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Elizabeth Mary Jeffreys (1941–2023)

Elizabeth Jeffreys’s interest in Byzantine studies came about almost by accident. “I started studying classics at school, where a young classics teacher, just down from Oxford, couldn’t tell me how the text of Herodotus [the 5th-century BC Greek historian] ended up on the printed page we were reading from,” she told The Byzantinist in 2013.

As a schoolgirl with a sense of curiosity, she set out to find the answer, in the process discovering a remarkable world of ancient Greek literature.

That led her to the Byzantine empire, an area east of Rome that existed from the end of the Roman era until the fall of Constantinople in 1453. She was especially interested in the difference between the written and spoken forms of Greek during this “Byzantine millennium”, particularly in poetry and romance, and the impact that the Byzantine era had, and continues to have, on the modern world. 

She worked on the writing of John Malalas, the 6th-century Byzantine chronicler whose 18 books, or “Chronographia”, she helped to translate and edit. That was published in 1986 and four years later she was largely responsible for Studies in John Malalas, a volume that helped to restore his often-ridiculed reputation as a historian while still acknowledging his faults. “Only in recent years has there developed an awareness that this text might represent something more than ignorant and semi-literate babblings,” she wrote. 

Despite her best efforts, Byzantine studies continues to have a low profile in academia. “Byzantium cannot be claimed as its past by any one country,” she said, explaining how it came to sit on the fringes of the humanities.

“Yet Byzantium has a key role in the transmission of classical culture into the modern world, and this is important. Classicists often seem unaware that it is thanks to the Byzantine world that the texts on which they rely have reached us.”

Elizabeth Mary Brown was born in 1941, the daughter of Lawrence Brown and his wife Veronica (née Thompson). She was educated at Blackheath High School for Girls and read classics at Girton College, Cambridge, where she attended lectures on Byzantine romances.

While watching Australia beat the university cricket team, she met Michael Jeffreys, a fellow undergraduate from Peterhouse who shared her Byzantine interests. They were married in 1965 and became regular collaborators, starting with Imberios and Margarona: the Manuscripts, Sources and Edition of a Byzantine Verse Romance (1971), a close study of 900 verses from the late 14th century. 

After completing a BLitt at St Anne’s College, Oxford, Jeffreys taught classics at Mary Datchelor School in south London. “I was one of the last people who didn’t do a doctorate,” she recalled. “Oxford had an attitude that, ‘Oh, what do you want a PhD for? That’s a silly sort of mechanical degree’.” She then took up a senior research fellowship at the Warburg Institute at the University of London.

In 1972 the couple arrived as visiting fellows at Harvard University’s Dumbarton Oaks Center for Byzantine Studies in Washington DC, where their daughter Katharine was born. That was followed by two years as research fellows at the University of Ioannina in Greece, where she became fluent in modern Greek and began work on an edition of War of Troy, a Palaiologan romance, with Manolis Papathomopoulos. Both daughter and husband survive her. 

The couple moved in 1976 to Sydney, throwing their energy into forming a team of Byzantinists in Australia. Her husband became professor of modern Greek at the University of Sydney, while she taught part-time and organised production of the journal Byzantina Australiensia. It was printed in Canberra and she used her little green hatchback to drive copies to the family home in Sydney, from where she oversaw their mailing.

In 1996 Jeffreys was appointed Bywater and Sotheby professor of Byzantine and modern Greek language and literature at Oxford. Her husband remained in Sydney and for four years they met during university vacations.

He joined her in Oxford in 2000, when they resumed their professional partnership, publishing the letters of Iakovos Monachos, a 12th-century monk, and working on a collection of 12th-century poems by “Manganeios Prodromos”, an anonymous author

After retiring in 2006 Jeffreys continued to give guest lectures and write. One of her last projects was as co-editor of the Oxford Handbook of Byzantine Studies (2008), a work described in the journal Early Medieval Europe as “perhaps the most important introduction to Byzantine studies yet published”. 

Professor Elizabeth Jeffreys, Byzantine scholar, was born on July 22, 1941. She died of complications from a stroke on September 12, 2023, aged 82.

Original publication

Citation details

'Jeffreys, Elizabeth Mary (1941–2023)', Obituaries Australia, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University, https://oa.anu.edu.au/obituary/jeffreys-elizabeth-mary-33798/text42309, accessed 27 May 2024.

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