Monday, April 21, 2008

Ambrose Raftis 1922-2008

One of the great Canadian historians died the other day.

J. Ambrose Raftis, born in small-town Ontario in 1922, became a Basilian priest in 1948, but also pursued historical studies, first at the University of Toronto, later at Harvard and Cambridge. He began publishing in the mid-1950s and become one of the great medieval historians of his era, particularly specializing in the social and economic history of early England. Father Raftis spent his whole career at St Michael's College, where he both led and ornamented its "Pontifical Institute of Medieval Studies." He kept publishing big books and scholarly articles until the late 1990s.

To really appreciate Raftis, you would have to immerse yourself in works like Peasant Economic Development within the English Manorial System. Or, just take the medievalists' word for it: Raftis was the real deal.

Update, March 7, 2013:  When this post was new, Ted Britton sent a comment which somehow never reached me.  We reestablished contact recently, and in case anyone wanders into the depths of this blog, I'm happy to offer Ted's recollection of Ambrose Raftis and how working with him shaped Ted's career in a very different field.

I was a Ph.D grad in the 70s with Ambrose. Through a byzantine series of events I ended up owning newspapers, which I created, in Muskoka.  … I lost track of Ambrose and then discovered your brief mention of his death.  … I am not sure Ambrose grasped the importance of his work. Certainly the British Marxists of the day ignored it, because it was unhelpful in advancing their dogma. The realization that the academic world was so disinterested in what original research on primary documents actually told us convinced me that reporting on the community activities of Muskoka villagers had more validity than the academic biz. Ironically, my study of social structure and village life in mediaeval Broughton was amazingly instructive in analyzing what made places like Bracebridge, Gravenhurst and Huntsville tick. Human nature does not change. Technology may "advance", but the way we organize ourselves in forming communities and power structures does not.
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