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Professor John Anthony Burrow Obituary

John Burrow, who died at the age of 85 on 22 October, 2017, brought new grace and sensitivity to the understanding of medieval English literature, and was one of the most influential scholars of his generation. The earliest of his many classic studies, published in 1965, provided an interpretation of Sir Gawain and the Green Knight that remains standard today. His other books illuminated all the great poets of the period, in particular Chaucer, Gower, Langland, the Gawain-poet, and Hoccleve. He wrote with clarity and wit, and had no time for the narrow professionalism that characterises so much academic writing. Always judicious and perceptive, he was attentive to small detail, for example opening our eyes, as one might say, to the significance of winking in medieval texts.

John began his academic career in 1955 as an assistant lecturer at King’s College, London. As a fellow of Jesus College, Oxford, from 1961, he collaborated with his friends John Carey and Christopher Ricks to breathe fresh life into the stuffy English syllabus. His teaching, which I was privileged to enjoy for three years, combined academic rigour with humour and insight, and not least, extraordinary patience. His writings of the period represent a new invigorating critical approach. The first of his many studies of Piers Plowman, ‘The Action of Langland’s Second Vision’ (1965), which had begun life as part of an uncompleted postgraduate thesis, reveals brilliantly how the poet shaped this part of his narrative. It has recently been described as ‘one of the most influential essays ever written on the poem’. Ricardian Poetry (1971) still underpins our understanding of Middle English literature, with its penetrating analysis of the features that define the late fourteenth century as a literary period.

He spent a year as Visiting Professor at Yale University (1968-9), but Yale could not persuade him to leave England, and in 1976 he took up the Winterstoke Chair at Bristol University, where he served for many years as Head of Department and subsequently Dean of the Faculty, always acting with a humanity and generosity that did not necessarily chime with the priorities of university management. During this period, his publications, including
Medieval Writers and their Work (1982, 2008), The Ages of Man (1986), and Langland’s Fictions (1993), continued unabated, despite his time-consuming duties. From 1983 to 2006 he served as Honorary Director of the Early English Text Society, and in 1986 he was elected Fellow of the British Academy.

Chaucerians will remember with particular affection a little essay as perfect as the poem it so brilliantly analyses, ‘An Agony in Three Fits’, reprinted with other pieces on Sir Thopas in Essays on Medieval Literature (1984). John’s second collection, English Poetry in the Late Middle Ages (2012), includes the fine ‘Vituperations in Chaucer’s Poetry’, as well as several essays on Gower and Hoccleve. Not yet published is a charming essay ‘What was Chaucer Like?’, comparing the self-portraits with those by Hoccleve and Lydgate.

He was an accomplished editor, beginning with Sir Gawain and the Green Knight for Penguin (1972), followed by the anthology English Verse 1300-1500 (1977). When we edited A Book of Middle English (1992, 1996, 2005) together, I learnt that he had a remarkable ear for Middle English idiom, always avoiding the traps that the rest of us fall into, always coming up with exactly the right equivalent in modern English. His edition of Thomas Hoccleve’s Complaint and Dialogue for the Early English Text Society (1999) boldly restored the text based on the forms established in the poet’s holographs. We worked together on an electronic text of Piers Plowman in which we attempted to recover the B-Version archetype (2014), depending heavily on the team at the Piers Plowman Electronic Archive, in particular Hoyt Duggan. Sadly, John never saw this edition since he never got around to mastering the internet.

He regretted having to retire in 1998, missing the teaching he so much enjoyed, as well as the collegiality of the department. He kept himself active by writing non-stop. To this period belong the monographs Gestures and Looks in Medieval Narrative (2002), and The Poetry of Praise (2008), and a stream of essays, particular on Langland. In addition, he always responded with thoughtfulness and care to the many requests for assistance from young scholars, though he steadfastly refused to use email.

John’s wife was the celebrated children’s fantasy writer Diana Wynne Jones. Their house in Clifton was always lively and full of visitors. He was left bereft by Diana’s death in 2011. Sadly, for a man who loved walking, the polio from which he had suffered as a boy caught up with him in later life, and he became increasingly disabled. Though he could no longer leave the house, he accepted his confinement with remarkable stoicism, and continued writing and publishing prolifically, leaving his last essay, almost completed, on his desk at his death.

He is survived by his sons Richard, Michael and Colin, and by five grandchildren.

John Anthony Burrow, born 3 August, 1932, died 22 October, 2017.

Thorlac Turville-Petre