Historian and medievalist Brian Tierney dies at 97

Professor Emeritus Brian Tierney, who taught medieval history at Cornell for 33 years and was recognized as a leading authority on medieval church law and political thought, died Nov. 30 in Syracuse. He was 97.

Tierney taught in the Department of History from 1959 until his retirement in 1992 as the Bryce and Edith M. Bowmar Professor in Humanistic Studies.

He was an internationally renowned scholar whose teaching and research included a specialization in the interactions of the medieval church and the medieval state, and the resulting influence on Western institutions and constitutional thought.

“Brian left an important legacy to Cornell,” said R. Laurence Moore, the Howard A. Newman Professor of American Studies Emeritus. “He became one of the most celebrated medieval historians of his generation, sought out by many universities. Cornell managed to keep him on the faculty, in part, because he loved Ithaca and the opportunities it afforded him to ski, to sail, and to hunt.”

“He was one of the world’s most distinguished Medievalists, ardently devoted to his family, a superb teacher,” said Walter LaFeber, professor of history emeritus. “Brian graced Cornell for 60 years as a giant figure in the history profession.”

Born May 7, 1922, in Scunthorpe, Lincolnshire, England, Tierney enlisted in the Royal Air Force in 1941 and served as a navigator during World War II. He flew 29 missions as part of Bomber Command and 60 more missions with the 105 Squadron of the Pathfinder Force. Tierney was recognized for his RAF service by King George VI with the prestigious Distinguished Flying Cross and Bar.

After the war, he attended Pembroke College at Cambridge University, graduating in 1948 with first class honors, and earned his doctorate in medieval history from Cambridge in 1951. A revised version of his thesis was published in 1955 as “Foundations of the Conciliar Theory.”

He emigrated to America in 1951 for a position as an assistant professor at Catholic University in Washington, D.C. Tierney and his wife, Theresa, were among the last cohorts of immigrants to be processed through Ellis Island.

Moving to Ithaca in 1959, Tierney began his Cornell career as a professor of medieval history. He was named the Goldwin Smith Professor of Medieval History in 1969 and the first Bowmar Professor of Humanistic Studies in 1977.

He continued his academic work following his retirement in 1992.

“For so many years, he was the academic star of my department,” Moore said. “After he retired, his voice and his counsel continued to matter. Even in his nineties, his stories about World War II and about the many important scholars he knew could mesmerize a dinner party or any other gathering.”

Tierney published extensively throughout his career; his most recent book, “Liberty and Law: The Idea of Permissive Natural Law,” was published in 2014. Tierney’s other books include “The Crisis of Church and State, 1050-1300” (1964); “Origins of Papal Infallibility, 1150-1350” (1972); “Religion, Law and the Growth of Constitutional Thought, 1150-1650” (1982) and “The Idea of Natural Rights: Studies on Natural Rights, Natural Law and Church Law” (1997).

Tierney was a past president of the American Catholic Historical Association, a member of the American Philosophical Society, a corresponding fellow of the British Academy, and a fellow of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences and of the Medieval Academy of America.

His other honors include the American Historical Association’s Award for Scholarly Distinction; the Medieval Academy’s Haskins Medal for a book of distinction in the field; and Catholic University’s Quasten Medal for excellence in religious studies. He was awarded research grants from the Guggenheim Foundation, the National Endowment for the Humanities and the American Council of Learned Societies, among others.

Tierney was predeceased by his wife, Theresa O’Dowd Tierney, in 1999. Survivors include a brother, four children and eight grandchildren.

A Mass of Christian Burial will be held Dec. 7 at 11 a.m. at St. Catherine of Siena Church, Ithaca. Calling hours are Dec. 6 from 3-5 p.m. at Bangs Funeral Home, Ithaca.

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Gillian Smith