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Rodney Hilton

Chris Wickham looks back upon the life of Rodney Hilton, medieval historian and co-founder of Past and Present.

I have so far not met anyone who knew Rodney Hilton who is not upset at his death, on June 7th, 2002, even though eighty-five is not bad going by any standards. He managed the difficult feat of being both inspiring to others (younger colleagues and postgraduates, not least, into his seventies and beyond), and totally approachable. Rodney hated being on a pedestal as a ‘great historian’, and refused the separation that this implied – he would far rather give you another drink. Across the years, a stream of people, from the countries of half the world, knocked on his door hoping to be received as acolytes and left feeling they were friends. But Rodney was a ‘great historian’, as well; he put his stamp on medieval history in ways that few managed in the twentieth century – Michael Postan, Bruce McFarlane and Richard Southern are among the few medievalists in Britain who had an analogous influence in the postwar period.

Rodney came from a family of artisan descent in Middleton, outside Manchester, where he was born in 1916, an iconoclastic family with strong Independent Labour Party convictions. He was a bright child, and successively got into Manchester Grammar School and Balliol College, Oxford, although he never lost connection with his roots (he was characteristically proud that a blind man from Lancashire, whom he helped across the road in San Francisco in the 1980s, recognised his Middleton accent).

In Oxford in the late 1930s, he moved leftwards, in the company of older contemporaries like Christopher Hill, and joined the Communist Party. Rodney’s politics were an intimate, indissoluble, part of the historian and the man, for they framed the way he saw the world in nearly every respect. In the company of Hill and others, he left the Party in 1956 over the Soviet invasion of Hungary, but he never changed his basic politics (indeed, he rejoined three decades later, in the CP’s last years).

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