Phyllis B. Roberts (1932–2018)
Medieval Historian; AHA 50-Year Member
Phyllis Barzillay Roberts, a groundbreaking scholar in medieval sermon studies, died on January 14, 2018, in New York City.
Born in Baltimore, Roberts received her BA from Goucher College with a major in classics. After time on a kibbutz in Israel and teaching in Hebrew schools in New York, she received an MA from Hunter College in 1959 and her PhD from Columbia University in 1966. At Columbia, Roberts joined Suzanne Wemple and Jo Ann McNamara as the only women in John Hine Mundy’s doctoral seminar. She forged a new path for historical scholarship in the United States when she examined preaching and sermons not as theology but as sources for understanding medieval life and issues of church and state. Her dissertation focused on Stephen Langton, the archbishop of Canterbury at the time of the Magna Carta. She went on to teach history for nearly 30 years at the College of Staten Island and the CUNY Graduate Center before retiring in 1995.
Roberts’s impeccable scholarship was always done with an eye to facilitating the ongoing work of scholars and students. Studies in the Sermons of Stephen Langton (1968) contributed an innovative comparative method for determining authentic texts. Selected Sermons of Stephen Langton (1980) made available Latin texts of key sermons of this famous biblical scholar and preacher, along with an introduction and notes. Langton dedicated a shrine in Canterbury Cathedral to the martyr Thomas Becket, who became a favorite saint among the English people in spite of royal attempts to erase him from the historical record. Roberts’s Thomas Becket in the Medieval Latin Preaching Tradition: An Inventory of Sermons about St. Thomas Becket c. 1170–c. 1400 (1992) enabled scholars to follow this homiletic trajectory and its impact on the expansion of Becket’s cult. Roberts continued to track the fortunes of Becket in text and pulpit into the early days of the English Reformation. In a major public lecture, “King Henry VIII and the War Against St. Thomas Becket,” Roberts revealed the variety of responses to the king’s order to expunge the archbishop’s name from the liturgical record. Whereas some excised his name or blackened it from view, others drew a faint line through it or placed a delete sign in the margin, preferring to maintain Becket’s place in ecclesiastical history.
Through her research and publications, Roberts persuaded many scholars to include sermons as key sources for studying the Middle Ages. She strengthened and enlivened her work with the images from daily life that preachers employed to illuminate spiritual teachings. Among her many scholarly articles, book chapters, and reviews, her 1999 essay in Medieval Sermon Studies, “Sermon Studies Scholarship: The Last Thirty-Five Years,” stands out as a guide to the field she helped to shape as a multidisciplinary focus among those in history, theology, literature, art history, and performance theory.
Roberts showed a special devotion to younger colleagues and students, whom she nurtured professionally and personally with great generosity. She was a founding member of the International Medieval Sermon Studies Society (1988) and its first secretary. She set a lasting tone of collaboration and encouragement, helping to shape a strong and mutually supportive academic community. International scholars deeply respected her and valued her warmth, humility, and confident lack of self-promotion in her interactions with other members. The rich output of publications in the field of medieval sermon studies today is a tribute to her foundational work.
Even in her last years, Roberts continued to be active. She presented a poster at the International Medieval Sermon Studies Society Symposium in St. Augustine, Florida, in 2016 and contributed the entry on Langton to the Encyclopedia of the Bible and Its Reception, published in 2017.
Phyllis Roberts is survived by her husband, Earl Roberts; her son, Jonathan Roberts; his wife, Lisa; and their son, Aidan.
Beverly Mayne Kienzle
Harvard Divinity School (retired)
Anne T. Thayer
Lancaster Theological Seminary
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