Obituary: Professor Derek Pearsall, historian

Derek Pearsall, who has died at 90, was Professor of English at the University of York and then at Harvard, and was in 1968 one of three co-founders of York’s Centre for Medieval Studies.

Derek Pearsall

He had been hired by the Department of English and Related Literature a few years after the founding of the North Yorkshire campus, and continued as Professor of English until he moved to the American Ivy League institution in 1985 as the Gurney Professor of Medieval Literature. Throughout his time at Harvard, he maintained his home in York and returned there after he retired, becoming a fixture at conferences and talks by visiting scholars.

A native of Birmingham, Prof Pearsall had a world-wide reputation as a scholar of Middle English literature, with a focus on the principal Middle English authors of the late 14th and early 15th centuries. He wrote biographies of John Lydgate and Geoffrey Chaucer, edited the last revised version of William Langland’s narrative poem, Piers Plowman, and wrote numerous books and articles about the authors of Middle English literature and the manuscripts in which their works were disseminated.

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Only two months ago, he published, with Linne Mooney, a catalogue of the manuscripts of John Gower’s Confessio Amantis, and he has two articles forthcoming.

But his influence was more far-reaching than even these publications suggest, and he was a constant presence at medieval conferences, encouraging younger scholars and serving on boards of academic societies and research projects.

He and his late wife, Rosemary, had five children, one of whom, Simon, died in 2009, and six grandchildren.