Philip Grierson

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Philip Grierson (born November 15, 1910 in Dublin , † January 15, 2006 in Cottenham, Cambridgeshire ) was a British historian and numismatist . He worked at Cambridge University for decades and was a fellow at Gonville and Caius College for over 70 years . During his long academic career, he amassed the world's largest representative collection of medieval coins, wrote numerous and important articles on the subject, and held important curatorial and lecturer positions in Cambridge, Brussels and Washington, DC


Grierson was born in Dublin to Philip Henry Grierson and Roberta Ellen Jane Grierson. He had two sisters, Janet Grierson and Aileen Grierson. His father was a surveyor and a member of the Irish Land Commission who, after losing his job in 1906, ran a small farm in Clondalkin , near Dublin. He earned a reputation for financial business acumen and was therefore appointed to the boards of several companies. Grierson's father also built an important collection of freshwater snails which is now in the Ulster Museum in Belfast .

Philipp Grierson attended Marlborough College , where he specialized in science. In 1929 he was admitted to medical school at Gonville and Caius College, Cambridge. He switched to history almost immediately and stayed in that field for the rest of his life. However, his earlier interest in the natural sciences had given him an in-depth knowledge of the methods and principles of metallurgy , mathematics, and statistics, among others , which would prove valuable in later years.

College life

Grierson's performance as a student was exceptional. After earning his first university degree with double first-class honors (as with distinction had) graduated, he won the Lightfoot Scholarship (Lightfoot Scholarship), University and Schuldham Plate , the highest academic award his college students. In 1932 he began his master's degree in Carolingian history . His first publications dealt with church history in the early Middle Ages. After he was offered a fellowship in 1934, he saw no need to submit his dissertation. He only received an honorary doctorate from the university in 1971. Grierson soon occupied a number of important roles in college: he was college librarian from 1944 to 1969 and president from 1966 to 1976 (second only to the college masters). He remained an active member of the college to the end.

Griersons taught at the Faculty of History, which made him Assistant Lecturer in 1938 and Full Lecturer in 1945. In 1959 he became a lecturer and in 1971 professor of numismatics. Grierson taught the general introduction to European history, the history of Europe from the 5th to the 15th centuries. He was also literary director of the Royal Historical Society (1945–1955), President of the Royal Numismatic Society (1961–1966), Ford Lecturer at Oxford (1956–1957), Fellow of the Society of Antiquaries of London (1949) and the British Academy (1958).

Coin collection

It was sheer coincidence that Grierson's attention was drawn to numismatics. During a visit to his family at Christmas 1944, he accidentally found a Byzantine bronze coin in one of his father's desk drawers. It was later identified as an issue of the Emperor Phocas and gave him the idea to visit the Spink auction house in London. There he stated that he had no intention of ever becoming a proper collector and that he only wanted to buy £ 5 worth of coins as visual aids for his lectures.

These good intentions did not last long; it had 1,500 coins at the end of the following year and 3,500 at the end of 1946. Ultimately, his collection would contain over 20,000 copies valued at several million pounds. It is the world's most representative collection for medieval Europe. Although it remained in the Fitzwilliam Museum for many years , his collection was only transferred to the museum after his death and was kept in his own name to facilitate the sale of old specimens and the purchase of higher quality coins.

Grierson was never particularly wealthy and only funded his collection by using most of his inheritance and 2/3 of his annual income as an academic to buy coins. He happened to start collecting at a time when the London coin dealers were inundated with material from Lord Grantley's huge collection , which made it easier for him to get started. Due to wartime and post-war conditions, which severely limited the activities of foreign buyers, these coins could be purchased at a fraction of their pre-war (and correspondingly modern) price. Grierson was a cautious buyer, but was also willing to spend substantial sums on special coins, such as his famous and extremely rare denier of Charlemagne. His later appointments helped expand his collection.

In 1982 Grierson planned to finance a project to publish his now substantial collection. Originally 12 volumes were planned for Medieval European Coinage, which were supposed to describe and catalog the coinage of different parts of Europe. The first volume appeared in 1986 and deals with the coin system of the whole of Western Europe up to the 10th century. It remains the standard catalog and the standard study of this period.

