Sir Richard William Southern, who published as “R.W. Southern,” was a medieval historian born on 8 February (coming up!) 1912 in Newcastle-upon-Tyne. He died at home (I believe, Oxford) on 6 February 2001. Among medieval historians, Southern is one of the greats: a masterful scholar with a lively writing style who was a good, generous teacher. It is a winning, but often elusive, combination.
According to M.H. Keen’s biography of Southern in the Oxford Dictionary of National Biography, among “his family and friends and by his pupils he was always known as Dick.” Obviously, Southern belongs on this blog! Although I was never a friend or pupil of Southern’s (he retired before I was born), I’m going to take liberties and call him Dick. After all, this is a Dick blog (and you might have noticed, careful reader, that I often call people I like Richard or Dick and people I don’t by their last names. This is not 100% true for the cool guys, but I never call the jerks Richard).
Dick attended Balliol College, Oxford from 1929 to 1932 (naturally graduating with a first). After doing some work on a second bachelor’s (related to economics), Dick received a fellowship at Exeter College, Oxford and returned to the welcoming embrace of medieval history. In 1937, Dick became a fellow and tutor back at Balliol, where he taught until he enlisted for military service in the Second World War. It was while he was serving at the Foreign Office that he met his wife, Shelia, whom he married in 1944. The couple had two sons and were very happy together.
After the war, Dick went back to Balliol and kept lecturing and tutoring. Unfortunately, he came down with tuberculosis and had to leave the university in October 1949. Dick spent 1950 in a hospital and a sanatorium, recovering from the lung ailment. Without his busy teaching schedule, and with a lot of time on his hands, Dick wrote his most-famous book, The Making of the Middle Ages. It was published in 1953, quickly became a bestseller, and has been translated into twenty-seven languages. Generally speaking, the book discusses the intellectual, social, and economic developments that intertwined and thereby contributed to the flowering of civilization in the central middle ages. It’s a good book; you should read it.
Dick recovered from his tuberculosis and returned to Oxford. He continued to teach at Balliol until 1960 when he was promoted to the Chichele professorship of modern history at All Souls, Oxford. Despite the title (modern history), this was the top medieval post at Oxford. Explain that!
At All Souls, Dick kept being awesome, helping tons of postgraduate students and publishing work on St. Anselm. Although St Anselm and his Biographer (1963) was a labor of love (and twenty-five years of work), it’s not as famous as The Making of the Middle Ages. It’s still an awesome book; however, it’s a lot longer than The Making, which no doubt had an effect on its popularity.
From 1969 to 1981, Dick was president of St. John’s College, Oxford. During this time, he began to lose his hearing; after his retirement, he succumbed to complete deafness. Dick never let that stop him, though: he gave public lectures into his eighties and he welcomed friends and colleagues into his home. Sometimes people would just have to write down the important parts of the conversation for him to read, and he would easily join in the chatter.
During his retirement, Dick published another great book about another cool medieval person: Robert Grosseteste: the Growth of an English Mind in Medieval Europe (1986). In 1990, Dick published another book about St. Anselm, and he was working on a trilogy about medieval universities when he died. Volumes one and two made it to press (volume two in the year of his death), but it looks like volume three will never be forthcoming: Dick hadn’t progressed far enough in his work for what he left behind to be published.
Finally, Dick was knighted in 1974. That’s such an appropriate honor for a medievalist.
M. H. Keen, ‘Southern, Sir Richard William (1912–2001)’, Oxford Dictionary of National Biography, Oxford University Press, Jan 2005; online edn, Jan 2009 [http://www.oxforddnb.com.]