Publication Date

November 1, 1999

Perspectives Section

In Memoriam

Herbert H. Rowen, noted historian of early modern Europe and a foreign member of the Royal Netherlands Academy of Arts and Sciences, died March 31, 1999, at his home in Newtown, Pennsylvania. He was 82.

Born October 22, 1916, in Brooklyn, Herb attended New York City's schools from first grade on through the PhD. His interest in history dated from his earliest classes, when he brought home "fascinating" textbooks and finished them off "in a night or two." During high school he developed a strong interest in French as well. Both of these early interests were reflected in Herb's undergraduate work at City College of New York, where be earned a BS in social sciences, with a French major.

In 1940 Herb married Mildred Ringel, to whom he remained married until her death in January 1999, two months before his own. Soon after their marriage, in December 1942, Herb went to war, spending three years in England and France in the Army Signal Corps. Upon returning to the United States, Herb took a job as a lexicographic researcher on the Random House College Dictionary, putting to work that abiding interest in language which was a trademark of his professional and personal life. Only at the end of this job, in 1946, did Herb think seriously of going on to graduate school, and then in French. But when he asked a favorite high school French teacher for advice, the teacher, believing that the demise of foreign languages in American schools was imminent, counseled Herb to use his French to study history instead.

For graduate school Herb chose another institution near home, Columbia. There he wrote his MA thesis on a topic in modern Europe: the Belgian acquisition of the Congo in 1907–08. When the topic proved to be too controversial to develop into a dissertation, Herb decided for his PhD to move back in time to the early modern period, and study with a brand-new member of the faculty, Garrett Mattingly. Herb became the first in a distinguished line of Mattingly students, and showed the influence of his mentor in his attention to writing, his determination to "do justice to the dead," and even in his habit of lecturing without notes. Herb stayed with topics French, choosing for his dissertation the embassy of Louis XIV's ambassador Arnold de Pomponne, eventually published as The Ambassador Prepares for War: The Dutch Embassy of Arnauld de Pomponne, 1669–1671 (Martinus Nijhoff, 1957).

A variety of university appointments (Brandeis, University of Iowa, Elmira College, University of California at Berkeley, University of Wisconsin, Milwaukee, and finally Rutgers, where he spent the bulk of his career), and a number of grants (Guggenheim Foundation, Folger and Newberry libraries, American Philosophical Society, National Endowment for the Humanities, and a fellowship at the Center for the History of Freedom at Washington University in St. Louis) allowed Herb to carry out further research in French history, culminating in his important The King's State: Proprietary Dynasticism in Early Modern France (Rutgers, 1980). These appointments and grants also gave him the chance to develop his impressive breadth of historical knowledge, evident in his landmark textbook, A History of Early Modern Europe, 1500–1815 (1960). They also provided Herb the opportunity to hone his linguistic abilities, as he translated a half-dozen historical works from three different languages.

Still it was that early study as a graduate student at Columbia, of Pomponne in the Netherlands, that would influence Herb's scholarly career most, for that study not only deepened his understanding of French history, but introduced Herb to the field where he would eventually leave his intellectual legacy: the history of the Dutch, or as he liked to call it, "the damned exceptionalism of the Dutch."

Herb was arguably the most important English-speaking historian of the Dutch Republic since John Lothrop Motley. This is clear in his The Princes of Orange (Cambridge, 1988) and a dozen articles (gathered in The Rhyme and Reason of Politics in Early Modern Europe: Collected Essays of Herbert H. Rowen [Kluwer, 1992]) on the Republic, but it is most especially clear in his magnum opus, John de Witt (Princeton, 1978; issued in an abridged edition by Cambridge in 1986), which was not merely a biography of a statesman but an age. Herb’s easy familiarity with the political traditions of the republican Dutch and the monarchical French helped him more than perhaps any single historian to sharpen understanding of each, a trait certainly manifest in his “big De Witt,” as be liked to call it, but in his other works as well.

After 23 years on the faculty at Rutgers, Herb retired in 1987. During the decade that followed, he continued translating and writing reviews, and prepared a first draft of a book on the Bentinck brothers, an important Dutch family of the 18th century—a book which may yet appear in slightly different form. But he especially enjoyed having more time with his children and grandchildren, who, like many friends and students, will remember him more for his warmth, wit, and large heart than his unusual gifts as a historian. Herb is survived by three children: Douglas Rowen of Madison, New Jersey; Amy Rowen Bishop of New York City; and Marthe Rowen of Charlotesville, Virginia; a sister, Laura Siegel of Weston, Florida, and New York City; and six grandchildren. A memorial service was held for him on April 7 in Princeton, near his longtime home in Rocky Hill.

Brigham Young University

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