- Patrick Collinson 1929–2011
News of Patrick Collinson’s death last September brought back a flood of memories of my honours year at the University of Sydney back in 1972. He was both the convenor of the honours course, ‘Churches, Sects and Societies’, as well as playing a part in supervising my honours thesis on the scientist, divine, and teacher of Isaac Newton, Isaac Barrow. It was a topic to which Patrick contributed both his encyclopaedic knowledge of English church history and his eagerness to learn more about fields, such as the history of science, with which he was less familiar. In his teaching, as in so many other aspects of his life, Patrick combined tradition with innovation. In many respects he appeared the model of a well-drilled traditional scholar with his degrees from Cambridge and London and his close associations with the world of British scholarship. Yet, he was both an insider and an outsider: someone whose first post had been in the Sudan and who, after his subsequent time as a lecturer at King’s College, London made himself at home in Sydney. As a teacher this wide experience manifested itself in an openness to new approaches to the study of history in general and religious history in particular. The whole theme of his innovative honours seminar was that historians could learn much from other disciplines, particularly sociology. Thus the greats of the sociology of religion such as Troelsch and Weber, together with more recent representatives of the field, were coupled together with the study of particular chapters in the history of religion. Certainly, his own fields of Elizabethan Puritanism and the Reformation more generally were represented but so, too, were fields well removed from his own immediate research interests with topics both ancient and modern extending from Rome to Australia. To complement his own historical expertise the seminar had a session with Sol Encel, the professor of sociology from UNSW – for the University of Sydney did not then have a chair in such a new-fangled discipline.
Members of the seminar were soon disabused of the notion that he, as professor, had all the answers. It was a genuine seminar in that all were there to learn including Patrick who saw himself, like us, as a student in the sociology of religion. New approaches were welcomed and acclaimed. One of my projects was to write a lengthy critique of Keith Thomas’s Religion and the Decline of Magic (1971) – the recent appearance of which Patrick greeted with great enthusiasm as an instance of the benefits of interdisciplinary history. [End Page ix] The linkage of history and anthropology, which the work represented, was something which Patrick applauded. Its treatment of topics such as the study of early modern European witchcraft struck particular resonance with him since they brought together his own research interests with his exposure to African societies and the anthropological studies based on them. Yet, along with this willingness to move across disciplines, went the persona of a scholar deeply rooted in the world of Oxbridge and London scholarship. His obiter dicta and comments on some of the notable historians whose work we studied helped to connect us to the world of the English historical profession and some of the leading personalities of that often contentious tribe. He was later very generous, too, in writing to some of these scholarly peers on behalf of those who applied for postgraduate study abroad. Though the seminar illustrated the importance of the historical study of religion for those of any or no religious orientation, Patrick’s own quiet but nonetheless deeply committed religiosity emerged discreetly and unobtrusively.
In those days, less encumbered by ERA requirements and the like, staff spent more time with students. The hospitality of Patrick and his wife, Liz, was part of the formula that bound together the seminar. A fitting conclusion was our taking Patrick and Liz out to dinner and presenting him with a bound copy of our seminar papers as a sort of Festschrift. In the heady atmosphere of the late 60s and early 70s with their attendant reforms and upheavals, students were then, too, surprisingly...