In Memoriam: Elisabeth "Lisi" Oliver (December 13, 1951–June 7, 2015)

Stefan Jurasinski

with Andrew Rabin


The sudden death of Lisi Oliver has deprived Old English studies of one of its most brilliant scholars and most generous mentors. Over the course of her career, Oliver made major contributions to the study of early law in the British Isles and Western Europe and earned the admiration of scholars around the world.

Oliver did not follow a straight path to academia. While an undergraduate at Smith College, she majored in Theater and Speech; subsequently she devoted the first half of her professional life to the Opera Company of Boston, where she worked under the renowned artistic director Sarah Caldwell. As a protégée of Caldwell, Oliver earned acclaim for her translation and staging of such operas as Richard Strauss's Der Rosenkavalier, Bernd Alois Zimmerman's Die Soldaten, and Johann Strauss' Die Fledermaus. In 1988, Oliver played a leading role in organizing Making Music Together, the first joint U.S./U.S.S.R. opera festival. Directing Soviet performers in the U.S. premier of Rodion Shchedrin's Dead Souls, she found herself confronted with both cultural barriers and linguistic ones. A profile in the New York Times described the lengths to which she resorted in attempting to explain western notions of the priesthood to a Russian singer: "[Oliver] swung her hands back and forth, as if carrying a censer, but that did not work. Ms. Oliver then laid on the floor and crossed her chest as if a body on display in a coffin. That did it. 'Da, da,' came the response."1

Despite her success in the world of opera, by the late 1980s Oliver found herself drawn to an academic career. Enrolling as a graduate student at Harvard, she immersed herself in the study of Indo-European languages and institutions. At the time, this field was experiencing a revival due to the work of Calvert Watkins, who would serve as one of Oliver's principal mentors. One can see the roots of the method later adopted by Oliver in such studies as Watkins's "Sick-Maintenance in Indo-European,"2 which compared a legal custom attested in early medieval Ireland with allegedly cognate practices from other archaic societies. Watkins derived his approach from the earliest practitioners of comparative philology, who held that legal practices and myths could—like language—be shown to descend from a common origin. Watkins's studies sought to expand the range of reference to include materials such as the corpus of Hittite and Vedic Sanskrit writings, thereby offering the possibility of glimpsing the outlines of an Indo-European legal tradition.3

Oliver was the first to apply the fruits of this research to early English legal materials, though to different ends. Rather than use the written evidence of disparate but linguistically related cultures to reason backward into the unknown, Oliver summoned the insights of comparative linguistics to illuminate what was then one of the great blind spots of English legal history. The focus of her 1995 Harvard doctoral dissertation, "The Language of the Early English Laws," was the royal legislation issued in Kent between the baptism of King Æthelberht in 597 and the reign of Wihtræd, which saw a respite from hostilities between the kingdoms of Kent and Wessex (then ruled by Ine). These laws, which survive only in the twelfth-century codex known as Textus Roffensis, comprise a nearly century-long tradition of written legislation, telling us nearly all that can be known about the first English kingdom with an extant record of vernacular literacy. Their importance was appreciated even in the Anglo-Saxon period; Alfred, in the preface to his domboc issued toward the close of the ninth century, claimed to be influenced by them, while Archbishop Wulfstan drew liberally from them in the laws he drafted on behalf of Æthelred and Cnut.4

At the time Oliver undertook the study of these materials, Old English legislation as a whole had endured many decades of neglect. The laws of Kent suffered more than other such materials, work on them being inhibited by doubts about their authenticity and a suspicion that the earliest of them reflected little more than mimicry of Frankish legislative models such as the Lex Salica. Oliver's work, beginning with her dissertation, was a head-on challenge to such received ideas. She chose as her focus the earliest of the Kentish legal compilations: that issued by Æthelberht sometime before his death ca. 616. This series of short, knotty ordinances—effectively the first text of any sort composed in English—had proved the most resistant to scholarly inquiry, the difficulties of its syntax compounded by its obscure vocabulary. The brilliance of Oliver's approach lay in its use of Germanic and Indo-European analogues, linguistic as well as cultural, to grapple with both the largest and most minute aspects of this text. Though preserved in a manuscript prepared over 500 years after their promulgation, Oliver was able to show that Æthelberht's laws nonetheless survive in something close to their original state, offering valuable glimpses of written English at its most archaic. Moreover, as Oliver argued, the organizing principles seemingly at work in Latin laws issued on the Continent before Æthelberht's reign demonstrate how much Kentish legislation was likely to have relied on memorization—something we might expect given evidence from elsewhere in the Germanic world of a sophisticated oral tradition preceding the arrival of literacy.

