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In Memoriam Giles Constable

Posted On April 30, 2021 | 14:05 pm | by lainw | Permalink

By Michael McCormick

Giles Constable, third director of Dumbarton Oaks, former Henry C. Lea Professor of Medieval History at Harvard University and emeritus professor in the School of Historical Studies of the Institute for Advanced Study (IAS), died on January 17 at his home in Princeton, NJ, of complications from longstanding ailments. Coming at a critical moment in the life of Dumbarton Oaks, Constable’s directorship laid the foundations for forty years of unbroken success.

Aptly described by the Institute of Advanced Study as “a giant in the field of medieval history,” Constable was the foremost historian of medieval monasticism in our time. Born in London in 1929, he moved to Cambridge, MA, with his family in 1938. His father, the accomplished art historian W. G. Constable, a specialist notably of Canaletto, left his professorship of fine art at the University of Cambridge and directorship of the Courtauld Institute to become curator at Boston’s Museum of Fine Arts. Giles Constable received his AB from Harvard College in 1950, and his PhD in medieval history in 1957. His dissertation edited the letters of Peter the Venerable, abbot of the great abbey of Cluny and one of the leading figures in twelfth-century Europe. He studied particularly under Helen Maude Cam, the first woman to serve as a professor in Harvard’s Faculty of Art and Sciences, and a distinguished historian of local administration in medieval England. The ancient and medieval historian and epigrapher Herbert Bloch was his dissertation advisor. Bloch may have been Constable’s first connection to Dumbarton Oaks, since Bloch, recently escaped from Fascist Italy and Germany, held a junior fellowship in Byzantine Studies in 1941–1942, in the second year of the program’s existence.

Constable authored or edited more than twenty books on the religious and intellectual history of medieval Europe, including People and Power in Byzantium, coauthored with Alexander P. Kazhdan, the first book in English by the eminent Soviet immigrant and Dumbarton Oaks scholar. Constable always remembered with fondness his initial teaching appointment at the University of Iowa (1955–1958), which he left to return to Harvard, where he taught and rose to tenure in the Department of History until, in 1977, he accepted the directorship of Dumbarton Oaks.

It would be difficult to encompass Constable’s permanent impact on this organization and the three fields it fosters in even a lengthy memoir. Future historians will unpack the complexity of the situation that confronted Harvard and Dumbarton Oaks when he arrived: it was far from easy or obvious. Dumbarton Oaks was, in many respects, the personal creation of Mildred and Robert Bliss and the scholars they recruited to join their enterprise. In the years following Mildred Bliss’s decease (1969), Dumbarton Oaks still resembled their extended household, staffed largely by the Blisses’ personal attendants, and now featuring loosely organized research nuclei of junior and senior scholars, libraries, museums, gardens, an extensively uncatalogued collection of Byzantine coins and lead seals, and various archaeological projects focusing on the Blisses’ personal areas of academic interest (landscape architecture, Pre-Columbian art and archaeology and, for both Blisses, the center of gravity: the  Mediterranean humanities as epitomized by Byzantine civilization). 

Constable, by then the consummate Harvard insider as well as an internationally honored scholar, took up the directorship at this crucial turning point. In a time when some doubted whether so complex an institution could thrive as part of a distant Harvard University, he ensured this great center of humanistic learning received the structures—material, administrative, financial, institutional, and intellectual—not only to survive but to flourish and grow under his successors. Constable worked day and night to guide and shape the Blisses’ inspiration into a robust permanent place of convergence and promotion of advanced humanities research and publication in its three disciplines, without neglecting the magnificent but ever-changing gardens as well as a then-obsolete physical plant. And he did so in a period when the generous endowment that powered this unique institution suffered significant erosion from global inflationary pressures.