Fitzwilliam Museum

Grierson's growing interest in numismatics soon brought him into contact with the Coin Cabinet at the Fitzwilliam Museum . He was named Honorary Keeper for Coins and Medals in 1949 and was a syndic of the museum until 1958. Under his influence, the Coins and Medals Department became one of the most active and productive research institutions in the museum. There is a room named after Grierson that houses his collection. He visited the Münzkabinett almost every day. Until shortly before his death he added more copies to his collection and talked to visitors there. In 1982, the later curator of the Coins and Medals department, Mark Blackburn, first came to the museum to work with Grierson on the Medieval European Coinage Project .

Brussels and Dumbarton Oaks

In the meantime, word of his reputation had spread around the world and various foreign institutes offered him teaching and consulting positions. When Grierson was invited in 1947 to take up the vacant chair in numismatics at the University of Brussels , which he held until his retirement in 1981, his career developed outside of Cambridge. Grierson spent part of the Easter and Christmas holidays in Brussels every year. He had studied Belgium and the Netherlands in the Middle Ages for many years and had some friends in Belgium too, including the great Carolingian scholar François-Louis Ganshof .

Work in the United States began in 1953 when Grierson was one of the founding teachers of the American Numismatic Society's annual summer school . He returned the following year and was asked in 1955 to serve as an advisor and curator at the Dumbarton Oaks Research Library and Collection in Washington DC, which is part of Harvard University . His mission was to use the institution's considerable resources to build up the most important collection of Byzantine coins in the world and to make it accessible to the public - a task which he had accomplished admirably by 1997. He sold his Byzantine coins to Dumbarton Oaks so that he could expand his own collection of European coins. The Catalog of Byzantine Coins in the Dumbarton Oaks Collection and in the Whittemore Collection remains the standard reference work for Byzantine coinage. At the height of his productivity, Grierson spent the fall and spring trimesters in Cambridge, Christmas and Easter in Brussels and two months of the summer holidays in Washington and at Cornell University .

Private life

In addition to his academic activities, Grierson was very sociable. In the 1930s he moved into his rooms at St Michael's Court, which he lived from then on, except for an interlude during the Second World War when the building was used by the Department of Agriculture. Its rooms became the center of college evenings. Grierson was also very popular among the students for his movie nights.

In addition to history and numismatics, films were his great passion. He had a collection of 2000 videos and DVDs and his movie and pizza nights were always very well attended. He loved science fiction and horror films, but did not enjoy watching history films because of their historical flaws. On the occasion of the opening of the eighth cinema in Cambridge, the local newspaper wrote: "Now Mr Grierson of Caius will be able to go to a different cinema every day, and two on Sundays." (Now Mr. Grierson from Caius can visit a different cinema every day and even two on Sundays.)

Grierson loved to travel. In 1932 he traveled to Russia with a friend (Leningrad, Moscow, Roskov, Stalingrad and Kiev). In Kiev, they separated from their Intertour group to go to Odessa, from where they traveled by ship to Istanbul. The journey then also took her through Greece and Italy. The following year he walked through the Rhineland, in 1936 he traveled to Finland and in 1937 to the glaciers of Norway. There was a great deal of interest in foreign policy among the students at the time, especially those of Russia and Germany. The trip to the Soviet Union aroused interest in collecting books on the subject. In 1943 he published the bibliography Books on Soviet Russia, 1917-1942 , which he updated annually until 1950. Grierson's aversion to fascist regimes manifested itself in a refusal to visit Spain under Franco . In 1938 he traveled to Germany to support the release of two Jewish academics. They were the father and father-in-law of David Daube , a friend of Grierson and later Regius Professor of Civil Law at Oxford. After their arrest on the night of the pogrom (November 9-10, 1938), they were taken to the Dachau concentration camp . After Grierson and a few friends were informed of the situation through Daube, they reacted very quickly. Since Grierson was the only one in the group who spoke a little German, he agreed to fly to Germany on November 18th. With the help of appropriate papers that a member of parliament had issued for the university, he managed to release the two men.

