Bernard S. Bachrach, one of the leading scholars of medieval military history, passed away on July 14th at the age of 84.
Bernie as we know to friends and colleagues, served as a Professor at the University of Minnesota, teaching history from 1967 to 2020. His focus was on medieval military history, a topic that had been somewhat shunned in North American academic circles, and for many years he was seemingly a lone voice talking about the importance of warfare in the Middle Ages.
However, his research and work in the field brought recognition and more scholars to this area, and in the early 1990s he helped create De Re Militari: The Society for Medieval Military History, serving as one of the founding editors of The Journal of Medieval Military History.
Bernard was a prolific writer, penning over a dozen books and many articles. Among his most important works were those that dealt with the Early Middle Ages: Merovingian Military Organization, 481-751, published in 1972; A History of the Alans in the West, which came out a year later; Fulk Nerra, the Neo-Roman Consul 987-1040: A Political Biography of the Angevin Count, published in 1993, and Early Carolingian Warfare: Prelude to Empire, which dates from 2001.
His son David Bachrach, followed in his father’s footsteps and is now a Professor of History at the University of New Hampshire. Bernie and David have worked together on many books and articles, including Warfare in Medieval Europe c.400-c.1453, published in 2016. They also collaborated in creating translations of the Gesta Tancredi of Ralph of Caen, Deeds of the Bishops of Cambrai, Bruno of Merseburg’s The Saxon Wars, and several others.
Back in 2010, we interviewed Bernard and David, which includes a wonderful story of how the son became interested in history like his father.
The community of historians that knew and worked with Bernie found him to be a wonderful colleague. There is much debate within the field of medieval military history, and Bernard often took positions that not everyone agreed with. But he also exemplified how to debate with other historians in a way that emphasized collegiality and respect for each other. For example, Stephen Morillo says this about Bernie:
He and I didn’t agree much, but he was unfailingly kind and friendly with me, in person and in correspondence. And his disagreements with me were, for me, productive: trying to explain (to him and to myself) why I thought he was wrong about something made me think through my own position more thoroughly and argue it more carefully. I’ll miss him.
A similar view is told by Craig Nakashian, who gives this anecdote:
when Dan Franke and I were assembling the Dick Kaeuper festschrift, we asked Bernie to contribute an article, which he graciously agreed to do; we opted to lead the volume off with it- an insightful caution against the over-use of the Song of Roland (and other literature) for History. This book was celebrating a man who made a huge contribution to the field especially in the use of literature for history, and Bernie’s contribution was celebrating it by pushing back…but it worked. He did it with such a command of the sources and reasoning that, even if you didn’t agree (which I didn’t and don’t), you came away impressed. That was Bernie.
Bernard S. Bachrach did what all good historians should do – be thorough in understanding the sources, ask questions and challenge the notions of other historians, but also to support his colleagues and don’t let professional disagreements affect personal friendships. Many people will agree with the experience that Craig Nakashian remembers having: “He was gracious, funny, and generous to me.”
To end this remembrance of Bernard, here are the words of John France, a longtime colleague and friend:
Bernard Bachrach has been a great force in the life of generations of historians. All who knew him, and many who did not, owe him a great debt of gratitude. Bernie and I first corresponded in 1972, although we did not actually meet until 1997. He was a man of enormous energy, with a real drive and enthusiasm for his subject, military history. His range and volume, and above all, quality of his research publications is astonishing, but it is its overall effect for which he must be remembered.
His early work on the Merovingians came at a time when they were much disregarded, but he put them firmly on the map before the boom in the Late Antique World broke upon us. Merovingian Military Organization was a major work really opening up early medieval military history. Bernie was always devoted to the sources, many of which across a very long period, he has translated, either alone or with David. The voluminous work on the Carolingians deserves the highest respect, while the series of studies on Fulk Nerra are really models of historical method.
For those of us interested in military history these are all well-known works, but there was another side to Bernie, his work on Jewish history.
Astonishingly, Bernie held a substantial number of Chairs at the University of Minnesota: Professor of Ancient Studies, graduate archaeology program at Minnesota, Professor of Religious Studies, Professor of Jewish Studies, Professor in the Center for Medieval Studies. In all these varied posts Bernie excelled. If this little appreciation does not cover them all it is because of the writer’s limitations, not Bernie’s.
Bernie had a very long career, and partly because of this it is not easy for all scholars to appreciate his achievement. When I was a student I remember being struck by the following comment, in a very distinguished volume, from a very distinguished medievalist:
“European warfare in the twelfth and thirteenth centuries shews (sic) a somewhat bewildering variety of practice behind which lies no constructive idea.” (A.H. Thompson, Cambridge Medieval History 6 vols (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1911-36, 6:796.)
It would not be difficult to find similar sentiments from equally able scholars in more recent times. Above all so many books on subjects across the medieval period leave silences, or just a few stereotyped comments on military affairs. This was the position of military history when Bernie was a young man. He fought for the subject and earned well-deserved recognition for himself, but also for military history as a lens for looking at the medieval world. Bernard of Chartres, according to John of Salisbury, remarked that the thinkers of his age were standing on the shoulders of the giants of the past. That is equally true of all historians. Those who work in the field of military history (and indeed some other fields) have stood on the shoulders of a giant and he is no longer with us. It is a loss to us all. Not comparable, of course, to the loss to his family, to whom we can only offer our deepest condolences.
Bernard S. Bachrach is survived by his wife Deborah, his sons Daniel and David, and nine grandchildren. You can read more about him on Legacy.com.
You can also read some of his articles on the Society of Medieval Military History’s website:
Medieval Siege Warfare: A Reconnaissance – from The Journal of Military History (1994)
Caballus et Caballarius in Medieval Warfare – from The Study of Chivalry: Resources and Approaches (1988)
The imperial roots of Merovingian military organization – from Military Aspects of Scandinavian Society in a European Perspective, AD 1-1300 (1997)
See also this piece about Bernie’s retirement, from the Fall 2020 issue of the Center for Jewish Studies Annual Magazine.