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Lisa Jardine, April 12, 1944–October 25, 2015

Posted By RSA, Monday, November 2, 2015

Lisa Jardine’s last appearance at an RSA annual meeting was typical of her. On March 28, 2015, immediately after the end of the Business Meeting, she took the stage to read a statement by early career scholars. They objected to the fact that all the plenary speakers in Berlin were male. Lisa relayed their arguments to a large audience with eloquence, passion and humor. Like so many of her other performances, it was unforgettable.

One of the most original and influential Renaissance scholars of the last half-century, Lisa studied at Cambridge and Essex: first mathematics, then literature. As that start suggests, her work always crossed borders—something she was encouraged to do at the Warburg Institute, where she spent three years as a senior research fellow. Her first book, a revised version of her doctoral dissertation, dealt with Francis Bacon’s efforts to reform the arts of argument. It illuminated not only his writings, but also the teaching of dialectic in Cambridge—a subject that became one of her lasting interests.

Over the next forty years, Lisa published a massive series of books and articles, on subjects as varied as the history of education in the Renaissance and the future of progressive politics in the UK, Renaissance literature and the scientific pursuits of the Royal Society, the literary career of Erasmus and the lives and work of Francis Bacon, Robert Hooke and Christopher Wren. Everything she wrote came from new research, and every new book or article revealed new ways of imagining and understanding the past.

Lisa could transform materials that everyone else found dull and forbidding into richly human sources. Her studies of Gabriel Harvey’s marginalia opened up what is now a central field in Renaissance Studies, the history of reading. An expert user of libraries and archives, she created and directed the Centre for Editing Lives and Letters, which combines the traditional methods of philology and bibliography with cutting-edge information technology to build new kinds of archive and critical edition. But she was equally at home in very different realms. One of the most popular of her many writings for a large public eloquently evoked the power of wearing red.

With Worldly Goods Lisa made the material turn, well ahead of most other historians of the Renaissance. In her studies of Hooke, Wren and Constantijn Huyghens, one of the heroes of Going Dutch, she followed her protagonists out of the archive into gardens, churches and even up the Monument, which Hooke and Wren tried to use as a zenith observatory. These accomplishments brought her many honors: she was made a CBE, elected a Fellow of the Royal Society and awarded the Francis Bacon Prize by Caltech.

Honors mattered less to Lisa than what she called, echoing Erasmus, her familia: the group of younger scholars that always seemed to surround her. A dedicated mentor, she not only trained extraordinary students, but also often took them on as collaborators. Though her formal teaching career unrolled in the United Kingdom, at Cambridge, Queen Mary University of London, and University College London, she spent a number of happy periods teaching and doing research in the United States, at Cornell, Princeton, Johns Hopkins and Caltech. Both Americans who studied with her at Cambridge and London and those who met her during her American trips benefited immensely from her painstaking criticism of their work and her unstinting moral support. A number of them became her research and writing partners.

Lisa’s public engagements were as many—and as formidable—as her academic posts and honors. She broadcast as a writer and presenter for the BBC 4 program A Point of View, and often wrote for newspapers and for the BBC website. She acted as a judge for a number of literary prizes, including what was then the Booker Prize and the Whitbread Prize for fiction. With characteristic public spirit and generosity, she served for many years as a trustee of the Victoria and Albert Museum and as chair of the Human Fertilisation and Embryology Authority (HFEA).

It is a principle universally acknowledged that one looks in vain in university faculties for public spirit and civil courage. Lisa was a great exception to this melancholy rule. Always deeply engaged in teaching and scholarship, she somehow found time to serve her universities and a vast range of other institutions as well. Often the first woman to hold a particular position, give an endowed lecture or chair a distinguished group, she always did the job brilliantly and effectively—and always, as she did in Berlin, stood up for those without privileges and power.

Anthony Grafton

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