In Memoriam

Thomas Head (1956–2014)

Richard Belsky | Oct 1, 2015

Historian of the Middle Ages

Thomas Head, professor of medieval history at Hunter College and the Grad­uate Center of the City University of New York, died after a long and debilitating illness on November 12, 2014. Although Tom was not survived by any close family members, he remains warmly remembered by his colleagues and many close friends. Tom was born August 1, 1956, at Camp Lejeune, North Carolina, and was the son of the late Thomas F. Head Sr. and Dorothy (Minor) Head. Tom graduated from Portsmouth Abbey High School and received his AB/AM (1978) and his PhD (1985) from Harvard University. He taught at the Claremont School of Theology (1985–89), Pomona College (1989–90), Yale University (1990–94), and Washington University (1994–98) before coming to Hunter College as a full professor in 1998.

Tom was a scholar of the early Middle Ages and devoted a substantial body of pathbreaking scholarship to hagiography and how the cults of the saints reinforced and created social bonds and expectations. As scholars recognize, the lives of the saints comprise one of the largest bodies of writings surviving from the early medieval era. They shed an often peculiarly tinged light on social expectations, social cohesion, and the role of the church, in addition to foregrounding often subversive or unexpected forms of holiness. Tom’s particular contribution, in his book Hagiography and the Cult of Saints(2005), was to look at how saints and their official histories (vitae) were reworked long after the first establishment of their cults. Looking particularly at the diocese of Orleans, Tom showed how saints were restored to favor but as different kinds of figures with different functions and bases for reverence. Saints from the Merovingian era (sixth and seventh centuries) fell into obscurity, but their life stories were then revived between 800 and 1200 in a new era and put to new uses.

Among Tom’s most influential works were two edited volumes on medieval saints. Medieval Hagiography (2001) is a tremendously useful translation of source material from medieval saints’ lives. Soldiers of Christ (1995; coedited with Thomas Noble) is a collection of articles about saints of late antiquity and the early Middle Ages. Both remain indispensable.

Tom also did innovative work on the Peace of God movement, a 10th- and early 11th-century church-sponsored attempt to regulate warfare. The Peace of God movement has long fascinated and puzzled medievalists. It appears to have been a series of church councils that led to bans on the most violent and disruptive acts of private warfare of the sort that characterized the Middle Ages and the 10th century particularly. According to the regulations of this council, clergy were not to be attacked, nor were the “poor,” or peasants, or sometimes townspeople and merchants. By assuming responsibility for regulating warfare, to the point of sometimes enlisting its own armies, the church (beginning in southern France and Catalonia) seems for the first time to have been attempting to limit endemic violence.

Some historians have seen this as an anticipation of the Crusades a century later, in which peace was proclaimed among Christians and certain kinds of warfare deemed legitimate, even while holy war, meritorious in itself, was initiated. Others have seen the Peace as part of the process of imposing civil discipline on a disordered Europe, paving the way for the growth of the state as well as the intervention of the church into secular affairs. Tom’s work on the Peace identified texts to be used in attempts to understand specific councils. He showed that accounts of these meetings and their regulations are unreliable and have not been examined carefully enough. Tom also showed that many of the confident statements about what the Peace meant or imposed are based on repetition of weak data. With Richard Landes, Tom edited The Peace of God: Social Violence and Religious Response in France around the Year 1000 (1992).

Tom will be remembered as a supportive, sympathetic, and warm-hearted medievalist colleague. He read the work of fellow scholars with insight and perceptiveness. An appreciation of Tom Head would not be complete if it did not provide a sense of his joie de vivre and infectious enthusiasm, his passions for travel as well as for his native Rhode Island, his appreciation for the cuisines of many cultures, and his fondness for anecdote and the absurd. Finally, the Catholic faith, in which he was brought up, inspired his quiet and intense commitment.

Richard Belsky, City University of New York

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