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Tapestry - Fall 2005

Edwin DeWindt, “an academic maverick”

The medieval history bug bit Edwin DeWindt in the late 1950s as a high school student in Wyandotte. “I had this class on the late medieval renaissance, and I was intrigued by the biographical studies of the hierarchy at that time. I found these people exciting and romantic,” he explains.

That interest only grew stronger as DeWindt got older, and it continues today, more robust than ever. A professor at the University of Detroit Mercy since 1969, DeWindt, 64, is embarking on his eighth book on the subject while his seventh book, which he co-authored with his wife, Anne Reiber DeWindt, is only now being printed.

DeWindt and his wife of 36 years are two of a kind. What were the chances that these two Americans would have ended up at the University of Toronto in the early 1960s studying and sharing a passion for medieval history? All these years later, Anne, a history professor at Wayne County Community College, and DeWindt, continue to spend their time researching and writing books on medieval history—primarily the time before 1500. Every year, May through August, the couple stays in an apartment in London’s West End conducting research on specific English towns. They make it a priority to spend at least one week in Paris “wandering around,” DeWindt explains.

How it began

DeWindt was born in Kalamazoo in 1941, then moved with his family to Wyandotte when he was three.

After graduating from the University of Detroit in 1963 with a Bachelor of Arts degree in History, he moved to Toronto and received a Licentiate of Mediaeval Studies, a doctorate equivalent, at the Pontifical Institute of Mediaeval Studies in 1966. He went on to obtain a doctorate degree in medieval studies at the University of Toronto Graduate Centre for Medieval Studies.

“Then I needed to look for work,” he says, sitting comfortably amidst the organized clutter of his Briggs office at UDM. “It wasn’t a great time to find work in this field. There was a shift in the academy. What relevance for the ancient world was there in the 1960s? History after 1500 was considered more important.”

Fred Hayes, a University of Detroit history professor of DeWindt’s, came to the rescue. “He asked me if I would like to teach here. He said ‘I can’t pay you much, but it’s a chance to teach whatever you like.’”

DeWindt, who married Anne Reiber in 1969, jumped at the opportunity. He taught western civilization and did tutorials with students on medieval village society. When that job ended, he was again helped by someone from his past. Arthur Loveley, S.J., former Dean of Men, helped him obtain an associate professorship in the department.

DeWindt taught religious courses with a historical bent until 1982, when he became an associate professor of history. He still teaches western civilization, and “I’m still trying to get it right,” he says, with a hearty, easy laugh.

The DeWindts eventually bought a house in the Sherwood Forest neighborhood of Detroit. Anne finished her doctorate degree and took a job with Wayne County Community College. Meanwhile, DeWindt got more serious about his research on medieval history, and Anne came up with the idea of tackling a study of the common people of the town of Ramsey, now a bedroom community north of London and the site of the monastery of Ramsey Abbey. This project would take the couple 30 years.

“We knew there were court records that revealed the social history of ordinary people—not knights or nobles. Ninety percent of the people in this town were what we today call peasants,” he says. Other resources were the British Library and the Public Record Office, now called The National Archives, as well as other local and regional archives.

While the Ramsey project was in progress, DeWindt tackled other research-intensive projects, which resulted in several books. His first, Land and People in Holywell-cum-Needingworth, was published in 1973. The Liber Gersumarum of Ramsey Abbey came out in 1975.

He received a John Simon Guggenheim Memorial Fellowship in 1978, which allowed him to take time off from the University and research what would become Royal Justice and the Medieval English Countryside, which he co-authored with Anne. The two-volume set came out in 1982.

“A French reviewer said this was the first time anyone had seriously asked the question ‘Who were these people who were using the royal courts of medieval England?’” he says.

In 1995, the fruits of his labor resulted in The Salt of Common Life: Individuality and Choice in the Medieval Town, Countryside and Church and A Slice of Life: Documents of Medieval Peasant Experience the following year.

The mother of all medieval history books, Ramsey: the Lives of an English Fenland Town, 1200-1600, which he co-authored with Anne, will be out in early 2006. The couple finished the research for the book in 1996, but it took them four years to write. It was a tome—2,000 pages—and required a diligent editor to cut its length in half. The uncut version of the book is going into the archives in London. “They appreciate that sort of thing,” he says.

A teacher first

Despite his passion for writing, DeWindt, above all, considers himself a teacher who tries to make medieval history meaningful to early 21st century students. A night owl, DeWindt rarely teaches a class before 10 a.m. He teaches three classes a term on Tuesdays and Thursdays, and often can be found in his UDM office, crammed with books, tapes, CDs, folders and photos.

“I like the enthusiasm I get from the students who get turned on by my work,” he says, adding that he’s a ham and a performer. “I also enjoy my colleagues who are an exciting crowd to be around.”

One of those colleagues is Edward Wolff, an adjunct UDM English professor who had DeWindt as a student in two medieval literature classes in the early 1960s.

Wolff calls DeWindt “an academic maverick. He always swims upstream, and he never does anything people expect him to do.”

Wolff says as a college student, DeWindt “wrote with grace and aplomb, far surpassing his fellow undergraduates.”

What’s next?

For now, DeWindt has begun researching his next book on the depiction of English history on stage. That, of course, touches on Shakespeare and his contemporaries, who some speculate were “hacks for the government,” he says. “I disagree with that theory based on what I’ve studied so far.

“What has driven my wife and me is these people have lives worth celebrating and taking seriously,” he says. “These were real people, like us. The books are about ordinary people and how they lived their lives, how they coped with every kind of challenge.”