The Johns Hopkins Gazette: October 21, 2002
October 21, 2002
VOL. 32, NO. 8


History Professor to Receive French Legion of Honor

By Glenn Small
Johns Hopkins Gazette Online Edition

In a formal ceremony this week, John Baldwin is to receive the highest award bestowed by the French government, the Legion of Honor. Created in 1802 by Napoleon Bonaparte to recognize military and civilian contributions to France, the award in recent decades has been conferred mainly on French citizens.

When foreigners have received the honor, it has tended to go to the very famous, ambassadors or military generals. Americans who have received the award include actors Jerry Lewis and Gregory Peck, former U.S. Gen. Norman Schwarzkopf, television cooking legend Julia Child and noted wine critic Robert Parker.

John Baldwin

And now John Baldwin, the Charles Homer Haskins Professor Emeritus of History at Johns Hopkins.

Baldwin's 50 years of scholarship on the French medieval period--including a French translation of his book on King Philip Augustus that made the French best-seller list--is so well-regarded that he is being honored on Thursday, Oct. 24, at Evergreen House, when the French consul general will present the award to him.

Stephen Nichols, chair of the Department of Romance Languages and Literatures, says the Legion of Honor rarely goes to academics, and then only to "the most prestigious professors in France." Distinguished American professors are typically recognized with the Order of Arts and Letters, which Baldwin received in 1984.

So for an American professor, especially one in the humanities, to receive a Legion of Honor award is exceptional, Nichols says. "This is the top award you can get in France."

Daniel Weiss, dean of the Krieger School of Arts and Sciences and a History of Art professor, says, "John Baldwin has had a long and distinguished career as a leading scholar of medieval France. His work has been of fundamental importance to those of us in the field of medieval studies, as well as to those interested in fine historical writing.

"We're delighted and honored for Professor Baldwin to be receiving this recognition," Weiss says. "It is well-deserved."

Baldwin, who became emeritus two years ago, was notified in May 2001 that he would receive the award, and a presentation ceremony was being planned for the fall, but then the events of Sept. 11 took over, and the ceremony never happened. Other delays postponed the event until now.

When he got the news of the honor, Baldwin says, "it was like a bolt out of the blue ... . I'm not the kind of person they usually give this to."

The letter announcing the award said, "This distinction marks the high esteem in which you are held by the French government. It comes naturally as a reward for your important contribution to cultural cooperation between France and America."

A graduate of Wheaton College in Illinois and of Pennsylvania State University, Baldwin came to Johns Hopkins in 1951 to work on his doctorate in history. He chose to study in France, he now says, because he wasn't competitive enough to get a Fulbright to England, where he wanted to go.

"I arrived in France, and didn't speak a word of French," he says. "[But] I found it a wonderful place to live. I was so happy there. I've always been happy there."

His early work looked at schools and universities and how the University of Paris came to be, and he later worked with a team of French scholars to publish for the first time the registers, or private governmental records, of King Philip Augustus, an effort that took 20 years. That led to Baldwin's writing The Government of Philip Augustus: Foundations of French Royal Power in the Middle Ages. In that work, he makes the case that the reign of Philip Augustus was the first in France to set up a bureaucracy. "He was the first to call Paris the capital. He built the walls around the city, and he paved the streets," Baldwin says. "I think I was able to show the beginnings of the French government."

The French edition of the book, which came out in 1991, sold more than 10,000 copies and made the best-seller list. "I think it's a subject that caught them," says Baldwin, noting the interest of the French in their monarchies.

Over the years, he has focused on a fairly narrow window of time--France and Paris between roughly 1180 and 1230--but within that window, he has worked broadly. "Baldwin has written authoritatively on French monarchs, intellectual life centering around the early days of the University of Paris and links between romance and history; his judgments are solid, his learning extensive," wrote J.T. Rosenthal about Baldwin's latest book, Aristocratic Life in Medieval France, in the September 2000 issue of Choice, which reviews books for academic libraries.

In that book, Baldwin examines closely four romance works of two writers of the period to depict the richness of aristocratic life, departing from his other work, which looked mainly at the Latin records of the government and church. Critically well-received, the book sold out its hardback run and is now in paperback edition.

For his next book, which he says he hopes to finish in two years, he is going to combine all his knowledge to write a popular book that paints a picture of life in Paris in the year 1200.

As he has spent so much time studying the period, Baldwin is asked if he ever imagines what it was like living during those days. "Oh, yes," he says. "All the time. It's wonderful."

On his walks through Paris, where he and his wife have an apartment near a section of Philip Augustus' wall, Baldwin says that he can visualize the noisy spectacle of horses, carriages, dogs and farm animals, and street criers that are part of life. In the distance, the Gothic spires of the Cathedral of Notre Dame are beginning to rise, and in the streets, hundreds of clerical students--men and boys studying in various religious orders--are walking about in between the day's numerous services, which are frequently signaled by the ringing of bells from the 14 parish churches in central Paris.

But his is no romantic picture. "I don't think I could stand the smell of it," he muses. "Everything was put out into the streets [and] there were a lot of horses."

Infant mortality was 50 percent, and also 50 percent for the first few years of life, he says. "The weak ones all died off. So the kids that made it through were pretty tough."

The most common causes of death were childbirth for women and by arms and hard work for men, he said. The citizens feared leprosy and smallpox, and many probably died of tuberculosis, although they didn't know it existed. But the black death was still 150 years into the future.

On Thursday, Baldwin will give an acceptance speech. "I want to talk about how well-received I have been in France."

Those interested in attending the event, which begins at 5 p.m., should contact the History Department at 410-516-7585.