Ralph E. Giesey (1923–2011)
Lawrence M. Bryant and Katherine H. Tachau, November 2011
Influential scholar of Early Modern France
Ralph E. Giesey, professor emeritus at the University of Iowa, died on Tuesday, March 22, 2011, in Tucson, Arizona. For much of his life, his scholarly goal was, as he once wrote, "…to establish the relationship between ceremonial and public law." This project resulted in his groundbreaking publications and his mentoring of students and scholars in the understanding of the connections among French royal ceremonies, legal and political thought, and political symbolism. From the late 1960s, Ralph Giesey greatly influenced a turn in early modern historical scholarship from primary dependency on written sources to the equal importance of ritual performances in elite thought and conduct. By 1990, historians associated with the French journal Annales: E. S. C. tagged this approach as l'école cérémoniale américane. This label amused both Giesey and his students, none of whom aspired to be a school. However, his published works and many academic friendships on both sides of the Atlantic securely established ceremonies as instrumental to a complete understanding of late medieval and early modern history. In the mid-1970s, Giesey's interest, part of his "civic-mindedness" as he wrote, consisted of studying French customary law in the hereditary transmission of family wealth during the ancien régime and afterward. As with his new approach to ceremonies, he developed methods for bringing to light very significant but lesser studied historical phenomena.
Born in Detroit, Michigan, on January 7, 1923, Ralph Giesey was raised there and earned his A.B. in 1944. He joined the U. S. Navy and was serving at sea when World War II ended. On his discharge from the Navy, he returned to Detroit and completed an MA in history at Wayne State University in 1947. He entered the graduate program in history at the University of California, Berkeley, where he completed his PhD in 1954. His book, The Royal Funeral Ceremony in Renaissance France, which was published in 1960, was reprinted in 1983. A French translation came out in 1987. This study of constitutional thought as revealed mostly in ritual dramatization rather than in verbalization had been supported by Fulbright and ACLS fellowships and was dedicated to Ernst H. Kantorowicz, whose scholarly example served to guide Giesey in much of his academic career. After Kantorowicz's death Giesey co-edited with Michael Cherniavsky a volume of Kantorowicz's Selected Studies. Giesey was Kantorowicz's assistant at the Institute for Advanced Study 1953–55, to which he returned in 1964–65 and 1975–76 as a visiting member of its School of Historical Studies.
Giesey held visiting professorships at the Folger Shakespeare Library in 1972 and the École des hautes études en sciences sociales in 1985. Among other honors and awards have been grants from the Rockefeller and Guggenheim Foundations, as well as the National Endowment for the Humanities. He published 6 books, 23 articles, and numerous reviews. These titles and major lectures can be viewed on his web site at regiesey.com. Among other academic projects included at this site is a Latin transcription with English summaries of the highly significant Tractatus (1418) of Jean de Terrevermeille (formerly known as Terre Rouge) as well as Giesey's papers on the history of hereditary succession in France.
Ralph Giesey taught as an instructor at Vassar College in 1955–56 and then at the University of Washington in 1956–59. He was promoted to associate professor at the University of Minnesota (1959–66). The greater part of his teaching career was spent as professor of history at the University of Iowa (1966–88). Giesey expended great effort in his teaching, particularly his mentoring of history graduate students in early modern history, and more generally in counseling and guiding graduate students as the frequent director of Iowa's history graduate program. Students in his seminars learned to value association and shared learning, gaining from him the practice of historians as members of a community dedicated to patience, hard work, tolerance, honesty to sources, imagination, and fairness. He took pleasure in collegial conviviality and hospitality; his regular gourmet dinners for faculty and friends were eagerly anticipated; his extended fishing expeditions continued long into his retirement. He was generous with his graduate students, joining repasts with scholarly conversations wherever he encountered them, whether in Iowa City or France. He often praised the uniqueness of the combination of learning and friendship that he had among his Iowa colleagues. At Iowa, Giesey conscientiously strove to preserve the highest quality of historical professionalism and learning. In retirement after 1988, he not only encouraged friends to enjoy his hospitality in Tucson but also continued an active schedule of visits to friends and research centers in the United States and Europe.
Ralph Giesey made impressive contributions to historical scholarship. The Royal Funeral Ceremony was quickly followed by The Juristic Basis of Dynastic Right to the French Throne (1961). In 1968, he published If Not, Not: The Oath of the Aragonese and the Legendary Laws of Sobrarbe. In 1972, with the late J.H.M. Salmon, he produced the very significant critical text of François Hotman's Francogallia with an English translation and an erudite introduction. Giesey's 1985 lectures given at the seminar of François Furet and Mona Ozouf at the Institute Raymond Aron of the École des hautes études en sciences sociales appeared in 1987 under the title Cérémonial et puissance souveraine. France XVe–XVIIe siècles. In that year the Collège de France invited him to give a special lecture to which there was an enthusiastic response; his topic was "Funeral Effigies as Emblems of Sovereignty: Europe, 14th to 18th Century." Seventeen of his essays have been reprinted in Rulership in France, 15th–17th Centuries (2004). His last book, Le role méconnu de la loi Salique: La succession royal, XIVe–XVIe siècles appeared in 2007 and opened the way to a new understanding of the early controversies over the Salic Law. Giesey demonstrated that the English initially advanced this ancient Frankish law to assert the English king Edward III's hereditary claims to the crown of France over those of his French rival, Philip VI of Valois.
Giesey's scholarship led the way in studying French royal history without a trace of adhering to royalist ideology and with keen attention to the theology, decorum, and ceremonies that monarchists invented over the centuries to sustain French kings' and dynasties' claims to power and control over all French traditions. In following the close associations of ideas, texts, rituals, and images in the French construction of representations of rulership, his body of work will maintain importance in political and intellectual history for many years to come.
—Lawrence M. Bryant
California State University (emeritus)
—Katherine H. Tachau
University of Iowa