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William J. Bouwsma

Sather Professor of History, Emeritus





William J. Bouwsma, Sather Professor of History, Emeritus at the University of California, Berkeley, and former president of the American Historical Association (AHA; 1978), died in Berkeley on March 2, 2004. He was 80. He is survived by Beverly, his wife of 60 years; by four children (John and Sarah of Portland, Oregon; Philip of Guerneville, California; and Paul of Santa Cruz, California); and by six grandchildren.


Bouwsma was born of Dutch ancestry on November 22, 1923, in Ann Arbor, Michigan, and reared in Lincoln, Nebraska. After receiving his B.A. from Harvard University in 1943 and serving for three years in the Army Air Force, he returned to Harvard to obtain his Ph.D. in 1950. After seven years of teaching at the University of Illinois Champaign-Urbana, he came to Berkeley in 1957, and, except for two years at Harvard (1969-71), never left it. He retired from active service in 1991. Bouwsma served as chairman of the Department of History (1966-67, 1981-83) and vice chancellor for academic affairs (1967-69).


The central theme of Bouwsma's scholarship was the history of European culture in the age of the Renaissance (or, as it came to be called during his time, in the early modern era). His first book (1957) was a study of Guillaume Postel, a French intellectual of the late sixteenth century. In 1968 he published Venice and the Defense of Republican Liberty: Renaissance Values in the Age of the Counter-Reformation. This book arose from an initial interest in Paolo Sarpi (1552-1623), a Venetian priest, historian, and critic of the papacy. It grew into an analysis of Venetian politics and its social and cultural context, and beyond that to the issues raised by the confrontation between a Renaissance republic and the Counter-Reformation papacy. With this book Bouwsma undertook to generalize the relationship between humanism and republican liberty in Italy and, implicitly, in Europe. This brought him to the Protestant Reformation and its relationship to the Renaissance as a stage in the progress of Western history, for the exploration of which he chose the unexpected form of a biography of John Calvin (1988).


Twenty years elapsed between Bouwsma’s treatments of his two principal themes, Venice and the Renaissance, Calvin and the Reformation. Between them lay a deep rift in the progressive narrative of Western history, which had supplied the framework for his earlier works. Bouwsma diagnosed the damage in 1978 in his masterful, troubled presidential address to the American Historical Association, “The Renaissance and the Drama of Western History.”  “I should like to discuss a remarkable historiographical event,” he began, “the collapse of the traditional dramatic organization of Western history.”  He chose the subject “as appropriate for me, as a historian of the Renaissance, because of the pivotal position of the Renaissance in the traditional pattern. Indeed, the historian of the Renaissance has long been the principal guardian of that pattern. But historians of the Renaissance have lately been unable — or unwilling — to fulfill this old responsibility. Hence, this essay is also a kind of oblique professional autobiography, though I point this out only for the sake of candor, not as a further inducement to your attention.”  For previous generations the Renaissance had been an event, then the first modern era, and now it had become a period of tensions and contradictions, in which Renaissance culture had to struggle with many other values and ideas. Bouwsma struggled for the remainder of his scholarly life to find a new way to tell this story, one which, though attentive to social and other newer approaches to history, more recent genres, did not surrender the case for the Renaissance. The struggle is visible in his portrait of John Calvin, in whom two strands of consciousness, the order of inherited culture and the liberty of self-awareness, lived together in one conflicted breast, as they had and would for all of Western history.


In his last book, The Waning of the Renaissance (1550-1640) (2000), Bouwsma reached a kind of peace with the disruption of the Renaissance idea in the drama of Western history. It is a magisterial portrait of European Renaissance culture in its maturity and decline in the face of its own crosscurrents and the rejection of its values. The book’s somber title quoted that of the most famous work by Johan Huizinga, the great Dutch cultural history. Randolph Starn, Bouwsma’s long-time colleague at Berkeley, noted that "his way of thinking about history is grounded rather as a battle is grounded, and the struggle between rival conceptions of the world has remained his constant theme and a source of countless variations”. Henry May, a longtime friend and colleague, offered this assessment of Bouwsma's work: "His historical thought was powerful, complex and profound. It was quarried, sometimes painfully, from sources that lay deep in his personality and experience."


During his long tenure at Berkeley, Bouwsma devoted as much time and energy to teaching as to his research.  He taught students at every level, from survey courses on Western civilization to graduate seminars on topics in European cultural history. His lecture course on the history of Christianity, developed after he returned to Berkeley in 1971, attracted literally thousands of Berkeley students and became a standard offering in the history curriculum. Bouwsma directed many Ph.D. dissertations and played the role of mentor to a large number of younger historians of early modern Europe.


Bouwsma was also the recipient of many honors and awards. He held Fulbright, Guggenheim, and National Humanities Center fellowships and was elected a Fellow of the American Academy of Arts of Sciences (1971) and of the American Philosophical Society (1981). On May 24, 1991, shortly before his retirement, Bouwsma was awarded the Berkeley Citation. In 1992 he received the Nancy Lyman Roelker Mentorship Award from the AHA.


Bouwsma's former colleague Natalie Zemon Davis wrote that "my own memories are of Bill in all of his mag­nificence:  wise, deep, humorous, questioning, searching, origi­nal.... He was a model for us in life and his difficult end only strengthens the wonder of all he did for us."


Gene Brucker

Randolph Starn

Thomas A. Brady Jr.