Amherst College notes the passing of Fredric L. Cheyette, professor of history, emeritus, on April 14, 2015. Professor Cheyette joined the faculty of the Department of History in 1963 and retired in 2005.
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A newspaper obituary with more information is available here.
The following obituary was wriiten by Cheyette's colleague Howell Chickering, G. Armour Craig Professor of Language and Literature, Emeritus:
Fredric L. Cheyette, emeritus professor of history, died April 14, 2015, at the Fisher Home Hospice in Amherst. He was 83.
Fred taught medieval history from 1963 through 2005. He was a stalwart in the European Studies program and also taught introductory liberal arts courses. He was a member or chairman, sometimes repeatedly, of most of the major College committees. Educated at Princeton and Harvard, Fred’s special expertise was in the social and political history of 12th-century France, an area where, in the words of his induction as a Fellow of the Medieval Academy, he was “a pioneering and prophetic voice” who steadily “challenged received opinions.”
Over the years, he published 45 articles and over 60 book reviews that, among other things, introduced American scholars to the methods of the Annales school, refocused discussions of “feudalism” and “the invention of the state,” and helped define the new field of medieval conflict resolution. Profoundly skeptical of received ideas, Fred was also capable of integrating vast amounts of complex data, continually rethinking his own conclusions. He mastered the disciplines of paleography, demography, archaeology, law and historiography, and he deployed those skills to quite literally transform the field of French medieval studies on more than one occasion. His prize-winning book Ermengarde of Narbonne and the World of the Troubadours (2001), based on 30 years of archival research, immediately received an enthusiastic reception, including half a dozen awards here and abroad. Upon its translation into French, Fred received the keys to the city from the mayor of Narbonne.
In recent years he turned to another massive scholarly project, the impact of climate changes on European social and political structures A.D. 300–1500. This interdisciplinary ecological history was well underway when he died and will be completed by an international team of historians and archaeologists.
Like his scholarship, Fred’s teaching emphasized critical thinking. His classes mainly read primary historical texts, which he insisted they question rigorously. He conducted discussions by the Socratic method, and did not allow students to use umbrella generalities like “feudalism” or “courtly love.” They learned to put aside modern assumptions and categories of thought. Students found his classes difficult, but say in retrospect that “he taught me how to think.” Cullen Murphy ’74 elaborates: Fred “opened up an entirely new way of thinking about what historical sources really tell us. He would give us a medieval document and ask questions like: What is this deliberately not saying? I've read everything through his eyes ever since.”
Those of us who co-taught with Fred remember not only the rigor of his questioning, but also the warm geniality of his smile as he asked students to really think, instead of just sitting in class. These team-taught courses were always interdisciplinary and reflected Fred’s deep interests in art and music. He was a founding member of the Da Camera Singers and the Five College Medieval Seminar, as well as an expert gardener, pianist and (French) cook, and, until his late 70s, a tenor in the Tanglewood Chorus of the Boston Symphony. A generous-minded colleague who believed in intellectual cooperation, he was modest to a fault. Few of his students realized they were being taught by one of the foremost American medievalists of his generation.