The Revd Dr Richard Pfaff

by
16 September 2016

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Professor Nigel Morgan writes:
THE Revd Dr Richard (Dick) Pfaff, historian of the liturgy of medieval England, died on 10 July, aged 79, in Chapel Hill, North Carolina, after a short illness.

After graduating from Harvard, he had been awarded a Rhodes Fellowship to Magdalen College, Oxford, where he had obtained a D.Phil. in history, and also attended courses in theology. Returning to the United States, he had entered the General Seminary in New York, and had been ordained to the priesthood in the Episcopal Church in 1966.

Although he continued to exercise his ministry as a priest, his career was to be in the academic world of history. He was appointed to the Department of History in the University of North Carolina in 1967, where he remained until his retirement in 2006. He was Priest Associate of the Chapel of the Holy Cross, Chapel Hill, from 1968 onwards.

Dick Pfaff was assuredly the foremost scholar of the liturgy of medieval England of his generation. When he began his studies in this field in the 1960s, an older generation — Francis Wormald, Christopher Hohler and Derek Turner, to name the main scholars — were still alive, although the first two were not very productive in the later years of their lives. From the 1980s onwards, Dick became the leading figure in this area, publishing mainly on the later centuries of the Middle Ages, but also making important contributions to the liturgy of the Anglo-Saxon period and the 12th century. His main publications are: New Liturgical Feasts in Later Medieval England (Oxford, 1970); Montague Rhodes James (London, 1980); Medieval Latin Liturgy: A select bibliography (Toronto, 1982); Liturgical Calendars, Saints, and Services in Medieval England (Aldershot, 1998); and The Liturgy in Medieval England. A History (Cambridge, 2009).

This last, his magnum opus, which will long remain as the standard work on the subject, could be said to be a summation of his 40 years of research, and was awarded the prestigious Haskins Medal of the Medieval Academy of America. A Festschrift in his honour was published in 2010, and contains a full listing of his publications: The Study of Medieval Manuscripts of England: Festschrift in honor of Richard W. Pfaff, edited by George Hardin Brown and Linda Ehrsam Voigts (Tempe AZ/Turnhout, 2010).

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His work in the later medieval field from the 13th to the 15th centuries is his most important contribution. Although he wrote on Anglo-Saxon and 12th-century liturgical texts, other scholars have also published much in those areas, whereas for the later Middle Ages Pfaff’s work was in a field studied much less in the later 20th and early 21st centuries than it had been in the great period of English liturgical studies from the mid-19th century to the mid-20th century.

This decline in interest in the liturgy of the final centuries of the Middle Ages can perhaps be attributed to its vilification, in the period of the Second Vatican Council and its aftermath, by liturgists who for the most part could not be considered as historians, and whose modernist bias against the later Middle Ages was both simplistic and naïve.

Fortunately, almost alone, Pfaff researched widely the texts of the books for the mass and Divine Office of late-medieval England. As a priest, he was, of course, active in the modern liturgy, and had an innate understanding of the practicalities (and impracticalities) of the rubrics and texts in the medieval manuscripts. Unlike some editors of medieval liturgical texts, his analysis always contained perceptive understandings of the ways in which these books were used and interpreted in the performance of the liturgy, and emphasised that they must be seen as evidence of active liturgy, and not just lifeless texts to be published without consideration of how they actually functioned.

His fulfilling and long marriage to Margaret Campbell ended with her death in 2010. They are survived by their son, David, who followed in his father’s footsteps, becoming a priest in the Episcopal Church. In April 2016, Dick Pfaff began a second marriage with Jeanette Falk, a happy union sadly to be cut short by his death a few months later.

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