Boyd Howard Hill Jr. (1931–2018)

Historian of Medieval Germany

Scott G. Bruce and Sean Gilsdorf | Nov 1, 2018

Boyd Howard Hill Jr. Boyd Howard Hill Jr., a scholar of medieval Germany and premodern medical history, died on July 2, 2018, at his home in Longmont, Colorado. A native of Clearwater, Florida, he completed his undergraduate degree in history at Duke University before he was drafted into the US Army for service in the Korean War in 1953. Hill then earned his MA (1957) and PhD (1963) in history from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. After a short stint as an instructor at Louisiana State University in Baton Rouge, he joined the Department of History at the University of Colorado Boulder in 1964, where he succeeded the eminent medievalist S. Harrison Thompson. Hill would remain at CU Boulder until his retirement in 2001.

Early in his career, Hill was a pioneering scholar of medieval medical theory. His research on premodern anatomy, and his discovery of little-known medical manuscripts (notably the Latin manuscripts of the fourth-century Greek medical scholar Oribasius), culminated in his frequently cited 1965 article “The Grain and the Spirit in Mediaeval Anatomy,” published in the Medieval Academy of America’s journal Speculum. The history of medieval Germany, however, was Hill’s abiding passion, particularly the Ottonian period (919–1024 CE). Concerned by the dearth of English-language scholarship on the German Empire and the absence of translations of important primary texts in the 1960s, he helped remedy this situation with the publication of The Rise of the First Reich: Germany in the Tenth Century (1969) and Medieval Monarchy in Action: The German Empire from Henry I to Henry IV (1972). Both volumes performed a valuable public service by introducing scholars and students to the Ottonian period through translated primary sources and discussions of German historiography. They also demonstrated Hill’s abiding commitment to the critical study of official medieval acts (diplomatics), which he taught to generations of students in summer institutes and CU seminars.

Hill also read widely in new historical methodologies, exemplified by two articles on comparative history in the American Historical Review, both co-authored with his wife, Alette Olin Hill: “Marc Bloch and Comparative History” (1980) and “Comparative History in Theory and Practice” (1982). Hill was committed to graduate and undergraduate teaching, as well as departmental service. He spent seven years as chair of the Departments of History (1981–85) and Classics (1986–87) at CU. His gradually failing eyesight led to his retirement in 2001.

Throughout his career, Hill was a tireless advocate for the study of premodern history on the Front Range of the Rockies. He helped to establish the Rocky Mountain Medieval and Renaissance Assocation and its journal Quidditas (1980–present), and was elected president of the association in 1983–84. In addition, he served as a councilor of the Pacific Coast Branch of the American Historical Association (1971–74) and as a member of the Executive Committee of the Committee for Centers and Regional Associations of the Medieval Academy of America (1980–84).

Hill championed paleography, diplomatics, and the other time-honored Hilfswissenschaften (ancillary disciplines) of medieval historiography as essential tools for teasing out the hidden details of premodern society, tucked away in neglected manuscripts. At the same time, he also was a forward-looking thinker, eager to read and apply new techniques and approaches to the study of the past. As a colleague, he could appear stern; he did not suffer fools, was intellectually combative, and relished a good argument. Yet he was also supportive and sympathetic, and generously shared his time, expertise, and sense of humor with his undergraduate and graduate students and junior colleagues. His enthusiasm and energy were infectious, and his classroom antics legendary (including teaching undergraduate students how to make their own bishop’s miters out of newspaper). Hill’s affection could be measured by how much he ribbed you in private. True to the German saying, Was sich liebt, das neckt sich (he teased the ones he loved). We will miss him.


Scott G. Bruce
Fordham University

Sean Gilsdorf
Harvard University


Tags: In Memoriam Europe


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