Constable addressed the considerable challenges of transforming this magnificent if physically deteriorating place with vigor, imagination, and discipline, in a process of academic institutionalization. The results allowed Dumbarton Oaks to rebound, survive, and live up to its vast potential for supporting and even shaping major areas of humanistic study in the United States and around the globe. Tact and firmness were indispensable in dealing with the fears and rumors rampant within Dumbarton Oaks and the broader intellectual communities it was a part of, and with the countervailing pressures emanating from Cambridge. Yet Constable’s probity, good judgment, infinite patience, and quiet toughness, as well as his unparalleled understanding of the patterns of power at Harvard, allowed him to persevere and achieve remarkable results, from institutionally appropriate governance to replacing rotting roofs. He preserved Dumbarton Oaks’ invaluable book and photo collections by rebuilding the parts of the original building that held them and by installing, for the first time, constant temperature and humidity controls, including air conditioning in areas of the building which henceforth allowed research to continue during Washington’s subtropical summers.

At the same time that he built Dumbarton Oaks up from the inside and in respect of its Cambridge trustees, Constable sought to open the institution to the outside. To the dismay of the staff who found their pool hours curtailed by the innovation, he unbolted the magnificent gardens to the general public in the summer. Deploying his international standing and intellectual connections, he worked ceaselessly to build closer relationships with the impressive but rather dispersed institutions of higher learning in the greater DC area, from Catholic and Georgetown Universities to the University of Maryland and, further afield, Johns Hopkins. Although permanent faculty appointments came to an end at Dumbarton Oaks, under Constable, nonpermanent research associates and senior research associates were appointed and helped foster a continuous intellectual core which expanded each semester with the research fellowships of senior scholars and graduate students, including the new and highly successful summer fellowship program that expanded manifold Dumbarton Oaks’ global scholarly impact. At a time when Byzantine and late antique studies were in danger and new appointments had nearly ceased in North America, Constable created a lifeline for rising scholars by developing joint appointments of assistant professors with local universities (half-time at Dumbarton Oaks and half-time teaching and administering in the partner university department).

Thus Constable introduced Byzantine studies to departments of Classics, Art History, and History at the University of Maryland, Johns Hopkins, Georgetown, and American University. At Harvard itself, Dumbarton Oaks professorships were created in Classics, History of Art and Architecture, and History, ensuring permanent representation of the Blisses’ beloved Byzantine civilization in Harvard’s undergraduate and graduate teaching and research. Following a suggestion of his Harvard colleague Ihor Ševčenko, Constable traveled to Vienna to meet the great Russian Byzantinist Alexander Kazhdan, recently prohibited from publishing and forced to leave the Soviet Union. Deeply impressed by the man and his mind, Constable organized for Kazhdan a one-year appointment at Dumbarton Oaks that turned into nineteen years of golden productivity. Kazhdan spurred a generation of younger scholars to aspire to the lofty heights he had attained, and created—with Constable’s encouragement and support and with his magnificent coeditor Alice-Mary Talbot and Dumbarton Oaks staff and researchers—the indispensable companion to today’s Byzantine studies. The Oxford Dictionary of Byzantium (1991) is the first general reference work of its kind in the field. 

In tandem with the gifted Byzantine studies librarian, Irene Vaslef, Constable sought to expand the scope of that library from excellence in Byzantium to broad coverage of late antiquity and the medieval West, with the result that it is now possible to pursue research linking Byzantium to Western Europe and to its Roman past in ways that were impossible in 1977. Even the Friends of Music, as it was then called, attracted his close attention. He reached beyond the established performers and works to younger artists, such as the then-newly formed Emerson String Quartet. Constable preferred to promote and explore complete cycles of great works, for instance Emerson’s performances of the complete string quartets of Beethoven and Shostakovich, which still ring in the ears of those privileged to hear them. A concert by Frederica von Stade, one of the artists he most prized, was a memorable moment in the events that marked in 1984 the conclusion of Constable’s remarkable service as director. In 1985 he accepted an appointment to the faculty in the School of Historical Studies at the Institute for Advanced Study, where he became emeritus in 2003. His wife, Esther Van Horne Young (“Evhy”), a children’s book author who also made her mark on those privileged to know her during his directorship, died in 1987; his daughter Olivia Remie Constable, the accomplished historian of the medieval Islamic Mediterranean world, passed away in 2014. He is survived by his son, the botanist John V. H. Constable, and his loving partner, Patricia Woolf.


Michael McCormick is Frances Goelet Professor of Medieval History at Harvard University. Image: Giles Constable in the Director’s Office, 1978. Dumbarton Oaks Archives, AR.PH.DO.005.