As many of you will know by now, our former colleague Simon Barton died suddenly just before Christmas. Simon had been at Exeter for many years, first in Modern Languages and then in History, before leaving in December 2016 to take up a chair at the University of Central Florida. Simon will probably need no introduction to many of you: if you didn’t know him in person, you have probably come across some of his work on medieval Spain. He was – among many other things – always a great supporter of the Centre for Medieval Studies, and was also one of the founders of our MA Medieval Studies. For more on his work at Exeter see the lovely tribute that Alun Williams wrote for the blog just over a year ago, when Simon left us for Florida.
Since news of Simon’s death began to circulate, there have been many tributes posted online, especially on Twitter, from his friends, colleagues and students, in the UK and overseas. A colleague at UCF has also set up an online tribute wall here. Instead of repeating these comments this blog post seeks to record the memories we have in Exeter of Simon as a friend, colleague, teacher and PhD supervisor. When I put out a call to the Exeter medievalists for their thoughts, the response was – predictably – huge. I have tried to include as many contributions as possible but in order to keep the size of this blog post manageable I have edited some of them down.
‘I sought out Simon as a PhD supervisor because of his expertise in Spanish medieval history but I had no idea I would be so lucky to find someone so kind, enthusiastic and encouraging who has supported me all the way – and I had a long way to come! He had a wonderfully light touch way of delivering what you realised later was searing criticism, e.g. “you’ll look back on this and want to change it – a lot”: an incredible skill in mentoring that not only made you want to do better, but affirmed to you that you could do it. I am already missing him terribly as I complete my thesis, he always said how much he was looking forward to “the next instalment” and it is sad that he won’t see the finished article, though of course I will dedicate it to him. He finished his last e-mail to me, just a couple of days before he died, with the words “YOU WILL PREVAIL” and I have taken these to heart as I continue without him.’ Teresa Tinsley
‘Many of those who have written about Simon have drawn attention to his humanity, personal kindness, his civilising influence, courtesy and his scholastic achievements and generosity. These were qualities he had in abundance but to these I would add integrity and gentle persuasiveness. It was he who became my supervisor and mentor back in 2006/7 and who was to be a much valued colleague, friend and inspiration. As well as having similar academic interests (many of which I owe to him), we both served on the board of The Society of the Medieval Mediterranean. Simon became its president in 2013. He once told me that he did not think he made his most important contribution when at the helm but preferred to work away from the limelight. He considerably underestimated himself. As president of the society he was dynamic, innovative and inclusive: he was a popular and auspicious choice who succeeded in widening the society’s appeal and encouraging young and new academics by instituting a prize acknowledging the work of the society’s founder, Dionisius Agius, and awarded biennially to the best first work by an aspiring academic in the field of medieval Mediterranean studies.’ Alun Williams
‘For me, when I started my MA in 2013 Simon was most helpful and generous with his time. Having been at university in the 1970s, with no background in Humanities and having spent my professional life in commerce, I was a raw recruit and needed some guidance. I well remember my first effort at an Humanities essay which he marked; it had ugly paragraphing and dire referencing. Simon patiently helped me through it and I was most grateful thereafter.’ Conrad Donaldson
‘I am far away here in Gaza, Palestine but I felt sad and depressed because of the big loss. I had the privilege to meet Prof Simon in Exeter between 2006 till 2009 where I gave him and a group of students some classes in Arabic and the Holy Quran. He was an example of kindness, tolerance and real friendship. I could never forget his smiley face. Please convey my heartfelt greetings to his beloved ones whom I used to see walking with him in Exeter High Street. Please tell them that they have lovers and friends in Palestine.’ Mahmoud nayef Baroud
‘Simon has been my supervisor for five years now and during that time he has been so kind, supportive, and encouraging to me. He was always so generous with his time and resources and so loyal and dedicated to his students. Even when he moved to Florida last year there was absolutely no doubt in his mind that he was going to see all his current students in Exeter through to the end of their PhDs. He was also so understanding and empathetic as a supervisor. No question was ever too silly and no worry was ever unimportant to him. He had such unwavering faith in other people that he was always the one to believe in me and my work, even when I didn’t believe in myself. Despite being a hugely successful academic, he always had time to support those further down the career ladder. I remember one time when he asked me for some ideas and references for a lecture he was giving to undergraduates on the same area as my thesis. The idea that a leading professor would ask for help from a lowly PhD student shows just how much respect he afforded his fellow academics whatever stage of their career they were at. So whilst his academic achievements and publications speak for themselves, it is his kindness and compassion as a person that I will always remember him for.’ Rowena Cockett
‘Simon was an excellent scholar and had a lovely personality – sociable, warm, courteous – a verray parfit gentil knyght as Chaucer would say.’ Nicholas Orme
‘He seemed especially adept at engaging with the research and activities of others, regardless of whether it was related to his own work, which was a great thing for those of us just starting out!’ Zoe Cunningham
‘I’ll always cherish his advice and patience.’ Mike Whelan
‘Simon was one of the most impressive scholars that I have met. He was also warm, self-effacing and wonderfully good humoured. He seemed always to carry with him a feeling compounded of calm, authority and gentleness.’ Elliot Kendall
‘What a mean, muddy thunder to kill the noblest tree.’ Istvàn Kristo-Nagy
‘We bonded over our shared appreciation of the significance of Ladybird history books to our formation as historians (in particular that for Richard the Lionheart). Indeed, at his leaving do, he told me that they were some of the books he couldn’t bear to part with when he was preparing to move to Florida. Shortly after he joined History, I had a tap on my office door one dark autumnal evening, and Simon appeared, looking shaken and saying “I’ve just discovered I’ve got a three-year Leverhulme fellowship!” His modesty, and awe were typical. The Fellowship led to the research which became Conquerors, Brides and Concubines: Interfaith Relations and Social Power in Medieval Iberia (2015).’ Sarah Hamilton
‘Simon was my supervisor, and I feel extremely lucky to have worked with him for the last three years. He was a giant among medieval Hispanicists, and his scholarship has had a huge impact on our field. He was also an incredibly kind, humble, generous, and wise supervisor who cared deeply about his students and who inspired many of us to follow him into the archives of medieval Spain. He will be sorely missed.’ Teresa Witcombe
And finally, Oliver Creighton offers a lighter anecdote: ‘I remember spending a couple of fantastic hours walking the Floridian beaches near Sarasota with Simon while on a trip to the University of South Florida, and us both forgetting to put on any suncream and getting sunburned while talking through the future of medieval studies at Exeter.’
Not everyone was able to comment here, but I think these tributes speak for many of us in the Centre, even those who haven’t commented separately. Simon will be sorely missed!
Catherine Rider, Director, Centre for Medieval Studies