Publication Date

March 1, 2009

Perspectives Section

In Memoriam

Joe LynchScholar of Medieval Europe

Joseph Howard Lynch of Ohio State University in Columbus, Ohio, died on December 27, 2008. Joe Lynch was one of the most widely respected and beloved members of Ohio State’s Department of History—indeed of the Ohio State University community—and will be deeply missed by many. He was 65 years old.

Joseph Lynch was born in Springfield, Massachusetts, on November 21, 1943, the son of Charles and Anna Lynch. He was one of four siblings. In 1961, Joe Lynch entered Boston College from which he graduated summa cum laude in 1965 and was named valedictorian of his class. That summer he married Ann Spazzarini with whom he had attended high school in Springfield. He then pursued graduate studies at Harvard University, where he studied medieval history under Giles Constable and ancient history under Mason Hammond. His dissertation, “Simoniacal Entry into Religious Houses, 1050–1215,” was directed by Constable and won him the PhD in 1971. He and Ann, together with their daughter, Elizabeth Ann, lived in Paris in 1969–70, where Lynch worked almost daily at the Bibliotheque National. After his return from France, he accepted a one-year position at the University of Illinois in Champaign. In the fall of 1971, he arrived at Ohio State University and spent the remainder of his career in Columbus.

In 1976, Lynch published a revised version of his dissertation with the Ohio State University Press. Simoniacal Entry into Religious Life from 1000 to 1260: A Social, Economic, and Legal Study dealt with the buying and selling of offices in the medieval church and was widely recognized as a pioneering effort. Never one to rest on his scholarly laurels, Lynch almost immediately began a decade-long investigation of the institution of godparentage in medieval times. In 1986, Princeton University Press published Godparents and Kinship in Early Medieval Europe. Ostensibly focused on European practices, this work drew revealing comparisons as well with institutional behaviors in Mexico and in other parts of the Spanish colonial empire. It was well informed also by anthropological studies of fictive kinship. The recognition that Lynch gained from this work led to a visiting appointment at the Institute for Advanced Study in Princeton, New Jersey, for the 1987–88 academic year. Lynch revisited the subject of baptism and godparenting in the medieval religious context, publishing Christianizing Kinship: Ritual Sponsorship in Anglo-Saxon England in 1998 with Cornell University Press. In his monographs, Lynch’s erudition in reading medieval texts is noteworthy. He was an expert on canon law, patristic writings, medieval theological texts, chronicles, penitentiary literature, and advice books for parish priests. He read Latin with ease, learned Anglo-Saxon to research his book on godparenting in Anglo-Saxon England, and continued to study Greek for the enjoyment of the language. His work involved archival research as well as printed texts. His interest in monasticism began with his dissertation and first book and was a lifelong intellectual pursuit. He collected materials to write a book on deathbed conversion to monastic life.

The considerable reputation that Joe Lynch developed from these early monographic studies attracted the attention of London’s Longman publishing house in 1989, and the following year he agreed to prepare a general history of the medieval church.The Medieval Church: A Brief History appeared in 1992 and has remained a standard textbook on the subject. Translations were published in Ukrainian in 1994, in Serbo-Croatian in 1999, and in Korean in 2002. Shortly before his death, Lynch had completed a new work entitled Early Christianity: A Brief History, which was published in winter 2009.

In addition to these five books, Joe Lynch was the author of 14 articles in several edited books and journals including Speculum (1985), The American Benedictine Review (1975 and 1980), the Dictionary of the Middle Ages (1988), andChristian History (1996). He also published 49 reviews. including 12 in the American Historical Review.

Joseph Lynch was widely known by professional colleagues throughout the United States and abroad for his presentations at academic meetings and conferences, including a major address on “Church Finances in the Middle Ages” in Geneva, Switzerland, in 1989. But he was especially beloved by thousands of undergraduates and graduate students at Ohio State University for his deeply informed, droll, often ironic but invariably amusing lectures in medieval history and the history of Christianity, as well as in small group seminars on the Crusades, monasticism, historiography, and a variety of other subjects. He directed 11 doctoral dissertations together with 21 masters’ theses and three senior honors projects in the Department of History. He was a devoted advisor and mentor to many graduate students. His door was always open for serious discussion about books for prelims, theses, and dissertation chapters. He conducted a medieval Latin reading group for graduate students on a volunteer basis. His remarkable success in the lecture hall and in seminar won him the Alumni Distinguished Teaching Award (1978), the Teaching Award of the Ohio State University Alumni of Greater Cleveland (1998), and induction into the Ohio State University Academy of Teaching (1993). A particular recognition of his lecturing skills was an invitation by the university president to deliver the winter 2007 commencement address to Ohio State’s graduating class. No less prominent were his numerous accolades for scholarly achievement. During his career, Joe Lynch held fellowships from the American Council of Learned Societies, the National Endowment for the Humanities, and the John Simon Guggenheim Foundation. He was awarded the Ohio Academy of History Book Prize in 1987 for Godparents and Kinship in Early Medieval Europe. In 2001–02, he served as president of the Catholic Historical Association. He was elected a fellow of the Medieval Academy in 2008. At Ohio State University he received the University Distinguished Scholar Award in 1997 and was named University Distinguished Professor in 2000. The same year he received appointment as the Joe R. Engle Designated Professor of the History of Christianity. Always one to accept fully the responsibilities of academic citizenship, Lynch also served with consummate skill as director of the Center for Medieval and Renaissance Studies, 1978–83, and chair of the Department of History, 1989–93, and in other administrative offices. At the time of his death, he was serving as chair of the history department’s Undergraduate Teaching Committee. Colleagues recognized his extraordinary commitment to service by awarding him the College of Humanities Exemplary Faculty Award and the Ohio Academy of History Distinguished Service Award, both in 1993.

Lynch always said that he never wanted to be anything but a university professor of medieval history; and according to his daughter Elizabeth Ann Congdon, he had set this goal for himself by the age of 14! He succeeded with a vengeance. Joe Lynch had no athletic pretensions at all, and, though a regular purchaser of season football tickets, admitted that he himself had never actually attended a game. Family members benefited from the tickets. Few faculty members could surpass him in sheer sociability. Dedicated scholar as he was, he rarely allowed work to interfere with lunch at the University Faculty Club where he regularly held forth on historical topics of all kinds, the latest gossip about university policies and administrators, or secular politics. All topics to do with religion were sure to engage his intellect and wit. He combined a vigorous sense of irony about human potentiality and nature with deeply held Catholic beliefs. He could be scathing but invariably amusing while discoursing on almost any topic. He was adept at puncturing the pretensions of individuals—but never with malice or ill will. When he got on a roll, he could keep an audience in stitches. He admitted—and not sheepishly—that one of his favorite relaxations was watching what one might call “junk television” after a long day of work. He was deeply devoted to his wife, three children, his seven grandchildren, surviving brothers, in-laws, and many friends at Ohio State and elsewhere. All of us will miss him very, very much.

—James R. Bartholomew
—Barbara A. Hanawalt
Ohio State University

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