Sir John Elliott: A Personal Reminiscence

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Sir John, as he was universally called in Oxford, passed away on 9 March 2022. His importance for modern historiography is incalculable. Sir John’s books and articles have shaped the scholarly debate for three generations, with special reference to the mid-seventeenth-century crisis, the nature of the early modern state, and more recently the history of empires in the age of global history. From Trinity College Cambridge to King’s College London, the Institute for Advanced Study, and the University of Oxford, where he was Regius Professor of Modern History between 1990 and 1997, Sir John also trained an impressive number of leading historians, who have carried on his work of explaining the early modern world. I was not one of them. As for most students even now, my earliest encounter with Sir John goes back to my first year in the university, in 1998, when I was assigned to read Imperial Spain for a general course on early modern Europe. For me, J.H. Elliott was the name of an absolute authority in the field of historical studies. I could not even imagine meeting him, let alone having the privilege to consider myself one of his friends.

Sir John was most welcoming to me and my family when we arrived in Oxford in 2017. He often invited us to tea in the conservatory of his house in Iffley Village. I have lovely memories of my elder child playing with Oonah, Sir John’s wife, in their beautiful garden one sunny afternoon. Sir John’s encouragement was crucial to my efforts to recreate a space for Iberian historical studies in Oxford. Over lunches and coffees at Oriel College, he generously discussed with me the content of the new courses that I was designing, and he was especially pleased when I told him that I intended to offer a historiographical course that would be based on the Aproximación a la historia de España, a Spanish text by a beloved colleague and friend of his, namely Jaume Vicens Vives. Sir John strongly supported the idea of establishing an Iberian History Seminar, about which we talked in the late spring of 2018. A few months later, Glyn Redworth, Cecilia Tarruell, and I started convening it. On the morning of 16 January 2019, the Rector’s Drawing Room at Exeter College was full to overflowing for the inaugural paper. Who else could give it but Sir John? He spoke on ‘Forms of Union and Their Impact: Catalonia, Portugal and Scotland’. Ten months later, all the seats were quickly taken, and most people were standing in the room, when Sir John again spoke. This time in a session devoted to the book launch of the volume, The Iberian World, 1450-1820, edited by Fernando Bouza, Pedro Cardim, and Antonio Feros, all of whom had come to Oxford to be present.

Sir John used to arrive in the seminar room ten minutes early and take one of the seats around the table, neither too close to the invited guest nor too far away. Sometimes, the day before a session, his lean figure could be seen bent over a table in the Bodleian Library. He was preparing for the seminar by reading some of the speaker’s most recent works. When the talk was finished, Sir John was never the first to ask a question because he did not want to set the tone. He let the debate flow and, only towards the end, in his characteristically elegant and respectful manner, raised his hand to ask short, sharp, and always penetrating questions. Sir John thought it important to bring in historians from abroad, in the spirit of the scholarly exchange and interest in different historiographical traditions which reflected the truly international scholar he was. Before the pandemic changed everything, Sir John and I (along with the other convenors, including from October 2019, Stephanie Cavanaugh) had dinner at High Table with speakers in the Hall at Exeter College on the evenings before the seminar. Sir John seemed to enjoy that conviviality, often staying on with us long after dinner in the Senior Common Room. He was also punctilious in staying for lunch in Hall after the seminar itself, which gave students and other attendees the opportunity to talk to him about their research. He listened with genuine interest and, to their delight, might sometimes follow up with an email full of helpful suggestions.

Sir John was particularly keen to interact with graduate students. When he discovered that an informal reading group on Iberian history had been created in January 2018, he immediately asked if he could participate in the meetings and became a regular attendee. He took great pleasure in seeing how young scholars read and discussed recent articles and was tolerant with the spirit of free discussion that characterises the reading group, although sometimes when things were pushed a little bit too far, he clearly felt a need to intervene and graciously put things in their place. He had been concerned that his presence might prevent students from debating openly. One episode shows that they had learnt to deal with his immense reputation. In the winter of 2019-2020, there were many preparations for a party in Oxford to celebrate Sir John’s 90th birthday in the coming month of June, but this was made impossible by the outbreak of the pandemic. Instead, it was decided to dedicate the last meeting of the following term’s reading group to a consideration of how Sir John’s work had changed the participants’ own research. Far from being a mere celebration, and despite being held via Zoom, it turned out to be a most stimulating event, in which we engaged critically with specific parts of Sir John’s most famous books and articles. In response, he shared with us many of the concerns that he had when he wrote them.

