➻ Gerald Aylmer [1926-2000]

por Teoría de la historia

Aylmer_GeraldGerald Aylmer, who has died aged 74, was not only one of the best historians of his generation but one of the best loved. He pioneered the study of the 17th century’s ancestors of the modern civil service. As a founder member of the University of York, he built up one of the finest schools of history in the country, and was much missed when he left to become master of St Peter’s College, Oxford. Gerald’s was a strongly individual personality, but he bore something of the stamp of his familial and educational background. It fitted one’s first impression of him that his forebears had a long tradition of naval service, and that he had distinguished himself at Winchester and Balliol College, Oxford. In 1944, after just six months at Oxford, he enlisted in the navy, and survived the perils of a wartime convoy to Murmansk. The singer George Melly, one of his shipmates on the lower deck, recalled his “deep booming voice and magnificent laugh”, his conviviality when ashore, his leftwing sympathies, and his enthusiasm for WH Auden. He retained these characteristics when he returned to Oxford. After getting the expected first, he spent a year at Princeton University before taking up a junior research fellowship at Balliol from 1951-54. His supervisor was RH Tawney, and his doctoral thesis on the institutions and personnel of English central administration under Charles I won such a reputation for the depth and originality of its research that it was widely read before he proceeded to publication. Gerald was a perfectionist, and took six years in refining its 1,180-plus pages down to the shapely book that we know as The King’s Servants. Its impact was immediate. It not only charted much little-known territory, but challenged dubious current theories about rising and falling gentry and the supposed divide between court and country. Yet, in criticising the exponents of these, its tone (as in all Gerald’s writings) was impeccably courteous and helped to raise historical controversy above the rancorous level to which it had sometimes descended in the immediate postwar years. Bureaucracy may sound a dull subject to non-specialists, but not so in Gerald’s hands. His lively interest in human character and his sensitivity to motives and aspirations make his books memorable as portrait galleries, as well as studies of institutions. The King’s Servants was followed in 1973 by the The State’s Servants, which explores the more difficult territory of the Interregnum with even greater originality. Thereafter, Gerald steadily pushed forward his study of central administration into the post-Restoration world, and he delivered The Crown’s Servants to the publishers shortly before his death. This trilogy will be his most lasting monument among fellow scholars, but he himself took his teaching commitments at least as seriously. He taught in the University of Manchester from 1954-62. There he found stimulating colleagues, but chafed at the professorial autocracy which prevailed and at the paucity of personal contact with students. The best thing that happened to him in his Manchester years was the wonderfully happy marriage that he contracted in 1955. He and his wife Ursula became much involved in the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament, and their cider parties for his students are still remembered. His great opportunity came when the University of York appointed him its first professor of history, when he was still only 36. He met the many challenges of the post superbly. He gave a lead to his young and rapidly growing department when it was needed, but ran it as a participatory democracy, holding frequent meetings at which everyone spoke freely and no topics were barred. He had the art of guiding his junior colleagues towards a consensus without resorting to divisive votes, and he encouraged their initiative in devising new courses. Something of his own qualities as a teacher can be gauged from The Struggle for the Constitution, 1603-89, the model text-book that he published in 1963. The same clarity, judiciousness and readability are found again in Rebellion Or Revolution?: England 1640-1660, which is aimed at the general reader no less than the student, while The Levellers in the English Revolution sparkles with clear judgment and warm sympathy. He also co-edited a handsome History Of York Minster, and there were many other publications. On moving to St Peter’s, he did not always find the same kindliness and companionability that he had helped to create at York. His period as Master from 1978-91, was not without its trials, which he met with his usual blend of authority and humanity. But he loved Oxford, and continued to teach postgraduate students. He was a great supervisor, and I have not met anyone whose research he guided who was not devoted to him. He was also generous with his time, serving the historical profession on a broader front. He was president of the Royal Historical Society from 1984-88, chairman of the Royal Commission on Historical Manuscripts for the next five years, and he also chaired the History of Parliament’s editorial board from 1989-98. Honours came to him steadily. He was elected to the British Academy in 1976, received honorary doctorates from Exeter and Manchester in 1991, and was presented with a festschrift in 1993. But he was a truly modest man, and his fellow scholars and pupils will remember him best for his warmth and friendship and his intuitive understanding of their concerns and problems. Philip Corrigan writes: Gerald Aylmer was involved in the organisation of a discussion group on English state formation which has met annually at St Peter’s College since 1981. When I last saw him, in October, he said that he prized this discussion group as among the most important gatherings with which he had been involved. It brought together historians and others, whose focus ranged from the 8th to the 20th centuries. Not only did regular members take away much that has influenced their thinking, teaching, research and publications, but several papers were published from our gatherings, notably in the Journal of Historical Sociology (on whose editorial board Gerald served from its inception). Always serious, without being officious, Gerald’s voice was an important one. He can be traced and felt as much in his talk on the Putney Debates; or, in one of the last works he saw through the press: The Diggers in their Own Time (Prose Studies, August 1999); or, in his entry The English Revolution for the Critical Historical Dictionary of Marxism (in German, 1997), as well as in his more widely known works. Gerald was not only a wonderful conversationalist, but he and I corresponded regularly over 20 years. I must, sadly, now cure myself of the long habit of thinking, “I must talk to Gerald about that.”

[Austin WOOLRYCH. “Gerald Aylmer”, in The Guardian, 29 de diciembre de 2000]