1987 Balzan Prize for Medieval History
The enduring value of the contribution of Richard Southern (1912 – 2001) to the study of the Middle Ages is founded upon his scholarly knowledge and sensitive interpretation of the language, forms and conventions of medieval texts and documents of all kinds: philosophical, ecclesiastical, legal, administrative and narrative. Texts are the work of individuals, and Southern’s interest throughout his career has been focussed in the first instance on notable individuals who deeply influenced the intellectual and religious developments of their times. His early interest in the correspondence of St. Anselm culminated not only in his edition of Eadmer’s Life of Anselm in 1962 but also in a remarkable book, published in the following year, St. Anselm and his Biographer, which illustrates in a striking way the three outstanding characteristics of Southern’s work.
One of these characteristics is his unfailing recognition of the fact that worthwhile generalization at a high historical level must depend on getting the details right at the level of textual criticism and codicology; the stability of a building depends on its foundations.
Secondly, he recognises that there is more to a building than its foundations. His imaginative sympathy with the people about whom he writes enables him to bring to life not just the social and material circumstances in which they lived and worked, but, what is both more difficult and more important, their inner life, their values, presuppositions and dilemmas. This is achieved without any false “modernization” (which would be no more helpful than thoughtless “alienation”); he helps the reader to understand, for example, how the rigorous logic of medieval theology could be the product of moral passion in an age distinguished by extremes of violence and piety.
This ability generates the third characteristic of Southern’s work, his interest in the integration of serious thought about religion and law into its political and administrative context – and in the formidable constraints which limited such integration. The determinants of thought and belief in the Middle Ages, human or natural, subtle or primitive, were of widely-differing kinds, and their interaction plays a prominent pan in Sir Richard’s books on the changes and developments in medieval Western views of Islam and on the relations between the Church and secular society.
All these characteristics had already attracted attention, at a comparatively early stage of Southern’s career, in his Making of the Middle Ages (1953), a book of great influence which has appeared in nearly thirty languages. It impressed historians especially by the author’s ability to choose far detailed exploration those particular examples which best illustrate issues of far-reaching importance. The standard which he has set has been an inspiration to younger historians, and his recent book on Robert Grosseteste demonstrates that his activity in research is undiminished.