Occasionally Sir John asked for my opinion on a piece of his writing, just as he carefully read and commented on various versions of my work. Thus, I had the good fortune to experience in practice something that he had written to me about, that the best sign of friendship between two scholars is frankness. Inevitably, our exchange was marked by the very different generations to which we belonged, but we had long conversations about current historiography, and he kindly listened to my opinions, although I doubt that he agreed with everything that I had to say. What I admired most about Sir John during the almost five years in which I could see him regularly was the fact that until the very end he remained a working scholar. Visiting him at home meant that one could hear him commenting on the most recent publications in Iberian history, which he received and then piled up on a table in his study. Perhaps most striking of all was that Sir John had the rare gift of a sublime intelligence which always remained young. He was prepared to embrace the new and accept a challenge. In April 2019 he was invited to give a talk at a conference held in the University of Rome and dedicated to the work of the late Rosario Villari, the historian of the Neapolitan revolt of 1647 and a dear friend of Sir John’s. He resolved to give his speech in Italian and asked me to teach him how to read his paper. We spent an afternoon in the Senior Common Room at Oriel College with Sir John reading aloud and adding accent marks on the words that were more difficult to pronounce. The text was touching, and his Italian was perfect, and later on I heard from an Italian colleague, who attended his talk, that it had been wonderfully delivered, reducing many in the audience to tears in their eyes.

Nonetheless, another new language began to take up much of Sir John’s time, Portuguese. In the last year of his life, I believe that most of the books he read were about the history of Portuguese exploration, apart from some months when he devoted himself to the latest scholarship about the Aztec empire and the Spanish conquest of Mexico for a review article which he published in the New York Review of Books in December 2021. In the past autumn, Sir John also read with interest Visions of Empire: How Five Imperial Regimes Shaped the World (2017) by Krishan Kumar. I think that this was part of his broad reflection on the comparative book on which he was zealously working, provisionally entitled ‘Spain, Portugal and their Overseas Empires: Convergence and Divergence, c. 1450-c. 1700’. He completed at least a first draft of the initial chapter, for which he enjoyed using the two classic monographs that Sir Peter Russell devoted to late medieval Portuguese history. The two volumes of Anthony Disney’s Cambridge History of Portugal and the Portuguese Empire were always on his desk, but he also engaged with the work of several Portuguese historians in the original language. Sir John’s interest in the topic had certainly been reinvigorated by a journey he made in Portugal in September 2017, where he had been ‘splendidly looked after by Pedro Cardim in Lisbon and Mafalda Soares da Cunha in Evora’, as he wrote me on his return to Oxford. The book comparing the two early modern Iberian empires that Sir John could not finish remains a major challenge for any future historian brave enough to follow in his footsteps. I think that Sir John felt, as it were, that towards the end of his career he now owed something to the western side of the peninsula to which he devoted so much of his work. This project testifies that, whereas he ultimately saw himself as a historian of the Iberian world as a whole, with all its complexity and global reach, his most profound legacy is probably to be identified in his pioneering dedication to comparative history.

In days when the sky is clear, I often walk at sunset with friends and visitors to Iffley to admire the façade of the twelfth-century local parish church as it takes on a beautiful range of warm, intense colours. In the past years, on the return to the city, I used to glance towards Sir John’s house, where the light in his ground-floor study was often still on. I liked to imagine him working surrounded by his enviable collection of books and under his magnificent portrait of the Count-Duke of Olivares. Thus, the day after his death, when I walked to Iffley to deliver a card to Oonah, I was overwhelmed by the thought that from now on, when I return from my walks, I will not see the light turned on in Sir John’s study. I experienced all the sense of emptiness that will make Oxford a smaller and a less interesting place for historians from now on. But walking back home, I comforted myself thinking that Sir John’s scholarship will continue to show us the way. What we can do in return is to remain committed to honesty and accuracy in our approach to the past. Sir John would expect no less.


Giuseppe Marcocci

(Exeter College, Oxford)