Saeculorum peregrinus. In memoriam Robert A. Markus (1924–2010)

May 20, 2011

Distinguished historian of late ancient Latin Christianity, particularly of Saint Augustine and Pope Saint Gregory the Great, Robert Austin Markus passed away on 8 December 2010 in Nottingham. A longtime friend of CEU’s Medieval Studies Department, Robert gave lectures, co-directed seminars and theses, and served as external reader for many PhD dissertations. In 1993 he gave a talk on Gregory the Great and the sixth century on the Hűvösvölgy campus. In 1995-96, I ran a memorable seminar on Saint Augustine with him, attended by György Heidl and Levan Gigineshvili. In 2004, as the special guest of CEU’s Changing Intellectual Landscapes in Late Antiquity summer course directed by Peter Brown, Robert was elected honorary member of the Hungarian Patristic Society in Popper Room. The best way to honour the memory of this great and modest scholar, warm and affable man is to evoke the adventure of his life and the problems that preoccupied him through his rich and rewarding career.

An unmistakable English gentleman ...

Robert was born Márkus Róbert to a well-to-do and talented upper middle-class Jewish family on 4 October 1924 in Budapest. His father, Győző Márkus was a mechanical engineer, his mother, Lili Elek (Engel) a pianist, tapestry artist and ceramicist. Róbert grew up in Veronika street on the Rózsadomb with younger brother Tamás and attended Áldás street elementary school. The Márkus fortune was established by grandfather Lajos in a shabby Székesfehérvár bicycle repair shop which, by the 1900s, expanded into the vast industrial plant known as Márkus Lajos Vasszerkezet és Láncgyár Részvénytársaság in Angyalföld. The factory produced chains, structural steel-frame, glazing components and a variety of forged and pressed metal artifacts ranging from telephone booths (the traditional yellow-and-green phone booths of Budapest!) to military stretchers and bridges (the Chain Bridge was simply called ’grandfather’s bridge’ in the family). Róbert’s mother, Lili Márkus had a small pottery in the factory and built up an impressive artistic career between 1932–39 as one of those remarkable women in interwar Hungary (along with Hajnalka Zilzer, Klára Weisz, Gertude Donner, Margit Kovács and Éva Stricker), who reinvented decorative, architectural and industrial ceramics and whose work was widely celebrated at international exhibitions. (The best known designer of the group, Éva Stricker was appointed chief designer of State Ceramics and Glass Industry in Soviet Russia in 1935, from where she moved to New York and became world famous as Eva Zeisel). In her work, Lili Márkus reinterpreted folk motifs and Christian legends and collaborated with Bauhaus architect Lajos Kozma. In 2008, an exhibition of Lili Márkus’ pottery was organized in Glasgow entitled The Eye of the Storm, soon to be presented in Budapest’s Museum of Decorative Arts.

In 1938, a year of many changes, Márkus Győző became Victor Markus and the Márkus Lajos relocated as Ferrostatics in Derbyshire, England. The firm produced machine tools for aircraft-manufacture for the British war industry. Robert Markus was sent to boarding schools in Lausanne, Bern and Glossop, where he learned English and forgot Hungarian, Hungary and childhood. Assimiliation was, in his case, more than a teenage symptom: it was a matter of survival. Aliens from enemy countries were interned in England, the Markuses being the exception to the rule because of their participation in the war effort, as Ferrostatics made parts for Spitfire bombers. Robert become British and he was very proud of having done it. Leaving Hungary as a child, he was probably the most English of the great generation of Hungarian immigrants to England (among them Alexander Korda, Thomas Balogh, Nicholas Kaldor, Nicholas Kurti, Arthur Koestler, André Deutsch, Michael Polanyi, George Mikes), yet the problem of assimilation continued to preoccupy him. As he later put it:

“In retrospect, I think my main aim, apart from enjoying myself, was to become thoroughly English, to conform in manner, appearance, language etc. and, (at any rate until the Thatcher and later in post-Iraq war years) was always proud of being British. I did not wish to forget my past; but I have always been very sceptical of much current ‘multi-culturalism’, and much of my work on Augustine has been coloured by sense of need for some common culture to give a society at least minimal coherence (I tried in later pieces to remedy what seemed to some critics a lack of this in my book Saeculum). I still think immigrants have some obliga-tion of conforming to the values and to the culture of host-societies.”

