Ruth Macrides (1949-2019)

Monday 3 June 2024

The esteemed Byzantine historian Dr Ruth Macrides spent around twenty years in a series of temporary teaching roles in the Department of Mediaeval History at the University of St Andrews, teaching a wide range of different aspects of Byzantine history to generations of students. In 1994, she moved as one half of a part-time job-share to the University of Birmingham’s Centre for Byzantine Studies but always kept her home in St Andrews and retained strong links with the Department of Mediaeval History. In 2000, she was appointed to a full-time post at the University of Birmingham, and she was promoted Reader there in 2013. Ruth Macrides passed away suddenly in Scotland in 2019, having recently returned from Harvard University’s Dumbarton Oaks, a research facility in Georgetown with a centre for Byzantine Studies, where she was a senior fellow and with which she had long-standing connections. When she died she was, as ever, full of projects, about to take up a fellowship at the Institute of Advanced Study in Princeton and due to host the 53rd Spring Symposium of Byzantine Studies, indicators of the exceptional status she had achieved in her field.

The planned Symposium went ahead in Birmingham in March 2021, dedicated to Ruth’s memory and focussing upon the subject of ‘Nature and the Environment’. Here, Professor Frances Andrews, an historian of mediaeval Europe at the University of St Andrews, gave one of several tributes to her friend and former colleague. ‘It is at once a delight and an enormous sadness’, she explained, ‘to be participating in the Byzantine Symposium Ruth was planning. Had she been here it would have been a delight to sit in the audience and watch “her” Symposium unfold’. She particularly remembered how ‘Ruth’s great humour, extraordinary sense of style, and ability to light up a room were combined with serious scholarship’.[1]

 Ruth Macrides had been born in Boston, Massachusetts, in 1949 to parents who had emigrated from Greece to the United States.[2] She attended Boston Girls’ Latin School and then moved to New York City to matriculate at Columbia University’s Barnard College, from which she graduated with a BA in Classics in 1971. While she was at Columbia, she developed a passion for Byzantine Studies and she was encouraged by art historian George Stričević to begin doctoral research at King’s College, London, with the Byzantinist Donald Nicol. There Macrides met fellow Byzantinist Paul Magdalino. They married in 1973 and moved to Athens where Ruth started work on her doctorate, using the library at the British School of Archaeology. She kept up her ties to Greece long after her return to the US and the UK  Her obituary in Dumbarton Oaks Papers records that Macrides returned ‘regularly to Greece, for a fortnight every summer at the end of June, to a different island each time. She would emerge with all the latest books, the newest recipes, even better Greek, and a constant interest in the interplay between medieval and modern Greece.’[3]

In 1974, Macrides began her long association with Dumbarton Oaks, where the couple held a series of three one-year fellowships. It was here that she completed the research for her PhD  thesis entitled ‘A Translation and Historical Commentary of George Akropolites’ History’. She submitted the thesis and was awarded the degree in 1978.

By then, she had moved to St Andrews, where the university appointed her husband as Lecturer in Mediaeval History in September 1977. While in St Andrews, Macrides undertook temporary teaching work, a precarious role that was not an unusual position for those married to the (mostly male) members of full-time staff during the 1970s and 1980s. Judith Herrin, another friend and eminent Byzantinist, posited that ‘I always felt that like many female historians she [Ruth Macrides] did not enjoy a regular career.’[4]

In 1980-1981, Macrides was employed at the Institut für Rechtsgeschichte of the University of Frankfurt, editing the legislation of the Byzantine emperor Manuel I.  As Herrin notes, it was then that she ‘produced some of her most original articles – “The Byzantine Godfather”, “Killing and asylum”, “Court business and murder”, “Chomatenos’ interpretation of the law”, and “The ritual of petition”.’ Macrides published widely and, for Margaret Mullett,

the one piece which made an enormous impact treated the cannibal poem contained within Venice, Biblioteca Marciana, gr. 524. Her study was decades ahead of its time, as was the work which went into “The Architecture of Ekphrasis,” deriving from a paper delivered at the Birmingham “The Byzantine Eye: Word and Perception” symposium a week before she delivered her daughter Anna Christina in April 1987.[5]

