Medieval historian who shared fine values of the knights he studied

Sat, Oct 6, 2012, 01:00

MAURICE KEEN:UNTIL THE second World War, most British medieval historians avoided cultural history, remaining more concerned with the church, government or the law; institutions and politics.

Except for the literate pious, what might have made medieval people tick was treated as self-evident, immaterial or unknowable. In the subsequent revolution of approaches, Maurice Keen, who has died aged 78, played a seminal role. His major book, Chivalry (1984), which won the Wolfson prize that year, remains one of the great works of history in English of the past 70 years.

After Chivalry, no one could look at Keen’s subject, the knightly life, unaffected by his comprehensive and nuanced exposition of the nature and significance of the culture of those who ruled western Europe for half a millennium.

Connecting the medieval past with later social developments was a notable aspect of Keen’s work, as in his last important work, The Origins of the English Gentleman (2002), which delicately traced how, between 1300 and 1500, the warrior knight transmogrified into the aristocratic gentleman.

In pioneering a radical reassessment of knightly values, Keen brought to bear his early enthusiasm for knightly literature, which found precocious expression in his first book, The Outlaws of Medieval England (1961).

Keen also produced three general works, A History of Medieval Europe (1968), England in the Later Middle Ages (1973), and English Society in the Later Middle Ages (1990).

Yet his outstanding scholarly distinction, recognised by the Royal Historical Society’s Alexander prize medal in 1961 and his election to fellowships of the Society of Antiquaries (1987) and the British Academy (1990), formed only part of a deeply fulfilled academic life.

Born in London, Keen came from Anglo-Irish stock. His father was Keeper of the University Chest at Oxford and a fellow of Balliol College, his mother a talented painter. He attended Winchester college, where the headteacher, Walter Oakeshott, turned his thoughts seriously to medieval knights. His national service was spent in the Royal Ulster Fusiliers before he went to Balliol in 1954.

A stellar undergraduate career was capped with a first in 1957 and a junior research fellowship at the Queen’s College (1957-61) before he returned to Balliol as fellow and tutor in medieval history (1961-2000). Keen became a legendary tutor, one of the few to be portrayed in his own guise in popular fiction, the “semi-collapsed upholstery” of his room and a tutorial on Jan Hus appearing in Frederick Forsyth’s The Negotiator (1989).

Keen enjoyed the company of young people upon whom he expended sympathy, patience and friendship. In 2004 he was appointed OBE. In many ways he shared the values of the knights he studied – loyalty, duty, service, generosity – and showed these were by no means redundant. Possessed of indelible charm, with an advanced sense and capacity for enjoyment and fun, Keen was also a private man, most content exploring the ways of fish in quiet streams and enjoying his family, the centre of his happiness.

In 1968 he married Mary Keegan. She and their three daughters survive him.

Maurice Hugh Keen, born October 30th, 1933; died September 11th, 2012