In Memoriam

Stanford English professor George Hardin Brown has died

George Hardin Brown, professor emeritus of English in the School of Humanities and Sciences with an early manuscript of the Venerable Bede.

Brown was a renowned scholar of the Venerable Bede and of Old English and Anglo-Latin literature.

George Hardin Brown, professor emeritus of English in the School of Humanities and Sciences and renowned medievalist, died November 6 in Sacramento, California. He was 90.

Brown, a leading scholar of early English and Anglo-Latin literary and religious cultures, joined the Stanford faculty in 1971. His many publications on the eighth-century English monk known as “Venerable Bede” and the “father of English history” (c.672-735) are widely acknowledged as among the most important contributions to scholarly understanding of this major intellectual and theological figure.

Across his career, he has written articles and essays on Beowulf, Cynewulf's Christ II, Old English verse, Bede and Alcuin, the tenth-century English Benedictine reform, Chrétien de Troyes' Yvain, The Knight of the Lion, and medieval manuscripts, among other studies.

Brown wrote two significant monographs, Bede the Venerable (G. K. Hall, 1987) and A Companion to Bede (Boydell and Brewer, 2010). He also co-authored, with Frederick M. Biggs, a two-volume study of Bede's sources, Bede: Part 1, Fascicles 1-4 and Bede: Part 2. Part 1 is the inaugural volume in the Sources of Anglo-Saxon Literary Culture Series published by the University of Amsterdam Press. Brown’s 1994 Toller Lecture on The Dynamics of Literacy in Anglo-Saxon England is widely considered a foundational study in the field of early English textual cultures.  

“George’s great scholarly achievement was his work on the Venerable Bede, a figure central to our understanding of early medieval England,” said Albert Gelpi, Coe Professor of American Literature, Emeritus. “But what made George’s work on Bede so distinctive and distinguished was his deep knowledge of that somewhat shadowy period: the language, the culture, the theology, and the written record.”

Shaping Stanford’s Medieval Studies Program

Brown played a central role in the early medieval community at Stanford and through his dedication to and service in several global professional organizations. He helped establish Stanford's internationally renowned Medieval Studies Program, which he chaired for a dozen years.

Brown was a fellow of the Medieval Academy of America and of the Society of Antiquaries of London. He also volunteered his time and expertise for the Pacific Ancient and Modern Language Association, Fontes Anglo-Saxonici, the Modern Language Association, and the International Society for the Study of Early Medieval England.

Across his many decades at Stanford, he taught on topics ranging from Old and Middle English language and literature, Arthurian literature, and postclassical Latin to the history of the medieval book, history of literacy, history of the English language, and theology and medieval literature. He created a significant and lasting legacy for paleography and manuscript studies at Stanford, introducing hundreds of students to the joy of reading and working with original medieval primary source in the libraries.  

Fellow medievalist Elaine Treharne, the Roberta Bowman Denning Professor in the Department of English, commented that Stanford’s excellence in early medieval studies was, for fifty years, personified in Brown’s advocacy for the field, promotion of the institution, and professional contribution with an outstanding record of publications, papers, and professional service.

Brown's role at Stanford also generated a series of library acquisitions of important antiquarian editions of Bede’s work for the university. John Mustain, curator of rare books, emeritus, for Stanford Libraries said, “George was a tireless and generous supporter of libraries. Being asked to co-teach with him was an honor for me and a great pleasure.”

Many of Brown’s students went on to make major contributions to medieval studies, and to take his mentorship and scholarship forward in their own work. “George Brown was central to the teaching of medieval studies at Stanford and organized courses in which I gave occasional lectures,” said William Mahrt, associate professor of music. “His enthusiasm and comprehensive knowledge of a wide range of medieval fields contributed to the excellence of his Introduction to Medieval Studies course. It was attended by numerous students each time it was taught and led to his receiving the Dinkelspiel award for excellence in teaching.”

Brown’s dedication to teaching extended across departments at Stanford. Most recently, as an emeritus professor, he supervised students whose interdisciplinary work in early medieval studies crossed departments and fields of study. “He mentored a number of classics students,” said Jennifer Trimble, associate professor of classics who co-advised the last undergraduate thesis project that Brown advised. “It was pure pleasure to work with George as a colleague. He was erudite, thoughtful, courteous, and kind.”

A lifelong love of learning

Born in Denver, Colorado, in 1931, Brown completed his undergraduate studies at St. Louis University, and, after gaining an advanced degree in philosophy, he received a master’s degree in English, studying Renaissance literature.

Brown studied theology for four years as a Jesuit in Innsbruck, Austria, and he was an ordained priest in the Roman Catholic Church from 1962-1971. After further studies in Europe, he went to Harvard for his doctorate in English, writing his thesis on Christ the warrior-king in Old English literature. He taught at St. Louis University for two years before coming to Stanford as an assistant professor in 1971.

“It was not just scholarship that engaged George; it was a love of learning itself and a love of life,” said Mustain. “His love of learning inspired the same in others, and his love of life made for endless warm conversations about a wonderfully wide array of things dear to him.”

Brown is survived by his wife of 42 years, Phyllis Rugg Brown, his sons Austin and Malcolm, grandchildren Ontario Ernesto Garcia Brown and Parker Mackenzie Brown, and cousins Andy Lloyd, Drina Roope, Jim Adamic, Delphine Kendall, Geraldine Martinez, George Abbot, Elizabeth Farley, and Tina Beccera.

A memorial will take place on December 21 at 7:30 pm PT in St. Thomas Aquinas Church in Palo Alto, with a reception to follow. The family welcomes vaccinated and masked guests. In lieu of flowers, the Brown family suggests that donations can be made to the Bristol HospiceAlzheimer's Association, any cancer research organization, or a charity of your choosing.