Wednesday, June 25, 2008

Michael Hendy, Byzantinist, obituary

The Times carried an obituary on 12 June 2008 for our late Fellow Michael
Hendy (1942–2008), economic historian and expert on the coinage of
Byzantium, who died of a heart attack on 13 May 2008, aged 66, from which
the following extracts are taken.

‘Michael Hendy was a precocious scholar who reshaped our entire
understanding of the economy of medieval Byzantium and made a lasting
contribution to the history of coinage and monetary studies. Born in
Newhaven, East Sussex, in 1942, the son of a merchant sea captain, Michael
Hendy graduated from Oxford in 1964. As an undergraduate at The Queen’s
College, he once went to Cambridge to look at Byzantine coins in the
Fitzwilliam Museum and expressed such an unusual interest in those minted
by the Comnenian and Palaeologan emperors that the great numismatist and
historian Philip Grierson, FSA, kept in touch with him, even inviting him
to a feast at his college, a privilege generally reserved for
distinguished academics.

‘More importantly, Grierson also recommended him for a two-year fellowship
at the Dumbarton Oaks Centre for Byzantine Studies, Washington, and a
five-year assistant curatorship at the Fitzwilliam Museum, 1967–72. In
1964–5 a British Council scholarship had enabled Hendy to study coin finds
in Bulgaria, which proved to be the starting point for the large volume,
Coinage and Money in the Byzantine Empire (1081–1261), published by
Dumbarton Oaks in 1969, when he was only twenty-seven.

‘This pathbreaking and revolutionary study brought order to the previously
misunderstood coinage of this period. Where the British Museum catalogue
saw a chaotic series of debased coins of varying intrinsic value, Hendy
identified a decisive monetary reform that replaced the debased issues of
the late eleventh century with a new system of denominations, including a
restored pure gold coin, the hyperpyron, at the top. He solved the mystery
of the elusive coinage of the Latin Empire of Constantinople (1204–61) by
identifying and dating, on the basis of coin finds, small bronze pieces
that imitated, more or less faithfully, twelfth-century Byzantine types
that had previously been confused with Comnenian issues.

‘Such discoveries went far beyond the “internalities” for which Hendy
later blamed numismatists; they allowed a reassessment of the economy of
Byzantium in the first stages of the so-called “commercial revolution”
that opened up the Mediterranean market. Hendy argued rightly that the
economy was expanding and not in decline. This proved a turning point in
Byzantine historiography.

‘In 1972 he moved to Birmingham where he became curator of the important
Byzantine coin collection in the Barber Institute. From 1978 until 1987 he
was lecturer in Numismatics in the University’s Department of Medieval
History. During that period he often travelled to and from Dumbarton Oaks,
as visiting Fellow in 1976 and as associate adviser for Byzantine
Numismatics in 1980–1 and 1982–4; his second great book was researched on
both sides of the Atlantic.

‘This other magnum opus, Studies in the Byzantine Monetary Economy c
1300–1450 (Cambridge University Press, 1985), was not only a detailed
history of Byzantine money, its production, circulation and the
administration of mints but also an economic assessment of the role of
money in the economy. Twenty-five years later it remains an often-cited
reference work. Under the influence of the “Cambridge school”, notably of
Hugo Jones, Moses Finley and Philip Grierson, to all of whom he
acknowledged his scholarly and intellectual debt, Hendy systematically
downgraded the role of cash and exchanges and the level of monetisation of
Byzantium, although that is now believed to have been relatively high for
the period and one of the great strengths of the empire.

‘With these credentials, enhanced by the publication of a volume of
collected studies that included several unpublished chapters (The Economy,
Fiscal Administration and Coinage of Byzantium, Ashgate, 1989) and his
important fieldwork on the coin finds from the excavations at Aphrodisias,
Saraçhane (Saint Polyeuktos) and Kalenderhane in Istanbul, and Kourion in
Cyprus, he might have been expected to start a new career after his
voluntary severance from Birmingham. In 1987 he moved to Princeton and
then joined his partner and future wife, Professor Meg Alexiou, in Harvard
in 1989.

‘But perhaps as the unhappy consequence of an unusual personality, his
aversion to the demands of daily professional responsibilities and
general contrariness, which contrasted with his culinary skills and
generous hospitality, he never received the high academic recognition
he deserved.
He felt unappreciated. The scientific loss that his death brings to the
field of Byzantine studies is irreparable.’

3 comments:

j75wsyu02 said...

I've been studying Michael Hendy's "Coinage and Money in the Byzantine Empire". I had some questions and was hoping to Google his contact information. But I found instead his obituary! What a loss! RIP.

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