PROFESSOR Barrie Dobson, who has died at his home in York aged 81, was one of Britain’s most distinguished medieval historians.
Born in Stockton and raised in Middleton-in-Teesdale, he retired in 1999 as Professor of Medieval History at the University of Cambridge. Previously, he had spent 24 years at York, playing a key role in developing the city’s successful new university, becoming Professor and Deputy Vice-Chancellor, as well as helping to establish the York Film Theatre.
Mr Dobson’s father was a railway worker who was based in Brazil for much of his childhood. He was raised on a farm on the border of the North Riding and County Durham and went to school in Barnard Castle, where he developed a love of the local landscape and of learning. A neighbouring farmer once noticed the young boy talking to himself in the fields and told his mother. She investigated and found he was trying to memorise Latin.
His academic career took him to Wadham College, Oxford, where he gained a first class degree, and then to Magdalen College, where he completed a D. Phil thesis on Durham Priory during the early 15th century.
Later, after he had spent six years as a lecturer at St Andrews and then moved to the new university at York, a greatly expanded version of this was published as the book Durham Priory 1400-1450, which established his reputation as a leading historian of monasticism and the northern Church. It was, said one reviewer, “a massive contribution to the religious and social history of medieval England”. His interest in ecclesiastical institutions was also reflected in Church and Society in the Medieval North of England, the 1996 book of his collected essays.
For generations of students and specialists alike, his best-known book is probably The Peasants’ Revolt of 1381, still a standard work more than 40 years after its publication, an elegantly written and lucid analysis of Wat Tyler’s uprising, which allowed the dissenting voices of the 14th century to be heard again.
Mr Dobson also wrote, with his friend John Taylor, from Leeds University, Rymes of Robyn Hood, the first modern scholarly account of the ballad texts that accompany the legend of the English forest outlaw. It, too, remains a definitive text on an elusive hero. His many other writings include a study of the Jews of medieval York and the massacre of 1190, examining one of the most traumatic events in the city’s history.
Despite his academic workload, he always had time for other people, whether colleagues or undergraduates. During his years at York, he worked closely with other departments to help establish its Centre for Medieval Studies, a model of interdisciplinary excellence which still thrives.
Among his many other posts and interests, both national of local, he was a fellow of the British Academy, vice president of the Royal Historical Society, president of the Jewish Historical Society of England and the Ecclesiastical History Society, as well as chairman of the York Archaeological Trust, a member of the York Glaziers Trust and general editor of the Yorkshire Archaeological Society Record Series.
In 1988, he became Professor of Medieval History at Cambridge University and a fellow at Christ’s College, but returned to live in York on his retirement 11 years later, where he continued to explore the city’s history. Among other publications, he co-edited with David Smith a history of the Merchant Taylors of York – of which he was also a life member and honorary archivist as well as master of their hall in central York.
In all aspects of his work and life, Barrie Dobson was an enthusiast. A gregarious, generous and engaging man, he had many interests beyond medieval history.
His early days gave him a taste for the northern landscape which he never lost, with a particular passion for walking on the higher slopes of the Lake District.
He also loved jazz, literature and cinema.
He took great pride in the accomplishments of his family, and is survived by his wife Narda, whom he married in 1959, son Mark, daughter Michelle and grandson Theo.