinus, on whom he was to write his first book, The Historical Work of Ammianus Marcellinus (1947). In 1945 Thompson moved to King's College London, where Norman Baynes was then a colleague. Despite their very different religious and political views they became good friends. Baynes was a Byzantinist, and one of the tiny handful of British scholars whose interest in the ancient world embraced Late Antiquity. In the huge revival of interest in this period since the Second World War, Thompson's many studies played an important part. When he moved to the Chair of Classics at Nottingham in 1948, his department became one of the principal centres for the study of this field. Two visiting professorships in the United States widened the circle of scholars who felt his influence. His standing was acknowledged by election as a Fellow of the British Academy in 1964.
Thompson stayed at Nottingham until his retirement in 1979. His work came increasingly to concentrate on the last period and the end of Roman rule in the Western provinces, especially in Britain. The last of his books to emerge from these studies, Who was Saint Patrick? (1985), was perhaps his most iconoclastic. Writing terse, lucid and forceful prose, Thompson never flinched from controversy; indeed, he rather enjoyed arousing it. Although inclined to study periods, areas and problems where literary evidence is very tenuous, he always remained slightly aloof from archaeological investigation, and preferred to recall archaeologists to the evidence furnished by literary materials. He was adept at extracting the last ounce of information from the scrappy texts, and from the gaps between their lines, by meticulously precise reading and relentless pursuit of their implications.
Though a scintillating lecturer and a stimulating teacher, at Nottingham Thompson was seen above all as a scholar dedicated to his research. He ran his department through friendship rather than by anything that could be called 'administration', which, indeed, he was apt to treat with mild contempt. Happily settled in retirement Thompson continued to indulge his love of the Yorkshire countryside, of the classics of English literature, and, with his wife Hazel, of entertaining their friends.
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