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In Memoriam Dr Henry J. Cohn

The History Department is deeply saddened by the passing of its Emeritus Reader, Dr Henry J. Cohn. Henry grew up in London and entered University College, Oxford, as a scholar, in 1954. Having taken his BA in 1957 and DPhil in 1963 (with a thesis on the government of the Rhine Palatinate in the fifteenth century), he moved on to a temporary post at Glasgow and a Lectureship in History at Leicester before coming to Warwick in 1967, two years after the foundation of the university​. Here, he immediately gained the respect of his colleagues, serving as acting head in 1969 when still a lecturer and leading the department formally from 1986-89. As he told Bernard Capp and Fred Reid respectively, the latter proved a 'doddle' early on but then turned into a demanding job that required all his managerial and administrative skills. He convened a second-year module on ‘Germany in the Age of the Reformation’ and a Year 3 special subject on ‘The German Peasants’ War 1524-25', taking all his academic duties extremely seriously and setting exacting standards in all student-facing activities right up to his retirement in​ 2003. At the same time, however, Henry remained a distinguished researcher, drawing not least on his knowledge of multiple languages. He had particular interests in the political history of the Holy Roman Empire on the eve of the Reformation (the subject of a monograph on The Government of the Rhine Palatinate in the Fifteenth Century, translated into German in 2013), the German Peasants’ War of 1525 (where he identified anticlericalism as a central factor in a seminal 1979 Past & Present article) and latterly the Imperial Diet (the subject of several recent essays). As a recognized authority in the field of Reformation studies, he served as external examiner to Lyndal Roper, now Regius Professor of History at Oxford. Alongside, Henry took a life-long interest in Jewish history, most recently with a focus on the contested pontificate of Pius XII. At this moment, our thoughts are with his wife Loretta, family and friends. The History Department will remember Dr Henry J. Cohn as an esteemed colleague, dedicated teacher and eminent scholar.

Personal recollections of former colleagues and friends

When Henry decided to retire around the millennium, I was hired as his replacement and felt honoured to follow in his footsteps. He had published seminal work on the great Peasants’ War of 1525 and ran a wide-ranging undergraduate option on ‘Germany in the Age of the Reformation’, which he let me take over in typically generous fashion. For a few years, we marked assessments together, and I was terribly impressed by how meticulously he engaged with every piece of student work. He could come across as a serious man but, as everybody soon realized, with a wry sense of humour. When the department celebrated his achievements at a valedictory dinner, Henry quibbed that the university had promoted me before he’d even gone out of the door!


Henry Cohn with Beat Kümin at the Eighth Parish Symposium in May 2010.
Picture: Steve Bates.

I felt privileged to remain in touch after he left the department. In 2010, he agreed to address the Eight Warwick Symposium on Parish Research with a talk on ‘The Jewish kehilla (Local Community) in Early Modern Central Europe’ (soon published in: M.H. da Cruz Coelho et al. (eds), Parliaments, the Law and the Representations from the the Middle Ages to the Present Day, Lisbon 2010, 87-95) and on some occasions I got to sample Loretta’s famed hospitality in their Birmingham home. Together with our late colleague Humfrey Butters, Henry became one of the pillars of Warwick’s early modern textbook, The European World 1500-1800, which is about to go into its fourth edition. He contributed (co-) authored chapters on Lutheranism, Jews and Muslims as well as early modern politics, all in characteristically perceptive and lucid manner. Alongside, Henry served as editor of the internationally renowned journal Parliaments, Estates and Representation and published further personal research, not least on Imperial Diets (one in my edited collection Political Space in Pre-industrial Europe, 2009). In a touching move, and quite out of the blue, he recently sent me a copy of the book he wrote in memory of his father – I had no idea of all the hardships Ernst J. Cohn and the family went through in 1930s Germany. Sadly, it will now no longer be possible to talk about his background further. The last time I ‘saw’ Henry was on Zoom, delivering a paper to the Hampstead and North West London branch of the Historical Association in September 2020. There, he reassessed the heavily contested topic of ‘Pope Pius XII and the Jews’ in an admirably clear and differentiated manner – an ambition most historians harbour, but few manage to realize quite as convincingly. He will be sorely missed.

