From the In Memoriam column of the May 2009 issue of Perspectives on History

In Memoriam: Miriam Usher Chrisman

Thomas A. Brady Jr., May 2009

Social historian of the German Reformation

Miriam Usher Chrisman (1920–2008), a historian of the German Reformation, died in Bedford, Massachusetts, on November 17, 2008. Her husband, the distinguished osteopathic surgeon-turned-archeologist Donald Chrisman, predeceased her, and she is survived by two sons and five grandchildren. She was a descendant of Hezekiah Usher, an English migrant to Boston in the 1630s, who imported the press and fonts with which John Eliot’s Indian Bible was printed. Born in Ithaca, New York, Chrisman lived and worked in Massachusetts for most of her life, except for the years of World War II. In 1962, she received a PhD in history from Yale University, and from 1963 to 1985 she taught at the University of Massachusetts Amherst.

Her fellow historians will remember Miriam Chrisman chiefly for her scholarship and her mentorship. Her first book, Strasbourg and the Reform: A Study in the Process of Change, appeared in 1967. It opened access for English-speaking historians to an entirely new field, the social history of the German Reformation. Its combination of serious attention to social struggle and politics, an interest in culture high and low, and warm sympathy for the lives of ordinary townsfolk set the tone of all her publications. Chrisman pioneered an approach to the German Reformation as a never-finished process rather than a unique, normative, and complete moment of revolutionary change. She followed this project with two others. In 1982 appeared Lay Culture, Learned Culture: Books and Social Change in Strasbourg, 1480–1599 and a companion repertory of Strasbourg imprints during this era. Her embedding of the history of the book in social structures and cultural change established a new port of access for Reformation studies. Chrisman’s third book, Conflicting Visions of Reform: German Lay Propaganda Pamphlets, 1519–30, published in 1996, took this perspective into the heart of the explosion of print that accompanied and mined the immense genre of pamphlets for insights into the ordinary people’s experiences of the early Reformation movements in the German cities. Taken together her books present an unusually coherent vision of a new field of studies, of which she was the most important pioneer. Going back to Ernst Troeltsch, to be sure, some German-speaking scholars had interpreted the German Reformation in terms of social movements rather of theological or political-national terms. Yet Chrisman transformed their insights through her high estimation of the intelligence and capacity for purposeful action of ordinary people. In her work the “common man,” to employ the contemporary term, became a knowing, speaking agent.

Miriam Usher Chrisman was a fine scholar and a superb mentor. Those mentored by her knew first-hand the forthright manner of plain-speaking and the generosity of spirit that made her an inspired leader. In the Sixteenth Century Studies Conference (which she helped to found) and the (then American) Society for Reformation Research, Chrisman did what she did better than anyone: encourage the young. As a scholar but even more as a personality she stood at the creation of an entire field. No one did more to encourage young historians to contribute to what until the 1960s had been a marginal subject of scholarship and teaching in the universities and colleagues of the English-speaking world.

Scholarship and mentorship dominate the memories of Miriam Usher Chrisman among the students and colleagues who knew her. On one of his rambles in Connemara in the far west of Ireland, Oliver St. John Gogarty—James Joyce’s great pal—spoke with an elderly countrywoman about an Irish regiment that had distinguished itself in the Great War. “Ah, sir,” she replied, “thim’s no more.”

—Thomas A. Brady Jr.
University of California at Berkeley