Robert Rigolout (1948-2006)
Zachary S. Schiffman, September 2006
Robert B. Rigoulot of Springfield, Illinois, died on January 4, 2006, at the age of 58, after a massive stroke. That event was probably avoidable—he had a routine case of high blood pressure—but Rigoulot hated going to doctors. (He hadn't had a physical since his induction into the Army in 1970.) He thus departed life as he had lived it, in a singular, idiosyncratic, and quietly courageous way. These qualities also informed his research in early modern French history and his self-avowed role as a public intellectual.
Rigoulot was born in 1948 in Rockville Centre, on Long Island, and he grew up in nearby Freeport. Part of his distinctiveness derived from this background, which rendered him a WASP fluent in Yiddishisms. He was also a bit unusual in having relatively elderly parents—his father had been gassed in the trenches during World War One. And, finally, he was exceptionally smart in a wickedly verbal way (a bissel Yiddish only added to the effect). He graduated high school with a National Merit Scholarship and went on to attend Hobart College, where he worked with Nancy Struever among others. Her courses first excited his love of early modern European history, and during this period of his life he developed his distinctive and idiosyncratic approach to intellectual questions, picking them up by odd corners and shaking them out into unexpected—and exciting—shapes.
After receiving his BA from Hobart College in 1969, Rigoulot went on to graduate school in early modern history at the University of Chicago, where (in typically idiosyncratic fashion) he became the last recipient of a LaVerne Noyes Fellowship (reserved for direct descendants of World War One veterans) whose father had actually fought in the Great War. Despite the characteristic unpleasantness of graduate school, he seemed very much at home at Chicago, where he studied chiefly with Hanna Gray, Eric Cochrane, and Charles Gray, whose (diverse) sensibilities helped further shape his own. Unfortunately, his graduate studies were soon interrupted by a tour of duty with the U. S. Army in Vietnam—the occasion of his last (and probably only) physical. While in the Army, he was posted to graves registry, an assignment that deeply wounded him. In fact, he scrupulously avoided talking about his military service, and only after his death did it become known that he had won the Bronze Star.
He returned from the Army around 1972 to complete his prelims and begin work on his dissertation, a brilliantly conceived study of how the early modern French understood their own origins as a kingdom and a people. This study inaugurated his long-running interest in that odd assortment of Renaissance historians, antiquarians, and men-of-learning whom he termed, with his usual linguistic facility, "erudites." Although he wrote numerous papers and articles on this topic, he never finished it in the form of a dissertation. Instead, he became drawn into the administration of the University of Chicago, where he eventually was appointed assistant to the secretary of the Board of Trustees. He held this demanding job until 1988, when he married and moved downstate to be with his wife, Barbara Hayler, a professor at the University of Illinois at Springfield.
This move launched his career as a public intellectual. He began by teaching the usual assortment of Western Civ. courses at local colleges, but he ended up bringing his immense learning and refined intelligence to bear on a wide range of topics, far removed from the Renaissance and (even) from the discipline of history. At the University of Illinois at Springfield, he lectured in the field of political studies, becoming the university's resident expert on the "new" Europe, on Eastern Europe in the 1990s, and on late 20th-century nationalism. He tried to teach courses that were not only topical but that also made people think—and stretch to their intellectual limits.
All the while, he continued to publish in his chosen area of research—articles on Guillaume Budé and Peter Ramus, on the Renaissance reception of medieval historians like Geoffrey of Monmouth, and on the Renaissance afterlife of medieval histories like the Annals of Hainault. In the end he became what he studied, a true erudite, broadly and deeply learned, with a discerning and exacting intelligence, and that odd take on intellectual questions that truly set him apart as a boldly independent thinker and a singular human being.
—Zachary S. Schiffman
Northeastern Illinois University