Beat Kümin

Henry was a mainstay of the Department. Very astute in positioning it vis-à-vis the Centre. I didn’t always agree with him, but he was the kind of man you could disagree with quite deeply, yet it never made any difference to personal relations.

Fred Reid

Henry was one of the handful of people who regularly invited me for lunch in my first year of appointment and helped make me feel at home. He always commanded respect even, as Fred says, when opinions differed. He was sometimes infuriatingly attached to rules but his generation was only too well aware what happened when they were ignored. Henry and my friend and PhD supervisor Leonard Schapiro were two true liberals who helped me realise the importance of law in place of my own glib assumptions about it being no more than self-serving on the part of the elite.

Chris Read

I was deeply saddened to learn of the passing of Henry Cohn last week. I was fortunate enough to have been lectured to by Henry on the core 2nd-year module (then known as Basic II) in 1997-98, and remember Henry giving an incredibly detailed lecture about the Thirty Years' War, but also a broad survey lecture on European politics in which he compared the EU and the Holy Roman Empire as transnational, multi-ethnic communities.
That year I opted to take Henry's module on Germany in the Age of the Reformation too, one of the most challenging and enjoyable modules that I studied as an undergraduate. Far more wide-ranging than the history of the German Reformation I had been taught at A-Level, through weekly lectures and fortnightly seminars Henry expanded my knowledge of the different religious thinkers of the age, but also introduced me to the historiography of the urban and rural reformations, the interconnections between politics and religion in the Holy Roman Empire, and the role of print in transmitting religious ideas.
Most importantly for my future intellectual development it was through Henry's module that I was first exposed to debates between Steven Ozment, Merry Wiesner-Hanks and Lyndal Roper about the impact of the Reformation on women and gender relations. Reading Oedipus and the Devil was a game-changer, transforming how I thought about what history could be, and Lyndal was one of the first people I contacted when I learned of Henry's passing. I am happy to confess that Henry played a key role in my making as a historian of early modern gender.
As an MA and Ph.D. student at Warwick I gravitated away from German to English History, and after Henry retired I lost touch with him for many years, but I met him again at Bernard Capp's retirement party in 2010, when he took a keen interest in how my academic career was progressing. I saw Henry again a couple of years ago when he attended a paper Bernard gave to the Life-Cycles Seminar at the Institute of Historical Research. When asked to introduce himself at the start of the seminar Henry explained that he was there because he was 'a fan of Bernard'. My last sighting of Henry was a few months after that seminar in the Rare Books room of the British Library, when from afar I spotted him walking purposefully to the issue desk with a pile of books, and I wish I had taken the opportunity to speak with him one final time.
Dr Tim Reinke-Williams

I am shocked and very sad to hear that Henry Cohn has died. He examined my doctorate, and like so many of us, I was in awe of him. He was a true scholar – he just was serious about scholarship, in a way that I found inspirational. But so kind. I remember that he didn’t say whether I had passed my viva or not, but when I came back in after the examiners had conferred, it turned out that they had champagne on ice to celebrate. He was one of those people where you would always worry what he would think of your work – if there were a weak spot, you knew he would see it. He came to my inaugural, and wrote to me afterwards; that email meant so much to me. I remember his warm smile. His article on anticlericalism and the German Peasants’ War in Past and Present has not been bettered.

I have been reading his biography of his father – what a story. If only I had read it earlier; I would so have loved to talk to him about it.

Lyndal Roper

A few years ago, Henry gave an extended interview for a university oral history project - please click on the link to hear him talk about his background, career and Warwick experiences (courtesy Modern Records Centre):