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Robert James Brentano


Robert James Brentano

Jane K. Sather Professor of History

UC Berkeley



Robert Brentano died of heart failure following an asthma attack on November 21, 2002, at Alta Bates Hospital in Berkeley. At the time of his death, still recovering from a stroke suffered two years earlier, he was teaching his usual overload of courses and returning to an unfinished book on autobiographical themes in medieval historical writing. Including periods of leave in Rome and later in Venice, and visiting appointments at Swarthmore College, Princeton University, Emory University, Smith College, and the University of Padua, he was in his 51st year of teaching at the University of California, Berkeley, a University record. His distinctions as a historian, citizen of the Berkeley campus and community, and matchless teacher are the stuff of academic legend.


When Bob Brentano joined the Department of History in 1952 at the age of 26, his résumé was already extraordinary. He had grown up in Evansville, in small-town southern Indiana, where his odd jobs included working at a slaughterhouse and a race track; he had won highest honors in two majors at Swarthmore College (B.A. 1949), served in the U.S. Army (1943-45) becoming a Japanese translator for the Manila War Crimes Tribunal, and studied as Rhodes Scholar at Oriel College, and earned an Oxford D.Phil. (1952) for a dissertation in medieval history on the administrative jurisdiction of the archdiocese of York in the later thirteenth century. He subsequently recalled being hired on the strength of a long-distance telephone call with only a vague sense of where Berkeley was and even less of the mysterious catalogue entries for the courses, History 4 and History 101, which he continued to reinvent until his death. His long Berkeley career was blessed by unpredictable connections turned to good ends.


A 1970 Brentano essay, “Bishops and Saints,” part autobiography, part manifesto, points to the rival strains that came together in his life and his work. Like the English medieval bishops he wrote about in Two Churches: England and Italy in the Thirteenth Century (1968), Brentano cared about institutions as much as he would take them to task for their unearned privileges and impersonality. He put countless hours into meetings and memos and tended the needs of those who depended on him and many of those who did not with a fiercer determination than the famously flashing smile and self-deprecating guise let on. His C.V. includes the most demanding offices and distinguished awards that the campus, the University, and the academy at large could bestow. He was chair (1975-78) and Sather Professor (1992) of the Department of History, Faculty Research Lecturer (1988), and chair of the Academic Senate (1998-99). He held major fellowships—the Guggenheim twice; and he was elected to membership in the Royal Historical Society (U.K.), the American Academy of Arts and Sciences, and the American Philosophical Society, and to the presidencies of the Catholic Historical Association (1983) and the Medieval Academy of America (1999). The Council for the Advancement and Support of Education cited him as “California Professor of the Year” (1986) and the Berkeley Division of the Academic Senate awarded him the Clark Kerr Award “for distinguished and extraordinary contributions to the advancement of higher education” (1993).


The official record is all the more extraordinary for being so little sought in conventional ways. Like the bishop's opposite number in Two Churches, the disruptive Italian saint who flouted the rules and routines, Brentano trespassed across boundaries as a matter of course and conviction. As generations of administrators found out, he was never diverted by any number of offices and honors from speaking his mind sharply about issues of justice and equality (words that he would have found too abstract), especially for students and staff. In the “Bishops and Saints” essay he wrote: “What I wanted to do [in Two Churches]…was to break something. I wanted to protest against…the dead surface of contemporary historical writing. I felt that Two Churches had a right to be as difficult, intricate, hard to get at, even unintelligible, as I wanted to make it.” To go from the tight world of Oxford medievalists to the ancient and living archives of Italy was a brash gesture when Brentano, following the trail of scholars and poets, did so on a Fulbright Fellowship in 1956. It was hardly professionally correct to charge your colleagues with killing the past and to insist on sensibilities that had more in common with literary modernism, expressive, subjective, fragmented in its viewpoints, and experimental in its styles, than the mostly sober accumulation of evidence and generalization that passes for good professional history. There was, however, a heritage even in this break with convention that stretched back through the medievalists F. M. Powicke and Frederic William Maitland to the Scottish romantic Thomas Carlyle and echoed through the dazzling essay “The Sound of Stubbs” (1967), which urged historians to listen as well as read.


The Brentano style, fully developed, used the devices of fiction at once to expose the facile claims of historians to authoritative knowledge and to follow the close-grained contingencies of place, personality, and material presence in historical documents. Evocation and erudition, history felt and performed, dense texture and elegant pattern came together as a source of inspiration and some consternation to readers who thought these were supposed to be kept apart. While Two Churches won major prizes from the medievalists, Rome before Avignon: A Social History of Thirteenth-Century Rome (1974) was nominated for the National Book Award and received the American Historical Association's Marraro Prize for Italian history. The final segment of Brentano's trilogy on the church and society in medieval Italy, A New World in a Small Place: Church and Religion in the Diocese of Rieti, 1188-1378 (1994), fused a vivid portrait of a total environment and close work in ecclesiastical archives to show how the toughly materialistic, newly bureaucratic world of the bishops of the little town of Rieti, northeast of Rome, had emerged over and against the local knowledge and missionary immediacy of St. Francis and his friars. The old tension of bishop and saint came home, if not to rest, in what was to be Brentano's last book; as important, the historian confirmed the lesson of his struggle with this work—that the protocols of academic research and verification are necessary precisely in order to contest academic orthodoxy and to infuse history with craft and creativity. It was Bob's style never to have put quite so programmatically a quest he shared with the most searching and innovative historians of the later twentieth century.


Teaching was neither a sideline nor a surrogate but of a piece with his work as a historian. In the classroom as on the page, he resisted professional authority and packaged knowledge, but he was perfectly capable of assigning a paper due in the next class and demanded exact prose from the lowliest freshman. The recipient of several teaching awards would have flunked a course in “teaching skills.” Bob would race and mumble, look out the window, chuckle at some private joke, write in squiggles on the blackboard, apologize for something said or not said, all the while calling on students by name in large classes to explain, say, the difference between ambition in William of Malmesbury and Jocelyn of Brakelond. What came through clearly was not so much the quirkiness as the generous curiosity, shared warmth, and the relevance and real-world consequences of things alleged to be merely academic. Generations of students learned from him, as he always learned from them, that history is at the same time distant and close, local and large, important to feel and to think with. The tribute that he may have appreciated best is the non-Festschrift forthcoming from Columbia University Press in which his former teaching assistants with academic appointments in every part of the country have chosen a medieval document and have commented on teaching it, just as they would have done in TA meetings in times past.


On the morning after Bob's death a sign appeared on the door of his office, 2307 Dwinelle: “And suddenly you were gone from all the lives you had touched.” In the following weeks his wife Carroll and their children James, Margaret, and Robert received hundreds of messages recalling some fleeting experience, a kindness, one of the football games he loved, a political battle won or lost. The family knew about many of these stories, but some came as complete surprises. The introduction to A New World in a Small Place contains a kind of response, unmistakably in the Brentano voice: “The memories, or reconstructed memories, of the people in this book, which recall the past of their own and earlier lives, sensible and generally trustworthy as they seem, live in a world of higher memory, the sequences of which are not always measured by succeeding days and hours.” Bob Brentano's interviews for the Regional Oral History Office were completed a month before his death; the tapes of his voice and the text, transcribed and edited, are available in The Bancroft Library where they testify to his brilliance and humanity.


Gene Brucker

Gerard Caspary

Sheldon Rothblatt

Randolph Starn