Gordon Leff obituary

Other Lives: Historian who specialised in a study of the thinking of medieval times

My friend Gordon Leff, who has died aged 93, was a historian whose writing on medievalism covered an extraordinary range, beginning with his first book in 1958, Medieval Thought: St Augustine to Ockham. Many more works followed, including  a series of monographs on 14th-century thinkers, Bradwardine (1957), Richard FitzRalph (1961), Gregory of Rimini (1963) and William of Ockham (1975), and then a look at heterodox thinkers in Heresy in the Later Middle Ages (1967), followed by The Dissolution of the Medieval Outlook (1976).

Born in London, to Solomon Leff, a food broker, and his wife, Eva (nee Gordon), “Bunny” – as he was known throughout his life – went to Summerhill school in Suffolk shortly before the second world war and, towards the end of the war when he was called up, became a quartermaster in the artillery in India (1945-46). He then studied history at King’s College, Cambridge (where he was a fellow from 1955 onwards), and his first job was lecturing in the history department at Manchester University (1956-65).

He moved to the new University of York in 1965 and bought a cottage outside York, in Strensall, which is where I first met him, after motorbiking up from Oxford to see him for postgraduate supervisions. He spent the rest of his career at York’s history department, first as a reader (1965-69) and then as a professor. When he retired in 1988 he was made an emeritus professor.

Bunny was exceptionally economical with his time: for his undergraduate lectures he would start saying his first sentence as he walked through the doorway into the lecture room, and his last as he walked towards the door to depart. He would mark exam scripts while watching the cricket at Headingley, simultaneously keeping his eye on play, and in a history department meeting he would sit in a corner by a bin, ripping through the accumulated post of several weeks or reading a book he had been sent to review – occasionally to be heard snorting with laughter at some piece of committee jargon.

Back in 1983, Bunny had been invited by Oxford University to deliver an annual series of six lectures on the history of political thought, known as the Carlyle lectures. The deliverer of the lectures is expected to hand over polished versions to Oxford’s Clarendon Press, and they usually make up a slim volume published a year or two later. Bunny instead embarked upon embellishing his lectures with further study, going back to Augustine and Plato; it was a scheme of extraordinary ambition that took him many years, and I feared he was in a logjam. However, at the age of 86 and 29 years after having delivered the lectures, he finally handed them over in four volumes of more than 1,000 pages in total. Impatient at editorial delay, he then self-published.

Bunny’s private pleasures were music, cricket and, later in life, the company of his grandchildren. He married Kate Fox in 1953; they were divorced in 1980. He is survived by their son, Gregory, and three grandchildren, Cameron, Rory and Cerys.

Peter Biller

The GuardianTramp

Related Content

Article image
Peter Gordon obituary
Other lives: Author and a professorof history and humanities at the Institute of Education, London

David Gordon

25, Jun, 2018 @4:28 PM

Article image
Peter Kidson obituary
Other lives: Outstanding historian of medieval architecture

Nicola Coldstream

11, Mar, 2019 @5:35 PM

Article image
Neville Masterman obituary
Other lives: Translator at Bletchley Park during the second world war and later an academic historian

Richard Pepper

06, Mar, 2019 @5:18 PM

Article image
Mark Ormrod obituary
Other lives: Expert in Britain’s long history of immigration who helped to change the school curriculum

Sarah Rees Jones

16, Aug, 2020 @11:53 AM

Article image
Michael Dockrill obituary
Other lives: Leading professor in the war studies department at King’s College London

Lawrence Freedman

09, Sep, 2018 @3:59 PM

Article image
Eric Richards obituary
Other lives: Eminent historian of the Highland clearances and of emigration

Callum McCarthy

25, Oct, 2018 @4:59 PM

Article image
Bill Liddell obituary
Other lives: Expert on the history of Essex

Sue Liddell

19, Sep, 2019 @1:56 PM

Article image
Polly Corrigan obituary
Other lives: Historian fascinated by the Soviet era

Jane Feinmann

31, Dec, 2019 @11:36 AM

Article image
Betty Wood obituary
Other lives: Historian of slavery, gender and religion in America

Ben Marsh

15, Oct, 2021 @7:17 PM

Article image
James Hodsdon obituary
Other lives: Specialist in the history of Gloucestershire, and in particular Cheltenham

John Chandler

09, Feb, 2022 @6:00 PM