Griersons had signed up for military service, but was declared unfit for war because of his poor eyesight and an injury to his feet. His application to Bletchley Park , the cryptanalysis center of the British secret service, was also rejected because his German was too bad for it.

Grierson remained active and relatively healthy throughout his life. He played squash regularly until he was 80 years old. Physical challenges appealed to him, e.g. For example, when on one occasion in 1932 or 1933 he was walking home from London one evening - a distance of about 44 miles - and did not arrive until about noon the next day.

Publications (selection)

  • Books on Soviet Russia. 1917-1942. A Bibliography and a Guide to Reading. Methuen, London 1943, ( digitized version ).
  • Bibliography numismatique (= Cercle d'Etudes Numismatiques. Travaux. 2, ZDB -ID 2227721-3 ). Cercle d' Etudes Numismatiques, Brussels 1966, (2e édition revue et augmentée. (= Cercle d'Etudes Numismatiques. Travaux. 9). Ibid 1979).
  • Numismatics. Oxford University Press, London et al. 1975.
  • Coins of the Middle Ages (= The World of Coins. [4]). German translation by Alfred P. Zeller . Battenberg, Munich 1976, ISBN 3-87045-103-3 .
  • Dark Age Numismatics. Selected Studies (= Collected Studies Series. 96). Variorum Reprints, London 1979, ISBN 0-86078-041-4 [Collected Writings].
  • Later Medieval Numismatics (11th – 16th Centuries). Selected Studies (= Collected Studies Series. 98). Variorum Reprints, London 1979, ISBN 0-86078-043-0 [Collected Writings].
  • Byzantine Coins. Methuen et al., London 1982, ISBN 0-416-71360-2 .
  • with Mark Blackburn : Medieval European Coinage. With a Catalog of the Coins in the Fitzwilliam Museum, Cambridge. Volume 1: The Early Middle Ages (5th – 10th Centuries). Cambridge University Press, Cambridge et al. 1986, ISBN 0-521-26009-4 .
  • The Coins of Medieval Europe. Seaby, London 1991, ISBN 1-85264-058-8 .
  • with Lucia Travaini: Medieval European Coinage. With a Catalog of the Coins in the Fitzwilliam Museum, Cambridge. Volume 14: Italy (III). South Italy, Sicily, Sardinia. Cambridge University Press, Cambridge et al. 1998, ISBN 0-521-58231-8 .

Web links


  • David M. Metcalfe: Grierson, Philip. In: Oxford Dictionary of National Biography. 2005-2008. Oxford University Press, Oxford 2013, ISBN 978-0-19-967154-0 , pp. 460-461.
  • Christopher Brooke, Lord Stewartby: Philip Grierson . In: Proceedings of the British Academy . tape 150 , 2007, p. 79-104 ( [PDF]).


  1. a b Obituary The Independent, January 20, 2006, accessed August 18, 2015.
  2. a b c d Philip Grierson's Profile ( Memento of the original from June 7, 2008 in the Internet Archive ) Info: The archive link was inserted automatically and has not yet been checked. Please check the original and archive link according to the instructions and then remove this notice. at the Fitzwilliam Museum, accessed August 18, 2015 @1@ 2Template: Webachiv / IABot /
  3. Christopher Brooke ( Memento of the original from June 28, 2008 in the Internet Archive ) Info: The archive link was inserted automatically and has not yet been checked. Please check the original and archive link according to the instructions and then remove this notice. Fitzwilliam Museum website, accessed August 18, 2015 @1@ 2Template: Webachiv / IABot /
  4. ^ A b David M. Metcalfe: Grierson, Philip . In: Oxford Dictionary of National Biography , 2005-2008, pp. 460-461 .
  5. Grant Tapsell ( Memento of the original from June 28, 2008 in the Internet Archive ) Info: The archive link was inserted automatically and has not yet been checked. Please check the original and archive link according to the instructions and then remove this notice. Fitzwilliam Museum, accessed August 18, 2015 @1@ 2Template: Webachiv / IABot /