Margaret Mullett, now Professor Emerita, gave Ruth a significant career boost by co-opting her to teach a range of courses at the Centre for Byzantine Studies at Queen’s University Belfast, where she commuted from St Andrews between 1983 and 1986. The University of St Andrews finally gave Macrides a contract as a teaching assistant and research fellow from 1991 to 1994. It was from this position that she moved to her job-share at the University of Birmingham’s Centre for Byzantine, Ottoman and Greek Studies, where, in 2000, she gained permanent and full-time employment, being promoted to Reader in 2013.[6] Herrin remembers that

In addition, her presence as one of the best-dressed women, stature enhanced by her high heels and elegance and emphasized by dramatic make-up, impressed the world.[7]

In her 2021 tribute, Frances Andrews remembered that Macrides ‘was vivacious, witty, stylish, and combined rare intellectual and emotional intelligence.’[8] Indeed, Macrides’ love of both teaching and research is clear, and she was described by Margaret Mullett as ‘a born teacher’ and as ‘a spectacular yet unflashy scholar, asking new questions [and] setting records straight’.[9]  As a scholar who encouraged others and whose own research into the Byzantine world was innovative, the dedication of the Spring Symposium, which explored exciting new research, to Ruth Macrides was a fitting memorial. The University of Birmingham’s website describes the 53rd Spring Symposium of Byzantine Studies as follows:

Nature and the environment underpinned Byzantine life but have been little studied. How the Byzantines responded to, interacted with and understood the landscape, however, enables crucial new insights into East Roman perceptions of the world. Modern interest in the environment and eco-history makes this theme pertinent and timely. Current research on climate change and how it affected the East Mediterranean creates new paradigms for our understanding of Byzantine interactions with the environment. The 53rd Spring Symposium of Byzantine Studies draws together Byzantine literary and visual responses to nature and the environment as well as showcasing the most recent scientific research on historical climate change and environmental management in Byzantium. This symposium was planned by Dr Ruth Macrides (University of Birmingham) and will be dedicated to her memory.[10]

By Dr Sarah Leith. Sarah is an historian of environmental thought, literature and culture in twentieth-century Scotland and she is currently a Research Assistant for the Women Historians of St Andrews project. With thanks to Paul Magdalino and Frances Andrews.

[1] Frances Andrews’s tribute to Dr Ruth Macrides at the 53rd Spring Symposium of Byzantine Studies, March 2021.

[2] Judith Herrin, ‘Ruth Macrides: an appreciation’, Byzantine and Modern Greek Studies 44:2 (2020), pp.324-8, at p.325.

[3] Margaret Mullett, ‘Ruth Juliana Macrides’, Dumbarton Oaks Papers 75 (2021), pp. vi, 1-6, at pp.1-2.

[4] Herrin, ‘Ruth Macrides: an appreciation’, p.324.

[5] Herrin, ‘Ruth Macrides: an appreciation’, pp.324-5; Mullett, ‘Ruth Juliana Macrides’, pp.3-4.

[6] Herrin, ‘Ruth Macrides: an appreciation’, p.325.Mullett, ‘Ruth Juliana Macrides’, p.4.

[7] Herrin, ‘Ruth Macrides: an appreciation’, pp.327-8.

[8] Frances Andrews’s tribute to Dr Ruth Macrides at the 53rd Spring Symposium of Byzantine Studies, March 2021.

[9] Mullet, ‘Ruth Juliana Macrides’, pp.4-5.

[10] ‘Nature and the Environment – the 53rd Spring Symposium of Byzantine Studies’, Byzantine Ottoman and Modern Greek Studies: BOMGS Events [Accessed: 12 May 2024]

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