The best lecturer I ever had at university, Lucie Halberstam, passed away on Tuesday this week at age 87.
Lucie was a consummate historian, passionate about her subject, and absolutely devoted to teaching her students. I learned a great deal from Lucie while an undergrad and subsequently post-graduate student at Victoria University in the early 1980s. I did my thesis at another university; but many of the principles Lucie taught about the methodology underpinned that effort, and still underpin my professional historical work today.
Lucie had a great sense of humour. She once allowed me – as a capping stunt when I graduated with my first degree – to burst into her 101-level class on medieval history with some friends, dressed as knights, there to fight over the Fair Maid of Navarre (also present) despite the arrival of a dragon. The dragon was Lucie’s contribution, a carefully placed slide in her lecture presentation. She insisted there had to be a dragon.
I mean, what’s the medieval period without dragons, I ask you?
Of all the lectures I attended during my years of university study, it is Lucie’s that remain vivid in my mind; such as the time, for example, when she detailed the dramatic and scurrilous 1628 death of George Villiers, the Duke of Buckingham. It was an event worthy of any gossip magazine; a stabbing in a Portsmouth public bar that was swathed in politics and rumoured power-plays. Was this a million miles from the sober matters of academic understanding and mechanism that are required for Honours level study in history? Not at all, for history is a field of many dimensions, all of them ultimately human, and it is from the minutiae of human detail that we can, at times, gain insight into the deeper forces at work. There is an essay online these days that sums up the demise of Buckingham and the context around his death. But Lucie told the story better – I still recall the wonderfully colourful period document she quoted – and showed us what had to be learned from it.
Another time, Lucie outlined one of the key historical questions of the late medieval and early modern period. During this time, Europe’s ‘middle classes’ were always said to be ‘rising’, socially and economically. This posed a problem. As Lucie explained, this ‘rise’ went on for centuries. So when could they be said to have risen? The apparent non-arrival at the top despite relentless apparent ‘progress’ in that direction had more to do with flaws in historical methodology than it did with what was actually happening – an important lesson in a field where considering how we might analyse the past is as important as what we learn about the past itself.
What all of this reflects is a simple fact: Lucie Halberstam was a fantastic teacher who inspired those studying under her. I am humbled and honoured to have been one of her students.
Copyright © Matthew Wright 2018