- Mabel Louise Lang (1917-2010)
Mabel Louise Lang, who died in July 2010 at the age of ninety-two, taught at Bryn Mawr College for over half a century and in all spent more than seventy years there.1 Lang was a remarkable scholar whose interests spanned archaeology, ancient history, and Greek literature; in her lifetime she produced twelve books and more than fifty articles, all highly regarded (more than seventy reviews of her books are listed in Année Philologique), and the work she left unfinished at her death has since been published by colleagues as her thirteenth book (Thucydidean Narrative and Discourse, 2011). Her works include the original publications of many of the Linear B tablets found at Pylos (AJA 1958-1964), a study of Herodotus' historiographical technique (Herodotean Narrative and Discourse, 1984), the reconstruction of the Bronze Age frescoes from Pylos (The Palace of Nestor at Pylos II, 1969), three volumes in the series of the official publications of the Athenian Agora (Weights, Measures, and Tokens, 1964; Graffiti and Dipinti, 1976; Ostraka, 1990), five of the popular Agora picture books (The Athenian Citizen, 1960; Waterworks, 1968; Graffiti, 1974; Socrates, 1978; Life, Death, and Litigation, 1994), and several guidebooks to archaeological sites (The Athenian Agora, 1954; Cure and Cult in Ancient Corinth, 1977). Her scholarship is known for its attention to detail and for her ability to analyze and make sense of large numbers of tiny pieces of information, such as the scattered fragments of a destroyed fresco, a pile of ostraca, or certain phrases used by Thucydides. She also participated in excavations at Pylos, Gordion, and the Agora in Athens.
Lang's scholarly output is particularly remarkable given that for more than a quarter of a century she had no sabbaticals at all and voluntarily undertook a heavy teaching and administrative load, including serving as department chair continuously for twenty-seven years. Despite the importance of her research, Lang's main contribution to the profession was probably her teaching, particularly her legendary elementary Greek class, through which she introduced more than a thousand students to the Greek language. Many of her former elementary Greek students went on to enter the profession, as classicists, archaeologists, historians, and historical linguists, and all share a deep appreciation of the thoroughness with which they learned Greek, coupled with a tremendous relief at never needing to go through an experience like that again. Lang's classes, from elementary to graduate level, were famous for their impossible workload, but at the same time she had a cult status that led to her classes being over-subscribed: when the 9 A.M. elementary Greek class filled up she could offer an extra section at 8 A.M. and fill that too. It has been calculated (ruefully, by her students) that she was able to get more than twenty times as much work out of the participants in a graduate seminar as the average professor can manage, and once those participants had recovered from the experience and tasted the benefits of learning so much more than usual, they were usually extremely grateful—not only for the learning, but also for the even more valuable insight that they were capable of doing far more than they thought they could. This gratitude was enhanced by Lang's respect for her students, sympathy with their problems, and unpretentious helpfulness, which led her to be as kind in a personal capacity as she was formidable in a professional capacity. [End Page 504]
Lang had an A.B. from Cornell (1939), a Ph.D. from Bryn Mawr (1943), and numerous honorary degrees and other honors. She served several times as acting Dean of the College at Bryn Mawr, and from 1975 to 1980 she chaired the Managing Committee of the American School of Classical Studies at Athens. [End Page 505]
1. This piece draws from material previously published in my biography of Mabel Lang in her posthumous Thucydidean Narrative and Discourse.