Obituary: Professor Stephan Kuttner

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The Independent Online
Stephan Kuttner, the historian of canon law, was one of the last of those giants of European scholarship whom a combination of the grace of God and sheer good fortune preserved for civilisation at a time when the grace of God, good fortune and civilisation itself seemed otherwise to be in short supply.

A man of profound and discriminating culture, Kuttner was a brilliant musician and accomplished pianist who might have made a career in musical composition. On the occasion of his 80th birthday there was a family party attended by 40 or more of his children, grandchildren and great-grandchildren. Serenading it was a string quartet which performed the usual repertoire, Schubert, Mozart etc. But what was that last piece, Kuttner enquired? It was was a quartet of his own, from the early 1930s.

The year 1990 saw the first performance of his Missa brevis. "Harmony from Dissonance", the title of his 1960 Wimmer Lecture, was as much an account of the lecturer's view of the world at large, and of his hopes for it, as it was of the particular issues of medieval canon law with which the lecture was concerned. With Stephan Kuttner everything connected.

He might equally have made his way as a poet. At Christmas 1992 he sent his friends copies of his Gedichte. Together with works of his own, which the wider world will never see, alas, these included some exquisitely sensitive translations of Holderlin. In his last months he resigned himself entirely to the blandishments of those two muses. In 1933, however, as well as marrying Eva Illch, with whom for ever after he comprised a single radiant entity, he had opted for legal history.

Of Jewish descent and Lutheran upbringing, as a young man Kuttner converted to Catholicism. Also in 1933 (fateful year), he was forced to leave his native Germany and began work in the Vatican Library on the project for which, above all others, workers in the field will continue to bless him, his Repertorium der Kanonistik (1937). He had identified a new area of medieval scholarship and, at a stroke, transformed it, providing a firm basis for the study of medieval canon law and demonstrating, once and for all, why the central place he claimed for it was one to which its claim was irrefutable.

Not everyone in Major's Britain will appreciate the significance of that. It is in Major's Europe that, like it or not, the fact remains that the law by which medieval Europe's society was regulated was the law of the medieval church.

The heroic search for canonistic manuscripts which Kuttner undertook throughout those parts of Europe still accessible to someone of his antecedents in the late 1930s remains one of the great one-man scholarly enterprises of modern times. Everywhere he went he encountered new curiosities. In Cambridge, for example, he found the fellow-librarian of one of its colleges with a cup of tea perched on one knee, a medieval manuscript on the other, and a pipe in his mouth which, despite his young visitor's protestations, he insisted on leaning over to light from the open fire. Half a century later, Kuttner still shuddered at the memory.

In 1940 the Kuttners were exiled for a second time. The story of their flight from the Vatican, Stephan taking one route, Eva and the children the other, the same at Lisbon airport with Stephan on one side of the enclosure, his family on the other, and interested German agents looking on, might so easily have turned out differently. It very nearly did.

If it had - and but for the intervention of the cardinal patriarch of Lisbon it surely would have - then the history of medieval scholarship would have turned out differently too. As it was, from Lisbon the Kuttners moved to Washington, initially on a two-year appointment at the Catholic University. There, in 1943 Kuttner founded the journal Traditio, and in 1955 he established the Institute of Medieval Canon Law to which, successively at Washington, Yale and Berkeley, scholars from all over the world flocked to work with him.

His intellectual distinction was recognised by the 17 universities from which he received honorary doctorates between 1952 and 1989, and was acknowledged by membership of the Institut de France and the German Order Pour le Merite.

One of the present century's truly inspirational teachers, Kuttner combined scrupulous attention to textual minutiae with a generous and wide-ranging appreciation of the complex inter-relationship of law and life - and not only medieval law and life. In 1967 Pope Paul VI recruited him to serve on the Pontifical Commission for the Revision of the Code of Canon Law. Yet above all it was his Institute and the series of Congresses of the History of Medieval Canon Law over which he presided for almost 40 years by which his distinctive contribution to international scholarship will always be remembered.

With the passage of years, increasingly he appeared a patriarch, which he was. But he was also an imp. On a golden day in Cambridge in 1984, during the Seventh Congress, he delivered a luminous lecture on Gratian, the father of canon law. This, as it turned out, was his swan-song to the Europe that had lost him, the Europe to which, the older he got, he seemed increasingly eager to return from his eventual Californian retreat. But only for short spells. For he loved California. Its climate suited his temperament. Also he liked to swim. His voice was ever soft, gentle and low. It was on the first day of the recent Tenth Congress at Syracuse, New York, that he died.

Dogged by institutional problems to which a scholar of his stature ought never to have been subjected, Kuttner in his last years was attended by the expectation, an expectation which he sometimes encouraged, of a revised Repertorium. Those who regarded this as a serious possibility had underestimated his concern for perfection however. Sure, there was material enough for a full-scale revision of that seminal work. Over the previous half century Kuttner himself had accumulated it. What there was not was time enough for its organisation by a scholar who would not be hurried because there was no hurry. For all his innumerable works of scholarship, published and republished, for Stephan Kuttner there was no rush because there was an eternity of scholarship stretching out ahead. Kuttner enjoyed that confidence, a confidence born of deep faith. Together with his beloved wife and his ever-sustaining family, his sense of eternity was all that mattered and his enduring strength.

Peter Linehan

Stephan George Kuttner, historian of the middle ages and canon law: born Bonn, Germany 24 March 19O7; Assistant, School of Law, University of Berlin 1929-32; Research Associate, Vatican Library 1933-40; Professor of History of Canon Law, Catholic University of America, Washington 1940- 64; Riggs Professor of Roman Catholic Studies, Yale University 1964-70; Professor of Law and Director of the Robbins Collection, University of California- Berkeley 1970-89 (Emeritus); married 1933 Eva Susanne Illch (five sons, three daughters and one son deceased); died Berkeley, California 12 August 1996.