Publication Date

October 2, 2023

Perspectives Section

In Memoriam


Social, Urban

Augustus Leon (Lee) Beier IV

Photo courtesy Beier family

Augustus Leon (Lee) Beier IV, a key figure in British social history, died after a long illness on February 25, 2023, in Minneapolis, Minnesota. A large personality, full of ideas and enthusiasms, Lee is missed by friends and colleagues whose thinking he energized and whose lives he brightened.

Born in Rice Lake, Wisconsin, on October 2, 1941, Lee grew up in Madison and graduated from the University of Wisconsin–Madison in 1963. Inspired by undergraduate teachers, especially George Mosse, Lee determined to pursue European history. A post-BA Fulbright Fellowship enabled him to spend 1963–64 in Nancy, France, where he gathered research for a potential PhD thesis. While he was in New York City, Lee’s research from Nancy was stolen from his car trunk. This mishap redirected his life, personally and intellectually.

In 1964, Lee entered the PhD program at Princeton University and soon after returned to France. When attempts to resurrect his Nancy research bogged down, Lee asked Lawrence Stone, Princeton’s social historian of Britain and a professor he admired, if he could work with him instead. With Stone’s encouragement, Lee moved across the English Channel to research a dissertation on poverty and poor relief in early modern Warwickshire. He arrived amid Britain’s massive 1960s expansion of higher education. In 1966, he published an impressive first article in Past and Present, then a major forum for the new work in social history. Shortly thereafter, another influential English early modernist, Austin Woolrych, recruited Lee—whose dissertation was several years from completion—to help launch the history program at the newly founded University of Lancaster.

Lee remained at Lancaster from 1967 to 1990. He built a reputation as an authority on early modern British society and on poverty in history more broadly. He expanded his dissertation into the widely lauded Masterless Men: The Vagrancy Problem in England 1560–1640 (Methuen, 1985). This research helped establish concepts and methods for re-creating the lives of the transient poor, which Lee demonstrated to be a significant portion of English society in the era. The influence of Lee’s work came in part from the adept way he wove together the social history impulse toward categorization and measurement with thoughtful discussions of social attitudes and policies adopted to deal with the poor at various levels of English government.

Over the following decades, Lee published numerous articles and chapters on evolving British discussions about poverty and social marginalization. He wove this work into a final book, Social Thought in England, 1480–1730: From Body Social to Worldly Wealth (Routledge, 2016), published as his health began to fade. In this, he traced English discourse about social hierarchy from its medieval roots in estates dominated by customs into a more market-based era, organized by the dynamics of power and wealth. Beyond these accomplishments, Lee co-edited several widely read essay collections, including London, 1500–1700: The Making of the Metropolis (Longman, 1986), edited with Roger Finlay. This volume prefigured a quarter century of scholarship about the city, while inspiring urban historians on both sides of the Atlantic with its range of approaches to urban social history.

In 1990, Lee returned to the United States to chair the history department at Illinois State University. After his service as chair ended, Lee put much effort into curricular matters at both the undergraduate and graduate levels until his retirement in 2009. Having reconnected with his Wisconsin roots, he moved to Round Lake in Chippewa County, where he had a bright, up-to-date house that he labeled a “cabin.” Lee’s penchant for vintage motorcycles and cars, rock ’n’ roll, long evenings, and animated conversation precluded a serene retreat.

Lee is survived by his four sons, Joe, Jesse, Jake, and Zach; their spouses and partners; and five grandchildren. He remained close with his former wife, historian Lucinda Myles McCray, who helped look after him as his health declined. A celebration of his life took place in June.

Alan Lessoff
Illinois State University

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