Oliver's dissertation deeply impressed Patrick Wormald, whose Making of English Law gave an enthusiastic summary of its conclusions.5 (Oliver and Wormald would maintain a friendship and correspondence lasting until the latter's death in 2004.) In her first monograph, The Beginnings of English Law, little of the dissertation remained, though its conclusions were extensively sharpened and amplified. Along with profound insights about the language and likely cultural setting of the early Kentish laws, the book offers a compelling narrative of the rise of Kent as a literate kingdom and authoritative editions of the texts to replace those in Felix Liebermann's Die Gesetze der Angelsachsen (1903-16), as well as an annotated bibliography of prior editions. Reviewers of the book perceived its significance, calling it "something of a tour de force [. . .] a new and original contribution to early English social, legal, and linguistic history" (English Historical Review 118 [2003]: 1351), "the platform on which scholarly use of the Kentish laws will be constructed for many years to come" (Speculum 79 [2004]: 1126), and "a study in meticulousness [. . .] demand[ing] a careful reexamination of some long-held beliefs" (Mediaevistik 20 [2007]: 364).

In the years that followed the publication of her first monograph, Oliver's interests expanded outward from the vernacular laws of seventh-century England into the traditions of continental law that had in some fashion nourished their development. Her new reflections were evident in a series of papers and lectures that put brilliant questions to these materials—ones seemingly never asked before. As in her previous work, she remained fascinated by "injury tariffs," legal clauses enumerating the compensations to be paid for wounds and other types of harm. But rather than use these materials to explore the nature of disputing processes in England and Francia—ground already well covered by other scholars—Oliver began to experiment with the notion that the values assigned to injuries in these texts might be informed by otherwise unwritten knowledge of medicine and human physiology. Soon broader implications loomed: if these values differed geographically, with some territories assigning more worth to a given appendage than others, might they all reveal a "map" of bodily perceptions for the early medieval West? These inquiries began to form themselves into a work of tremendous ambition into which Oliver poured all of her talents as a researcher and writer. Her initial work on this subject led to Oliver being awarded a year-long grant from the National Institutes of Health—an achievement virtually unheard of for a scholar in the humanities. The resulting book, The Body Legal in Barbarian Law (Toronto, 2011), offered an astounding synthesis of medical, archaeological and philological knowledge. The joy that infuses its scholarship, recognizable to anyone who attended her exhilarating lectures, makes this book in particular a precious memorial to Oliver's gifts as a scholar and teacher.

Oliver's remaining years saw her receive international acclaim for her achievements. Appointed to the Literary Board of the Early English Laws Project, an initiative supported by the Institute of Historical Research, she helped oversee a massive effort to develop new editions of the corpus of vernacular and Latin laws otherwise accessible only through Liebermann's Gesetze, an edition whose conclusions were becoming sorely out of date. It was her work on this project that led to her last major scholarly undertaking. For an edition of the domboc ("book of laws") prepared by Alfred the Great—the longest work of royal legislation extant from pre-Conquest England, containing as an appendix the legislation of Alfred's predecessor Ine—Oliver was awarded a year-long collaborative research fellowship from the American Council of Learned Societies. Travel for the fellowship included a visit to Rochester, New York during the coldest part of the coldest North American winter in 80 years—an experience she strangely enjoyed—followed not long thereafter by several happy days spent with manuscripts in London and Cambridge. By the first week of June, the edition was nearly finished, and Oliver was eagerly anticipating its publication.

