James M. Powell (1930–2011)
Siegfried Baur and Carol Faulkner, November 2011
Historian of medieval Europe; helped to resurrect Ranke Library at Syracuse
James Matthew Powell, professor emeritus of medieval history at Syracuse University and founder of modern, source-based research on Leopold von Ranke, passed away on January 27, 2011.
Powell, who was born in Cincinnati, Ohio, in 1930, received his BA and MA from Xavier University, and his PhD from Indiana University. After stints at Kent State and the University of Illinois, he joined Syracuse University in 1965, and taught history there until his retirement in 1997. The focal point of his teaching and publishing was the epoch of the crusades. His first monograph, based on his dissertation, was Medieval Monarchy and Trade: The Economic Policy of Frederick II in the Kingdom of Sicily. His other books include Medieval Studies: An Introduction (Syracuse University Press, 1976, 1992), Anatomy of a Crusade (University of Pennsylvania Press, 1986), Albertanus of Brescia: The Pursuit of Happiness in the Early Thirteenth Century (University of Pennsylvania Press, 1992), and The Crusades, the Kingdom of Sicily, and the Mediterranean (Ashgate, 2007).
Powell's publications also include critical editions and translations, most importantly The Deeds of Pope Innocent III (Catholic University of America, 2004). Powell was a great proponent of translation, arguing that it encouraged scholars to use a text in its entirety, rather than consulting only the sections relevant to their research.
In his writing as well as in his teaching, Powell not only adopted various approaches—religious, ecclesiastical, social, political, economic, and legal, for example—to understand history, but also brought to bear a Platonic analysis with a broader perspective, combining a profound knowledge of the sources, with an ability to see connections even in the distant past.
Powell did not regard medieval history simply as a research object or teaching subject. He saw himself as a mediator between epochs and generations, as a translator in the truest sense of the word, striving modestly and matter-of-factly toward the goal of a "greater understanding" of the past.
Powell achieved many accolades in his career: he was a member of the Institute for Advanced Study in Princeton, New Jersey, a president of the American Catholic Historical Association, and a founder of the Midwest Medieval History Conference.
Powell also played a central role in saving and promoting the library of the historian Leopold von Ranke, which had become a part of the Syracuse University Library in 1888. By 1970, the Ranke library was somewhat the worse for wear, barely recognizable and, indeed written off and forgotten. Although Powell had been told—as he recollected later—that it was of no value, he soon realized that that it was "one of the richest collections in the United States." Working with his colleagues Edward Muir (now at Northwestern), Kenneth Pennington (now at the Catholic University of America), the late Joseph Levine, and Frederick Marquardt, as well as Syracuse University librarians, Powell succeeded in securing funds from the National Endowment for the Humanities for cataloging the library, which included over 25,000 books, pamphlets, and manuscripts. His efforts culminated in the international Ranke Conference held in Syracuse October 16–18, 1986, arranged jointly by Syracuse University and the American Historical Association to celebrate the centennial anniversary of Ranke's death. This conference produced a collection of essays edited by Georg G. Iggers and James M. Powell, Leopold von Ranke and the Shaping of the Historical Discipline (Syracuse University Press, 1989).
Powell's vision was "to make the Ranke Collection live again [and to] enable it to communicate more effectively the riches it contains to new generations of students and scholars." Powell saw himself as a mediator translating from one world into another: as a mediator who, incidentally, knew how to secure project funds in the face of resistance. Anyone who has ever experienced the way in which this great, modest scholar, confronted with the most difficult of questions, leaned back and then smoothed his tie, before finally beginning with the calmest of voices: "Well, you know . . ." also knows full well that Powell had the composure and the energy not only to initiate a project of this nature, but also to see it through to a successful conclusion over 12 demanding years.
Historians, Ranke researchers, librarians and other interested parties now have direct access to the Syracuse Ranke Library via Syracuse University Library's online catalogue. There, they can see even the most precious of Ranke's manuscripts, such as MS 90, in digital format. Without Powell's tireless and persistent efforts none of this would have been possible.
James Powell is survived by his six children: James, Michael, Mark, John, Mary Lee, and Miriam, seven grandchildren, and one great-grandchild.