Robert did become the model English gentleman, but Magyar came back through the window. He was already beyond forty when he re-learned Hungarian from his younger brother (who stayed home longer, thus knew and remembered Hungarian better) to converse with his father’s second wife, also from Budapest, who did not know a word of English. In 2004, on our CEU summer university trip to Pécs, we stopped in Zamárdi: Robert was moved to tears recognizing the place where he used to spend his summers as a child.

During the war, Robert Markus read Chemistry at the University of Manchester. It was a compromise between engineering (his father's wish) and philosophy (his own). Michael Polanyi was Profes-sor of Physical Chemistry, until given leave to prepare his Gifford Lectures (Personal knowledge, 1958) and to return to personal Chair created for him in Social philosophy. Robert found him a great man, albeit he had little interest in Chemistry. Instead, he read literature, medieval history and above all, philosophy. He was active in the Student Union and ran Auxiliary Fire Service. On graduating, he got a job in CWS margarine factory in Manchester. With his friend Walter Stein, he founded and edited a review, Humanitas, with interest and collabor-ation of Polanyi, Willy Schenk, Dorothy Emmet and Bertrand de Jouvenel among others.

From the Atomic Bomb to Augustine

It was the atomic bomb that awoke Robert’s interest in Christianity. He collabor-ated in Nuclear warfare and the Christian conscience, went on several demonstrations, and took part in TV discussions. In 1946, Fr Vincent Whelan instructed him into a very liberally construed version of Roman Catholicism and received him into the Catholic Church. Robert’s conversion was very similar to Augustine’s: all his friends and family followed suit. Conversion was a decisive moment in his life. As he put it:

“My "conversion-experience" seems to have been central to almost all my subsequent interests: what is involved in conversion to Christianity? What relationship to pre-conversion past? Questions of ‘religion’ and ‘secular culture’ always remained at core of my work. From my first book, Saeculum, to the end of my career this has been an obsession, but I never quite got it right, and still cannot formulate my views on the ‘secular’ in a satisfactory form.”

Conversion led him back to philosophy: in 1946, he gave up his job and did an MA in in Philosophy, with DME on Samuel Alexander, Manchester's most famous philosopher. His intellectual development was greatly influenced by Dorothy Emmet, whose work and width of interest in sociology, religion and anthropology appealed and stimulated him. In Emmet’s circle, he met Polanyi, Donald MacKinnon and Edward Shils.

In the summer of 1949, Robert went on pilgrimage to Rome with a friend, on foot for more than half the way, armed with Latin letter of recommendation from the Dominican provincial. He entered the Dominican Order in 1950, on completing his PhD on the roots of Cartesian presup-positions in late medieval and Renaissance philosophy, and stayed there until 1954. During his years in the Oxford Dominican novitiate, he read Augustine:

“I was introduced to Augustine by Fr Whelan and had read much in the Dominican novitiate; Augustine always appealed: his intellectual restlessness, move-ment, mind in touch with feeling, conscious of ‘merciful opacity’of human things, was alternative to dissociated intellect of Enlightenment thought.


Some months before he was due to take final vows, university friend Margaret Bullen visited him, and Robert could not forget her. He left the Dominicans and got married in 1955. He took up a job in Liverpool and started work on patristic studies and the early Church.


Saeculum and Change

At Liverpool, Robert worked in an intellectually stimulating environment, with colleagues Hans Liebeschuetz, Christopher Brooke, Margaret Gibson, Henry Mayr-Harting, Christopher Allmand, and Hilary Armstrong. The greatest impact, however, came from abroad:

“Intellectually, as my work developed, I probably owe most to Henri-Irénée Marrou, whom I met a few times late in his life, admired greatly, and read avidly: he defined for me idea of ‘Late Antiquity’ as having special character and identity; also wrote most illuminatingly on Augustine and on late Roman culture.”

