Obituary: T. A. M. Bishop

Click to follow
The Independent Online
Terence Alan Martyn Bishop, palaeographer: born 10 November 1907; Assistant Master, Glenalmond College 1930-31; Lecturer in Medieval History, Balliol College, Oxford 1946-47; Reader in Palaeography and Diplomatic, Cambridge University 1947-73; FBA 1971; died London 29 March 1994.

A SCHOLAR of great learning and generosity, T. A. M. Bishop made a distinctive contribution to the study of palaeography and early medieval history in Britain.

He did so first of all through his teaching while Reader in Palaeography and Diplomatic at Cambridge University from 1947 to 1973. Students of medieval history, literature and music fortunate enough to be taught by him in small classes found a man of great shyness and reserve yet seemingly boundless in what he would offer in the way of inspiration, instruction and advice as to the formation of letters, the methods of copying by scribes and the structuring of texts in medieval books and documents.

He was able to put himself in the mind of a medieval scribe and reconstruct decisions and reasons for mistakes. Listening to him as he provided an exposition of what kind of exemplar a scribe may have worked from was a revelation. He assembled a remarkable range of teaching facsimiles, but had also devised his own teaching aids to help students learn the characteristics of letter forms and their changes over the fifteen hundred years from Roman antiquity to the Renaissance.

Bishop prided himself on his prose style and his lectures were set out like early medieval biblical texts per cola et commata. He was, too, extraordinarily kind in his concern for his students' welfare and for their futures. Deeply committed in the discipline of palaeography and diplomatic and its role in the study of the Middle Ages, he found it a matter of great sadness and disquiet that the hard-won formal appointment for the teaching of palaeography in the Faculty of History in Cambridge was allowed to lapse on his retirement. He recognised it for the disservice to medieval scholarship and graduate students of medieval history that it was, even though teaching in the subject has since been maintained despite the lack of an established post.

In seminal essays of his own, Bishop's contributions to palaeographical method and to the study of English script in particular were outstanding. His facsimile edition (with Pierre Chaplais) of English Royal Writs (1957) and his Scriptores Regis (1961) placed these administrative documents in an entirely new light and facilitated understanding of the working of the English chancery and royal government in the Middle Ages.

His study of English Caroline Minuscule (1971) remains a classic. The book classifies and surveys a distinctive script, English Caroline minuscule, based on the Frankish Caroline minuscule developed in the eighth and ninth centuries. Bishop identified, in exemplary fashion, many hitherto unknown examples, and documented a concerted drive to multiply texts, many in connection with the monastic reforms of the later 10th century, in a formative period in English history.

His articles on English and Continental manuscripts in Cambridge collections, published in the Transactions of the Cambridge Bibliographical Society, are gems of meticulous scholarship and acute judgement. His interest in the formation of scripts, the role of Caroline minuscule in that formation and the identification of the work and letter-forms of individual scribes culminated in the Lyell Lectures in Oxford in 1975.

These constituted the first fruits of a study of the scriptorium of Corbie, one of the most important monasteries in the Carolingian world, and remarkable for its intellectual activities, its productive scholars, its range of classical and patristic texts in the eighth and ninth centuries, and its leading role in the formation of Caroline minuscule scripts.

Bishop provided definitive identification and discussion of the individual scribes active in this centre on the evidence of the manuscripts now surviving for the most part in Paris and St Petersburg. He took an impish delight in positing the existence of a group of nuns, perhaps at Soissons, working in association with the monks of Corbie, responsible for the curious script known as 'a-b' which survives in a large number of late eighth- and early ninth-century codices.

It is a lasting tragedy that these lectures, and the copious documentation and illustrations that accompanied them, have not yet been published. The work on Corbie was augmented by definitive papers on the script of John Scotus Eriugena, a brilliant Irish philosopher in the west Frankish kingdom in the second half of the ninth century, and two of his disciples, and on the text transmission of John the Scot's greatest work, Periphyseon. These were of vital importance in establishing the nature and extent of the influence exerted by the Irishman.

Alan Bishop was educated at Christ's Hospital and Keble College, Oxford, and graduated in Classics and History in 1931. After school teaching posts he served during the Second World War in the Royal Artillery. He spent a year as Lecturer at Balliol College, Oxford, before becoming Reader in Palaeography and Diplomatic at Cambridge in 1947.

Among continental scholars at conferences abroad, Alan Bishop could be surprisingly gregarious for such a reclusive man, and very good company. He took great pleasure in his flat in the Norman manor house at Hemingford Grey, near Huntingdon, and was able to indulge his passions for gardening, especially growing strawberries, and for riding. Towards the end of his life he became increasingly reluctant to engage in correspondence; it was not unknown for letters to be returned still sealed and marked 'Gone Away' in Bishop's distinctive hand. After his move to Wimbledon he was seen less frequently at academic meetings, but he continued to work on Corbie for as long as he could. It is to be hoped that it will be possible for something to be retrieved from his Nachlass.