Jonathan Riley-Smith, GCStJ, MA, LittD, FRHistS
June 27 1938 – September 13 2016
THE death has recently occurred of Jonathan Riley-Smith, Emeritus Dixie Professor of Ecclesiastical History, University of Cambridge.
An influential scholar regarding the Crusades and the Military Orders and the founder and president of the Society for the Study of the Crusades and the Latin East, he succeeded Professor J.D.Mackie as Librarian of the Priory of Scotland from 1966-78.
Members of the Order in Scotland will no doubt be familiar with his book Hospitallers: The History of the Order of St John (1999), and some of us enjoyed his delivery of the Gifford Lecture entitled ‘The Crusades and Christianity’ at the University of Edinburgh in March 2007.
He was a Bailiff Grand Cross of the Most Venerable Order of the Hospital of St John of Jerusalem and a Knight of Grace and Devotion of the Sovereign Military Order of Malta.
The following obituary appears by kind permission of the Daily Telegraph:
Professor Jonathan Riley-Smith, the former Dixie Professor of Ecclesiastical History at Cambridge, who has died aged 78, was one of the world’s greatest historians of the medieval crusades; he was a major figure of crusade studies at the international level but was particularly important in energising the large growth in academic interest in crusading in the United Kingdom over a period of more than 50 years.
Riley-Smith’s scholarly output in terms of publications was prodigious and he also supervised more than 30 doctoral students. The high profile that the history of the crusades currently enjoys owes a very great deal to his energy and achievements.
In The First Crusade and the Idea of Crusading (1986) and The First Crusaders, 1099-1131 (1996), Riley-Smith gave particular attention to the motivations of early crusaders. He explained how crusading was perceived as a defensive rather than offensive form of warfare, in that it was understood as being aimed at regaining lands which the crusaders believed had been won forever for Christianity by the life, death and resurrection of Christ. Indeed, he examined the superficially difficult and ultimately Augustinian notion that killing on crusade could be an act of love.
Jonathan Simon Christopher Riley-Smith was born on 27 June 1938 into a distinguished Yorkshire brewing family. He was educated at Eton and then Trinity College, Cambridge, gaining his PhD in 1964 (and a DLitt in 2001).
His first academic post, from 1964 to 1972, was at the University of St Andrews. He then returned to lecture at Cambridge, becoming director of studies at Queen’s College, a role in which he was particularly successful. From 1978 to 1994 he was Professor of Medieval History at Royal Holloway College, University of London. He returned to Cambridge in 1994 to take up the Dixie Professorship of Ecclesiastical History and a fellowship at Emmanuel College; he retired in 2005.
Riley-Smith made his name with his first book, The Knights of St John in Jerusalem and Cyprus, c. 1050-1310 (1967) and then The Feudal Nobility and the Kingdom of Jerusalem, 1174-1277 (1973). The flood of his publications never slowed; he wrote or edited 17 books as well as numerous articles and chapters. He also performed a signal service in bringing the crusades to a wider readership.
His What were the Crusades? (1977) went through several editions. He was the editor of The Atlas of the Crusades (1991) and The Oxford Illustrated History of the Crusades (1995).
His interest in the Military Orders (the Orders were the quintessential crusading institution – monks who fought as soldiers) stayed with him, culminating in 2012 in his The Knights Hospitaller in the Levant, 1070-1309.
He believed that the key to understanding the crusades was understanding the paradox between the knights’ military and religious roles. He was himself a Knight of Malta and Bailiff Grand Cross of the Most Venerable Order of the Hospital of St John of Jerusalem. In recent years he had been involved in a huge translation project on the charters of the Latin East – which he made available on the internet [crusades.Regesta.com] for both scholarly and more general audiences.
Riley-Smith was also an effective broadcaster on television and radio, and gave lectures and papers to many international conferences. He was particularly good at explaining difficult ideas to a lay audience, providing a window into the apparently alien world of crusading. In 1980 he became a founding member of the Society for the Study of the Crusades and the Latin East, the leading international organisation for scholars in the field; he was its president from 1987 to 1995.
Riley-Smith’s commitment to the Catholic Church was of pre-eminent importance in his life. He was converted to Catholicism at Cambridge and remained a devout and practising adherent of the faith, which infused his whole life.
He was a leading light of Fisher House, the University Catholic Chaplaincy at Cambridge, and of Cambridge University Catholic Association. In the last months of his life he was often to be seen at early morning Mass at the church of Our Lady and the English Martyrs.
Riley-Smith was deeply impressive as an historian and public figure, but one whose humanity always shone through and whose natural enthusiasm was infectious. An aura of good cheer surrounded him. He had a deep warmth and empathy for others, with a sympathetic understanding of human weakness.
He is survived by his wife, Louise, and by two daughters and a son.