Publication Date

November 1, 2012

Perspectives Section

In Memoriam

J.M.W. BeanHistorian of English Feudalism

John Malcolm William Bean, professor emeritus of history at Columbia University, died peacefully in a hospital in London on May 14, 2012. He was 83. Bean was widely recognized as one of the leading scholars of the late medieval English nobility.

Malcolm Bean was born on August 25, 1928, in south Wales. An early passion for Latin, which earned him a prize in secondary school, influenced his decision to study medieval history. He received his BA from Oxford in 1949, and his DPhil in 1952. At Oxford he received the A. M. P. Read Scholarship in History award in 1949, and the Arnold Essay Prize in 1951. His thesis, written under the supervision of the influential Bruce McFarlane, was published as The Estates of the Percy Family, 1416–1537 (Oxford, 1958). G.A. Holmes characterized it as the “first thorough modern study of a fifteenth century baronial inheritance.”

The sudden death of Bean's father in 1950 necessitated that he teach in secondary school to help support his family, but in 1956 he took a position at the University of Manchester where he remained until moving to Columbia University in 1968. At Columbia he devoted considerable energy to administration, acting as Chair of the History Department for seven years during the 1970s, and participating in several important search committees. Despite the fact that Bean believed above all in original scholarly research, he also advocated the not-always-popular position that every professor should teach undergraduates since they were in fact paying their salaries.

Bean wrote a series of unique monographs challenging many of the prevailing assumptions regarding feudalism and the English nobility. He relished delving into technical issues such as land tenure or indentures of retinue as a way of revealing the weaknesses in existing historiographical arguments. In what he considered his most important monograph, The Decline of English Feudalism, 1215–1540 (Manchester, 1968), he contested the idea that military service formed the essence of English feudalism, arguing instead that feudal incidents, such as reliefs, wardship and marriage, were more critical, chiefly as sources of revenue—a view now widely accepted.

Taking quite literally McFarlane's injunction to bite the hand that feeds you, Bean eagerly disputed his former advisor's conception of "Bastard Feudalism," a supposedly debased form of feudalism in which money payments replaced land grants. In his book From Lord to Patron: Lordship in Late Medieval England (Manchester, 1989), which Thomas Bisson called ” a notably constructive critique of feudalism” Bean argued that the distinction between receiving land or money for services was artificial. He stressed instead continuity in the relations between lords and men, centered on the noble household, stretching from Beowulf to the Armada. Although highly critical of models of feudalism, Bean did not follow the semantic arguments denying the existence of anything feudal, insisting instead upon a precise examination of feudal institutions.

Bean also provided a trenchant critique of the idea of an unremitting economic depression in England between 1348 and 1500, especially as this affected lordly incomes. Most of the outbreaks of the plague following the Black Death, he indicated in a provocative and still cited article of 1963, were simply not as severe as many thought. In his work on the Percies, and his chapter on landlords in The Agrarian History of England and Wales, Vol. III, he showed that lordly income fluctuated across the late middle ages, while varying regionally and according to the type of lordship. Instead of crisis Bean emphasized the variety of lordly strategies in the face of economic challenges.

Coming from a generation of scholars who trained in the classic constitutional history of Bishop Stubbs but who invigorated the study of English social history with greater attention to the impact of demographic and economic change, Bean was notable among his contemporaries for his rigorous scholarship and iconoclastic approach to historical models and schools of historiography. He could be brutally critical, but always with a lively wit and uncompromising intellectual honesty. Though not for the faint of heart, his seminars featured a unique combination of incisive Socratic exchanges, ruthlessly logical analyses, and unexpectedly kind mentoring which left an indelible impression on his students. And he did not exclude himself from his critiques, being fond of quipping that most scholarly books should not be published—including his own!

J. M. W. Bean retired in 1990, but continued to supervise doctoral students and engage in research while enjoying time in London and Italy. He is survived by two younger brothers and their respective families.

—Clif Hubby
New York University

—Vicki Velsor
Speonk, New York

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