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Obituary: Professor John Bossy FBA

Posted on 30 October 2015

We regret to announce that Professor John Bossy of the history department, died on 23 October, at the age of 82.

Image credit: David Wootton

John Bossy (1933-23 October 2015) was one of the most distinguished scholars ever to teach in York. He had been an undergraduate and then Research Fellow (1959-62) at Queens’ College, Cambridge, Lecturer at Goldsmiths, University of London (1962-66) and Reader at the Queen’s University, Belfast (1966-78), before joining joined the Department of History in the University in York as Professor of Early Modern History (1979-2000). Over the course of his career he researched and wrote more narrowly on Elizabethan Catholicism and the politics and espionage of this period, and more broadly on the Christianity of Europe between the middle ages and the eighteenth century. In the 1960s Professor Bossy was one of a tiny number of the most conceptually advanced historians in the country who were beginning to modernise the subject through their intellectual engagement with German sociology, anthropology and French narrative theory.  They were particularly associated with Past and Present, the most influential historical journal in the anglophone world, whose editorial board John joined in 1972 and upon which he served until retirement at the age of 70 in 2003. In his first masterpiece, The English Catholic Community, 1570-1850 (1975), he performed the extraordinary feat of bringing what had been an arcane topic into mainstream, national history, while giving it an elegant anthropological spin in its concluding pages.  Professor Bossy was becoming famous.  An invitation to the Institute of Advanced Studies in Princeton followed (1976/7) was followed by the Chair at York. 

He began immediately to have a remarkable impact in York. Lectures and seminars were testing-grounds for his second masterpiece, Christianity in the West 1400-1700.  It was the product of two undergraduate courses: one was a series of lectures on the history of Christianity, whose attendance was a mixture of first-years and departmental colleagues; the other was a seminar on the Sociology of Religion and History, nominally co-taught by a two colleagues who in fact were doing as much learning as the second-year undergraduates whose course it was. Although it did not come out until 1985, Christianity in the West had been preceded by a string of articles which were at one at the same time dizzying in scope, breathtakingly original and deliberately provocative. They began with ‘The Counter-Reformation and the People of Catholic Europe’ (1970). Deftly bypassing the interminable debate focussed on whether this age of religious change should be described in terms of ‘Catholic Reformation’, ‘Counter-Reformation’ (or even both), Professor Bossy dug deeper to discern a profound shift from Christianity being conceived as a community of believers to its being understood in terms of rival confessions of belief. This he considered to be a regrettable development, which he memorably summarised in an essay of 1988 in terms of ‘moral arithmetic’: a shift in emphasis from the seven deadly sins, in particular those of aversion – greed, pride and envy – that most threatened the social peace of (largely self-policing) late medieval communities, to the Ten Commandments, in which the nascent state of the early modern period bossed its subjects around by telling them what ‘thou shalt’ and ‘shalt not’ do.

Professor Bossy’s thinking and ideas were the fireworks, but his quieter activity as a mentor (a word he never used) was also significant. He was a ‘miglior fabbro’, an Ezra Pound to younger colleagues, selflessly reading the drafts of their books and suggesting areas for editing, cutting and rewriting. Though Professor Bossy did not love administration and was not fond of its modern vocabulary, he believed in being a team player: so when it was his turn to be Chair of the Department, he took on the job without complaint and got on with it simply and efficiently.  

During his early years at York, Professor Bossy’s engagement with anthropology led to the publication of the seminal volume Disputes and Settlements: Law and Human Relations in the West (1983). It was inspired he said by ‘the idea of a social history which would be a history of actual people; a feeling that the record of law and especially litigation was a good place to find something about them; some experience in the social institutions of Christianity as peace-making rituals, and a wish to pursue the subject of arbitration and peace-making as an important matter in itself; and in interest in the theory of marriage represented in Romeo and Juliet.’ He returned to these themes again in Peace in the Post-Reformation (1998). His ideas opened up a whole new field of historical enquiry and Professor Bossy became a revered figure among a younger generation of social historians, ensuring that his reputation was arguably higher in the United States and continental Europe than it was in Britain.

Professor Bossy had published regularly in Encounter (1973-83), and the 1990s saw him becoming more prominent in the republic of letters, in particular through the regular publication of reviews and articles in the London Review of Books (1992-2006) and the Times Literary Supplement (1996-2014).  In another life Professor Bossy could have been a member of a Literature Department, and some of his closest London friends were literary critics, in particular his intellectual sparring partner Nick (P.N. Furbank), the biographer of Italo Svevo, E.M. Forster and Denis Diderot.  The minutiae of attributions and datings of works of the Elizabethan period pre-occupied him.  He wrote, but did not publish, poetry.  And he was rare among today’s historians in regarding writing well as of paramount importance and devoting so much care to it. Readers of his occasional pieces in the London Review of Books found not just intellectual stimulus in Professor Bossy’s ideas but pleasure and entertainment in the wit and style of his prose.  In 1993, he was elected a Fellow of the British Academy, 

The personalities, politics and spies of the Elizabethan world increasingly preoccupied Professor Bossy in the second half of his career. He was good at finding catchy titles, Under the Mole-Hill, for example, for the account of espionage in the Elizabethan period he published in 2001. This had been preceded in 1991 by Giordano Bruno and the Embassy Affair. Recognition came from different sectors. On the one hand, there was serious history and the award of the Wolfson Foundation History Prize for 1991. On the other hand, in the same year, while the Crime Writers’ Association were giving with one hand its Silver Dagger for fiction to Ruth Rendell, it was giving with another hand its Golden Dagger for non-fiction to Professor Bossy for Giordano Bruno. It is difficult to think of a parallel to this astonishing double.   

In recent years Professor Bossy had been working steadily on the biography of a complex Elizabethan figure of exceptional interest from many points of view, literary, philosophical, religious and political: Henry Howard; extensive drafts exists, and it is to be hoped they will be published.  Professor Bossy’s friendships continued with many younger members of the Department of History, and he continued to be an inspiration for early career researchers across the globe. At the age of 81, on 8 October 2014, he gave a paper on Elizabeth I in the Departmental Research Seminar series in Vanbrugh.  He will be sorely missed.

Professor Pete Biller, Professor Stuart Carroll and Professor Simon Ditchfield, Department of History