Professor Angeliki Laiou dies of cancer
It is with deep sadness that we announce the passing of Professor Angeliki Laiou. Information about memorial services will be forthcoming. Her obituary follows.
Angeliki E. Laiou, History Professor at Harvard, died on Thursday, December 11, 2008 in Boston, Mass. Ms. Laiou was one of the world’s leading historians of the Byzantine empire—the successor of the Roman empire in the Middle East—and of the Crusades, as well as a former Deputy Secretary of Foreign Affairs of the Hellenic Republic and former Member of Parliament of Greece. Born in Athens, her career as a historian, diplomat and educator spanned the continents.
Ms. Laiou died of anaplastic carcinoma of the thyroid, her son, Vassili Thomadakis, confirmed. She resided in Cambridge, Mass.
A celebrated pioneer in her research in Mediterranean economic history and women’s history, Ms. Laiou became the first woman to serve as chairman of a Department at Harvard University, in 1985, after joining Harvard as the Dumbarton Oaks Professor of Byzantine History in 1981. At Harvard, she taught the history of Byzantine civilization, the Crusades – her commanding presence, penetrating mind and ferocious dedication to her teaching and her students made this Core Curriculum Course ever popular among undergraduates - and Balkan history. Additionally, while still maintaining her teaching duties, Ms. Laiou served as Director of the Dumbarton Oaks Research Library and Collection, famed for its Byzantine and pre-Columbian collections, in Washington, D.C., from 1989 to 1998.
In 1998, she was elected a permanent member of the Academy of Athens, the highest honor and achievement for academics of Greek nationality. At the time, she was only the second woman to be bestowed that honor since the Academy’s founding in 1926.
In April 2000, she fulfilled a lifelong desire to engage in public service, returning to Greece to become a Member of Parliament of the Hellenic Republic until June 2002. In May of 2000, she was named Deputy Secretary of Foreign Affairs in the government of then-Prime Minister Constantine Simitis. Her experiences entailed a memorable visit to Istanbul where she worked to foster better cultural and intellectual relations with Turkey, a historical rival of neighboring Greece. Most of her diplomatic activity focused on cultural affairs, and carried her to many places, such as Europe, Russia, and the Far East, including China. Additionally, she was decorated as a Commander of the Order of Honor of the Hellenic Republic.
Her authorship, which included fourteen monographs and edited books and countless articles, culminated with a massively definitive three volume magnum opus entitled Economic History of Byzantium (2002; revised Greek edition, 2007), which she edited and for which she recruited the world’s leading specialists and herself wrote eight chapters. A benchmark for all future research by its design and contents, this work innovated by being freely available online at http://www.doaks.org/ehb.html. Like many of her other works, this one was also published in Greek. The history of her written works began with a study of the complicated foreign policy by which the late Byzantine empire navigated the perils and possibilities posed by the predatory policies of the Italian commercial empires of Venice and Genoa, foreshadowing her later work on trade and the Mediterranean economy. Her acute sense of social justice perhaps helped turn her next to a highly innovative demographic study of peasant society in the late Byzantine empire. The conditions of peasant households and her own passionately intellectual engagement in the questions of the modern world helped lead her to one of her great themes: sex, marriage, and the status of women in Byzantine society. The result was a host of path-breaking studies characterized by exemplary methodological rigor, sovereign command of the medieval languages, and an unfailingly analytical eye allied with a hard-nosed approach to the evidence and the sometimes unfashionable realities it implies. Three books summarized these results, including the prize-winning one derived from the lecture series Ms. Laiou delivered in her impeccable French at the supreme academic institution of the French Republic, the Collège de France: Mariage, amour et parenté à Byzance (1992). The conference proceedings she organized, inspired and edited about Consent and Coercion to Sex and Marriage in Ancient and Medieval Societies (1993) put that subject on the scholarly map. With her friend Hélène Ahrweiler, president of the Sorbonne, she prepared a remarkable multi-authored work on geographic mobility and diaspora in the medieval Greek experience. Her most recent book, The Byzantine Economy, coauthored with her friend the famous Parisian coin specialist Cécile Morrisson, offers a remarkable synoptic view of the Byzantine economy.
Ms. Laiou was born in Athens, Greece, on April 6, 1941. She was educated at the University of Athens, Brandeis University and received her Ph.D. from Harvard in 1966. After a brief stint at the University of Louisiana in New Orleans, she served as an Instructor and Assistant Professor at Harvard before moving to Brandeis where she became Distinguished Professor. She returned to Harvard as Dumbarton Oaks Professor of Byzantine History in 1981. She was a Fellow of the Medieval Academy of America, of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences, member of the Academy of Athens, the Academia Europaea, a Corresponding Member of the Académie des Inscriptions et Belles-Lettres (Paris), of the Austrian Academy of Arts and Sciences, and of the Serbian Academy of Arts and Sciences. Her activities promoting Byzantine Studies in the People’s Republic of China led to her being named an honorary professor at Nankai University. A faithful affiliate of Lowell House at Harvard, she held two Guggenheim fellowships.
Professor Michael McCormick of Harvard described Ms. Laiou as “ha[ving] the rare gift of an original mind, an iron will, and a penetrating intellect. She was utterly fearless in speaking out to correct error or false impressions, but always chose her words judiciously. It was no accident that Professor Laiou often thought of her closest colleagues as her comrades-in-arms. To her students and those she was called on to lead, she could display, behind the scenes, a devotion and even gentle attentiveness that would have amazed those who knew her imposing persona professionally. For instance during her years as Director of Harvard’s great Washington research center and garden, Dumbarton Oaks, she was a secret but unfailing presence and comfort to a dying building manager and his wife even though, as she avowed during her own final illness, she hated visiting sick people in the hospital. A very private person, Professor Laiou was a devoted friend and impeccable colleague. Her Parisian elegance, intellectual flair, uncommon vitality and love of life were on display for the world to admire as recently as a major international symposium on Byzantine trade held at Dumbarton Oaks in May.”
She is survived by her son Vassili Thomadakis.