George Gordon Coulton

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George Gordon Coulton

The English historian and polemicist George Gordon Coulton (1858-1947) was the leading medievalist of his day. His primary interest was ecclesiastical history.

George Coulton, the son of John James and Sarah Coulton, was born on Oct. 15, 1858, in King's Lynn. In 1877 Coulton entered St. Catharine's College, Cambridge, where he obtained his degree. He then studied for holy orders in the Anglican Church and was ordained deacon in 1883 and priest in 1884. The following year he resigned from the priesthood and began teaching at various private schools. In 1895 he sustained a nervous breakdown; after his recovery he left the academic life to work with a friend who ran a coaching company at East-bourne. Spending 13 years there in relative financial security gave him the opportunity to pursue his own studies.

During this period Coulton decided to devote his life to the study of medieval life and thought, with special emphasis on the organization and operation of the ecclesiastical system of those centuries. He began to publish works in this field, such as From St. Francis to Dante (1906) and Chaucer and His England (1908). His developing reputation as a medievalist led to his appointment to the prestigious post of Birkbeck lecturer in ecclesiastical history at Trinity College, Cambridge, in 1910.

In 1919 Coulton was elected to what was then the sole university lectureship in English and later the same year was made a fellow of St. John's College, Cambridge. From that time onward, except during World War II when he was guest lecturer at Toronto, he remained at Cambridge.

Coulton's leading works are considered to be Five Centuries of Religion (4 vols., 1923-1950), The Medieval Village (1925), Art and the Reformation (1928), and Medieval Panorama (1938). His depictions in the area of ecclesiastical history, especially of monasticism, have been criticized as being unduly dark and pessimistic.

Throughout his life Coulton supported and vigorously argued in behalf of compulsory military service. He was also an unwavering advocate of what he termed the "moderate Protestant position." In both causes his rather uncompromising attitude was distasteful to many of his antagonists and colleagues. Nevertheless, he felt that his deep moral convictions left him no alternative on this subject. In the cause of compulsory military service he personally investigated conditions in France and Switzerland, spoke and wrote against pacifist views, and published many pamphlets and books, the best-known being The Case for Compulsory Military Service (1917). His polemics in religion also embroiled him in controversy throughout his life, particularly with Catholic historians. In fact, in the opinion of several critics his controversies generated more animosity and obfuscation than light.

Further Reading

Coulton's autobiography is Fourscore Years (1943). Sarah Campion, Father (1948), is a biographical memoir by his daughter. □

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George Gordon Coulton

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