No account of Oliver's professional life would be complete without noting her extraordinary devotion to her department and students at Louisiana State University. For colleagues at other institutions who came to Kalamazoo each May seeking relief from thoughts of teaching and other obligations to their home institutions, this was one of her more puzzling attributes. To this and other conferences, Oliver would bring as many students as she could, introducing them to senior scholars, attending their presentations, inviting them to dinner, and doing whatever else was needed to help them through the trials of graduate student life.

As one colleague relates, Oliver's support of others' work could take unusual forms:

    The last time I saw Lisi is how I hope to always remember her, as it captured the essence of my friend and colleague. I was sitting at the university awards ceremony where faculty from all departments were being recognized for their excellence in teaching and research; it was a rather serious, elegant affair for our financially-strapped state university. As recipients were called up to receive awards and take photos with the president, provost, and dean, somewhere in the crowd behind me someone was blasting an air horn every time an English Department award was announced. At first I figured it must be a faculty member's child, but when I turned around, there was Lisi, sitting characteristically cross-legged, blowing that horn and cheering on her colleagues. She was living in the moment, rooting for her Allen Hall buddies, just as she rooted for her Lady Tigers and every student who ever sat in her class.
Oliver's awards for teaching were almost too numerous to count, and the "Favorite Faculty Member" award given by students became an exercise in predictability. Other awards piled up as well, culminating in her being named in late March of 2015 "Distinguished Research Master," the highest award given by her institution.

Finally, among Lisi's greatest legacies—and a fitting one with which to close this reminiscence—is the kindness and generosity she showed to younger scholars. To those just entering the field of Anglo-Saxon studies, especially if they professed an interest in the law, Lisi was a mentor, patron, sounding board, and friend. A faithful adherent to what she called "the Tom Hall Rule," Lisi ensured that no graduate student paid for his or her dinner while sharing her table. More than this, she eagerly read the work of junior scholars, offered introductions to senior members of the field, and helped many a terrified ABD navigate the difficult waters of the academic job search. The enthusiasm with which she mentored younger scholars and collaborated with older ones is reflected in her numerous co-authored and co-edited publications in fields as diverse as Late Antique theology, early medieval law, Indo-European linguistics, and sixteenth-century poetry. For many of us, including (perhaps especially) the authors of this obituary, our careers are framed by our friendship with Lisi. She was a generous collaborator, meticulous editor, and vigorous cheerleader. Mere words cannot convey how much we valued her advice, how much we owe to her guidance, and how much we will miss her friendship.

For Lisi, this was all just a lot of fun. To know her—whether as a student, colleague, friend or neighbor—was to be carried along by an enthusiasm that was sometimes hard to keep up with. There was almost no subject worth thinking about that didn't interest her and no person she didn't consider a potential friend.

1. "Art Finds a Way at Soviet-American Festival," New York Times, March 10, 1988.

2. Ériu 27 (1976): 21-25. The influence of this particular essay can be seen in Oliver's own foray into the subject, "Sick-Maintenance in Anglo-Saxon Law," JEGP 107 (2008): 303-26.

3. Another influence on Oliver's formation as a scholar seems to have been Watkins, "'In the interstices of procedure': Indo-European legal language and comparative law," in Studien zum indogermanischen Wortschatz, ed. Wolfgang Meid (Innsbruck: Institut für Sprachwissenschaft der Universität Innsbruck, 1987), pp. 305–14. Oliver paid tribute to Watkins' influence not only by editing a Festschrift in his honor, Mír Curad: Papers presented to Calvert Watkins (Innsbruck: Institut für Sprachwissenschaft der Universität Innsbruck, 1988) but also by editing his three-volume Selected Writings (Innsbruck: Institut für Sprachwissenschaft der Universität Innsbruck, 1994–2008).

4. See Alfred preface, V Æthelred 10, VII Æthelred 3, and II Cnut 28 and 55, just to cite a few examples.

5. Wormald held the "striking series of archaisms in orthography, phonology and syntax" evident in Æthelberht's laws "illuminated as never before" by Oliver's dissertation: see his Making of English Law (Oxford: Blackwell, 1999), 95 and n. 332.