AHA President, 1941


University of California, Berkeley

From the American Historical Review 47:2 (January 1942)

James Westfall Thompson (June 3, 1869–September 30, 1941) specialized in the history of medieval and early modern Europe. He taught at the University of Chicago and the University of California, Berkeley. The death of James Westfall Thompson on September 30 took from the historical profession an American pioneer in medieval studies and one of its most colorful, influential, and admired members. He was proud to trace his academic lineage back from Von Holst in the department of history of the new University of Chicago to Von Ranke. His doctoral dissertation, written under Benjamin Terry on the Development of the French Monarchy under Louis VI, le Gros, 1108–1137, established him at once as an important new medievalist.

Dr. Thompson was born in Pella, Iowa, on June 3, 1869. After graduation from Rutgers in 1892 his whole academic career from 1893 until 1932 was spent at the University of Chicago, beginning as an assistant in history and ending as professor of medieval history From 1932 until his retirement in 1939 he was Sidney Hellman Ehrmann Professor of European History at the University of California in Berkeley. Here in congenial surroundings he found the opportunity to prolong both his research and his contacts with students, things that were dear to him as life itself, were indeed his whole life. Professor Thompson’s bibliography is an impressive and significant list. His closest friends and admirers might regret that he did not pay more attention to accuracy in details and to the evenness of his written style, but against these lapses may be set the solidity and volume of the material which he brought to the English-reading student. His series of articles on various aspects of medieval German history which were collected under the title of Feudal Germany have remained until very recently the only important material of their kind in the English language. Professor Thompson always felt that this was his best work. His two volumes on the Economic and Social History of the Middle Ages are inclusive compilations of valuable and attractive material. They show his tremendous industry, his insight, and his humanity. His participation in the writing and publication of the Mediaeval Library made available much material difficult of access. What promises to be a monumental work on the History of Historical Writing was finished before his death, and it is not difficult to imagine how much it will help both students and professors concerned with historiography.

This enumeration omits a great many titles that appeared over his name. A complete bibliography would show how learned Professor Thompson was in other than the medieval fields. Yet to many his memory will be cherished primarily for his gifts as a teacher and for his loyalty as master and friend. The dramatic quality of his lectures, even to graduate students in his course on historiography, and his continuous enthusiasm for the Middle Ages never failed to kindle anew the minds and imaginations of his students even after years of association with him. When once one penetrated the protective brusqueness of his manner and sought him in the quiet of his study, one found him the warm, kindly, and considerate human being who, if urged, might talk of his own poetry. He was proud of all his students and loyally and persistently sought to place them in the work for which he had trained them. Those who knew him intimately appreciated that his pursuit of learning was enlightened by a liberal and humanitarian attitude toward the world about him. Students and friends alike paid tribute to him in the Medieval and Historiographical Essays in Honor of James Westfall Thompson. These labors and these qualities, together with his share in the foundation of the Mediaeval Academy of America, brought him finally the presidency of the American Historical Association. He looked forward to the Chicago sessions, with an opportunity to meet former colleagues and students, as a cherished climax to his career. Many of those who missed him there felt that a friend, a beloved teacher, and a distinguished fellow worker had departed.



The development of the French monarchy under Louis VI., le Gros, 1108-1137. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1895.

The wars of religion in France, 1559-1576; the Huguenots, Catherine de Medici and Philip II, by James Westfall Thompson. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1909.

The Frankfort book fair; the Francofordiense emporium of Henri Estienne, ed. with historical introduction, original Latin text with English translation on opposite pages and notes, by James Westfall Thompson. Chicago: Caxton Club, 1911; Reprint, Amsterdam: G. Th. van Heusden, 1969.

Russian diplomacy and the war, by James Westfall Thompson. Chicago: Germanistic Society of Chicago, 1915.

The French revolution from 1789 to 1815, by François Auguste Marie Mignet. Edited, with additional chapter on the hundred days, by James Westfall Thompson. New York: Collier, 1916.

The lost oracles; a masque, by James Westfall Thompson. Chicago: W. M. Mill, 1921.

Feudal Germany, by James Westfall Thompson. 2 vols. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1928; Reprint, New York: F. Ungar Pub., 1962.

Economic and social history of the Middle Ages (300-1300), by James Westfall Thompson. New York, London: Century Co., 1928.

The middle ages, 300-1500, by James Westfall Thompson. 2 vols. New York, A.A. Knopf, 1931; 2d ed. New York: Cooper Square Publishers, 1972.

The living past; politics-society-trade-art. Chicago: Thomas S. Rockwell Company, 1931.

Byways in bookland, by James Westfall Thompson. Berkeley: The Book Arts club of the University of California, 1935.

The dissolution of the Carolingian fisc in the ninth century, by James Westfall Thompson. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1935.

Secret diplomacy; a record of espionage and double-dealing: 1500-1815, by J.W. Thompson & S.K. Padover; with 18 illustrations. London, Jarrolds, limited, 1937.

The importance of libraries in the preservation of culture, by James Westfall Thompson. Baltimore: Enoch Pratt free library of Baltimore, 1937.

An introduction to medieval Europe, 300-1500, by James Westfall Thompson … & Edgar Nathaniel Johnson. New York: W. W. Norton & company, inc., 1937.

European civilization; a political, social and cultural history, by James Westfall Thompson, Franklin Charles Palm, and John J. Van Nostrand. New York: D. Van Nostrand Company, inc., 1939.

A history of historical writing, by James Westfall Thompson with the collaboration of Bernard J. Holm. 2 vols. Glouchester, Mass.: P. Smith, 1967.

The letters and documents of Armand de Gontaut, baron de Biron, marshal of France (1524-1592), collected by Sidney Hellman Ehrman, edited, with an introduction by James Westfall Thompson. 2 vols. New York: AMS Press, 1979.

Medieval and historiographical essays in honor of James Westfall Thompson, edited by James Lea Cate and Eugene N. Anderson. Port Washington, N.Y.: Kennikat Press, 1966, 1938.