Robert’s first important book, Saeculum was not unrelated to his conversion experience and offered a radical reading of Augustine's concept of ‘the secular,’ the world of social and political communities existing in space and time. Until it was invented by Christianity, there was no notion of the ‘secular’ in the ancient world. The ancients idealized the state: Augustine rejected the sacralization of the established order of society. The Christian lives in the world, yet is not part of it: he is a citizen of a ‘pilgrim city’ (civitas peregrina). The Church, thus, is no more ‘sacred’ than the world is ‘profane’: they are both ‘secular’. The Church cannot be identified with the body of the elect: like all human institutions, it comes under the Judgement. If the pilgrim Church proclaims the inauguration of God’s Kingdom, it is not this Kingdom, but a sign of the Kingdom to come. Secular, sacred, and salvation history are clearly distinguished. The two cities, the heavenly and the earthly, overlap in peace: “peace is the final state of gratification of all longing, the state of having come to rest in possession of the desired object.”

Apart from signs and meanings, change was another problem that kept Robert riveted. The transformation of the classical heritage fascinated him: how had Gregory the Great's world come to differ from Augustine's? His work on Gregory was marked by a thorough and patient examination of solid continuities and slow adjustments in a world hard pressed to change. The sixth century was the watershed between late antiquity and the Middle Ages. The introduction to the book on Gregory became a major study on its own of the fundamental transformation of Christian identity in late antiquity, The end of ancient Christianity, which put in sharp focus the dramatic changes in the fourth century: the crisis of Christian identity, the ascetic revolution, the creation of sacred time and sacred space that brought about new forms of Christian worship and established a new network of the sacred in the Roman Empire. A Church enjoying imperial privileges was now compelled to affirm its continuity with the pre-constantinian Church of the martyrs, “to consider itself the heir of its own martyrs.” It also had to prove that it was able to adapt and appropriate classical culture and tradition. ‘Respectable’ Christianity’s resilience is shown by the fact that it assured the survival of much of classical civilization, even if its own ideals were by now very different from that civilization: the model Christian now lived in the desert, not in the city, and the monastic community became the paradigm of Paradise on earth. This is what is usually called the shift from the ancient to the medieval world.

From 1974 to 1982, Robert Markus taught at Nottingham and published important studies on signs in Christian thought. Taking early retirement in 1982, he spent a year in IAS Princeton (“wonderful heaven for academic otium and work”) in 1985/6. He was Distinguished Visiting Professor of Early Christian Studies at CUA, Washington in 1988 and Notre Dame in 1993. President of Ecclesi-astical History Society (1977-78), of the Association Internationale d'Études Patristiques (1991-5), he became Fellow of the British Academy in 1984, and Officer of the British Empire in 2000 “for services to Ecclesiastical History.” In 1999, an international cast of contributors presented him with a Festschrift on his 75th birthday, The Limits of Ancient Christianity. In a review of 25 years of scholarship on Augustine, Peter Brown assessed the importance of Robert Markus’ work.

Well after his 80th birthday, Robert collaborated with Éric Rebillard and Claire Sotinel in a common project at the École Française de Rome, and revised his book on Gregory the Great. In 2001, he participated at a conference on Augustine in Algeria, and in 2006, was invited by Mgr Brandmüller and Evangelos Chrysos to Constantinople at the occasion of the meeting of Pope Benedict XVI with the Oecumenical Patriarch on the Feast of Saint Andrew. In 2007, Robert cheerfully waltzed through the Oxford Patristics Conference in company with Henry Chadwick. Nobody would have thought that this would be his last appearance on this familiar turf.

„There, in that heavenly City of Jerusalem, whence we are wandering, the angels await us wanderers.”

Robert went on towards the heavenly City, where „the angels are our fellow citizens.” His thoughts on Church and State, sacred and secular, pagan and Christian, the rich legacy of this deeply engaged teacher remain with us.

On 7th May 2011, a memorial was held at the University of Nottingham to celebrate the life of Robert Markus and to establish The Professor Robert Markus Prize as a token of Robert’s contribution to academic life at Nottingham. The prize will be awarded in any particular academic year for the best M.A. dissertation in the Humanities (History, Theology, Philosophy, Ancient History, Archaeology, Art History), loosely in the period of Robert’s main interest prior to about 1000 A.D.