In Memoriam: J.H.M. Salmon
Alain Silvera, October 2005
From the In Memoriam column of the October 2005 Perspectives
John Hearsey McMillan Salmon, the distinguished historian of France and the Marjorie Walter Goodhart Professor of History Emeritus at Bryn Mawr College, passed away on February 9, 2005, at the age of 79, after an extended bout with cancer that he bore with characteristic fortitude and stoicism.
Born December 2, 1925, in Thames, New Zealand, Salmon served as an Army officer in post–World War II occupied Japan before going on to receive his BA and MA degrees from Victoria University in Wellington, New Zealand. He received an M. Litt. degree from the University of Cambridge and the doctorate (in 1970) from Victoria University.
From 1960 to 1965 John Salmon was a professor of history at the University of New South Wales in Sydney, Australia; he returned to New Zealand in 1965 as professor of history and dean of humanities at Waikato University. He joined the faculty of Bryn Mawr College in 1969, where he taught the history of the Renaissance and early modern Europe and guided many research students. He retired in 1991, but continued to lead a vigorous scholarly life, remaining a member of the AHA and publishing widely through books as well as articles in scholarly journals.
In both his writing and teaching John was vigorously opposed to the postmodernist onslaught against history that originated in France with such figures as Fernand Braudel and Michel Foucault and that has now gained almost undisputed currency in the United States. His interest in the Wars of Religion and the Fronde of the French nobility against the Crown may seem an esoteric and parochial episode to those who subscribe to the view that the historical agenda should encompass a global and broader multicultural approach more relevantly attuned to our present needs and concerns. But such current terms as "sovereignty" and "revolt," or that ubiquitous catchword, "civil society," bandied about as a universal nostrum for all the woes that beset mankind, cannot possibly be understood without referring to their roots and evolution in the 16th century so meticulously and painstakingly recorded in John Salmon's pioneering works—The French Religious Wars in English Political Thought (1959) and Cardinal De Retz: The Anatomy of a Conspirator (1969)—and even in his explorations of the Abbé Raynal's ambiguous legacy as a prophet of 18th-century French colonialism. One of John's major contributions to the subject of civil society was to go back to such writers as Jean Bodin and Francois Hotman and argue—drawing upon the authority of F. W. Maitland and his own Sorbonne mentor, Roland Mousnier—that the mainspring of civil society grew out of a legal order that permitted the free operation of individuals and corporations within the framework of the state. John's scholarship was as wide-ranging as it was deep. John's scholarly contributions were also wide ranging: he also wrote, for instance, the book A History of Goldmining in New Zealand (1963) and the collection of essays, Renaissance and Revolt: Essays in the Intellectual and Social History of Early Modern France (1987).
The same reliance on sources and rigid attention to detail that informed his scholarship also formed the basis of his teaching. As a teacher whose greatest and most seminal influence was exercised in lectures, tutorials, and seminars, John's discourse was both profound and far-reaching, shaping the minds and stimulating the interests of a steady stream of undergraduates and graduates alike. I can still remember how a thought, a sentence, or a word on his part could so often have the effect of transforming the whole aspect of a historical question, of stretching the mind and enlarging the understanding.
John possessed the rare gift of combining research and teaching in just the right proportions. There are few historians among us who could match his record of writing a widely read textbook on 16th-century France and also inspiring a Festchrift with the bulk of its chapters contributed by his former PhD students. It is worth noting in this connection that in his preface to that Festchrift, Geoffrey Elton, the Regius Professor of History at Cambridge University (where John had begun his studies), contended that John's career at Bryn Mawr was instrumental in converting a distinguished liberal arts college into a research university.
In addition to his scholarship that he pursued with such single-minded zeal, John had three other consuming passions: sports, his love for his dogs (first Pepin, and then Biancha), and an abiding fondness for France and all things French. An outstanding cricketer (he was particularly known for his wicked googly), John also loved squash and tennis, games that he and I played incessantly whenever we got a chance. But John's overriding enthusiasm always was for France—its history, its literature and culture, and above all its countryside, and its byways and folkways. Whether it was savoring steak Béarnaise sprinkled with the local Jurançon at his favorite inn in the French Pyrenees after a good day's work in the archives, or relishing the taste of Camembert and Saga and reveling in the pages of a Simenon thriller, John loved all things French, a love that is clearly reflected in his historical novel, The Muskets of Gascony.
John Salmon was that rare and inspiring persona—a scholar extraordinaire and a bon vivant par excellence—whom we will all miss but will continue to remember.
Bryn Mawr College