William J. Bouwsma has been described by such laudable descriptions as a towering Renaissance scholar, and as a preeminent scholar of early modern European culture. If one reviews his scholarly contributions it is difficult to disagree with these assessments of his work during the second half of the twentieth century.
William Bouwsma was born in Ann Arbor, Michigan on November 22, 1923. His parents were of Dutch descent as his name attests. He grew up in Nebraska, and following graduation from high school was accepted at Harvard University from where he received his B.A. in 1943. He graduated in the middle of World War II and he was fortunate to be able to finish his studies during that time of crisis. Following his graduation he entered the Army Air Force and following a three year stint in the military he entered Harvard Graduate School. He graduated with his Ph.D. Degree in History from Harvard in 1950.
Upon graduation from Harvard he accepted a position at the University of Illinois, Champaign-Urbana, where he taught history until 1957. In 1957 he was offered a position in the History Department at the University of California at Berkeley, an offer which he accepted. He stayed at Berkeley until 1969 when Harvard University offered him a position on their History faculty, which he accepted. During the following two years Berkeley realized that they had lost an important scholar, and in 1969 Berkeley lured Bouwsma back with an offer for a chaired professorship in Berkeley's History Department. So Bouwsma returned to Berkeley in 1971 as the Sather Professor of History.
During his stay at Berkeley, Bouwsma served as History Department Chair during the time periods, 1966-1967 and 1981-1983. He also served in the position of Vice Chancellor for Academic Affairs during the 1966-1969 time period. Bouwsma retired in 1991 but continued his scholarly activities which culminated in the publishing, in the year 2000, of his latest book entitled, "The Waning of the Renaissance, 1550-1640", fully nine years after his retirement.
Bouwsma's scholarship during his entire academic career was focused on the history of European culture in the age of the Renaissance. His first book, published in 1957, was a study of a French intellectual, Guillaume Postel, who lived in the late sixteenth century. The book's title was, "Concordia Mundi: The Career and Thought of Guillaume Postel, 1510-1581". The book was clearly in the genre of biography, but most of his future work, with the exception of another biography on John Calvin, published over 30 years later, was focused on the history of the Renaissance.
Bouwsma's two major contributions during his lifetime and recorded in two books are, "Venice and the Defense of Republican Liberty; Renaissance Values in the Age of the Counter Reformation". This book was highly acclaimed. His other highly acclaimed study was published in the Calvin book, in 1988. It was entitled, "John Calvin: A Sixteenth Century Portrait". It was reviewed and cited as, "An intellectual tour de force. We will never be able to think of Calvin the man in the same way again", by a St. Petersburg Times reviewer.
Bouwsma's other books are: "The Interpretations of Renaissance Humanism", published in 1959, "The Culture of Renaissance Humanism", published in 1973, "A Usable Past: Essays in European Cultural History", in 1990, and "The Waning of the Renaissance, 1550-1640".
During the seventies and eighties, Bouwsma provided leadership to several national academic organizations. He served as president of the American Historical Association, and as president of the Society for Italian Historical Studies. He was also elected to be a member of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences, and of the American Philosophical Society. During his career he was the recipient of Fulbright, Guggenheim and National Humanities Center fellowships.
In 1992, Bouwsma received the American Historical Association's Nancy Lyman Roelker Mentorship Award. In 1988, in recognition of his scholarship, the Jesuit School of Theology, in Berkeley, California, awarded him an Honorary Doctor of Divinity Degree. And upon his retirement from Berkeley, in 1991, Bouwsma was awarded the Berkeley Citation, an award which is given to those whose attainment exceeds the standards in their fields and whose contributions to Berkeley are above and beyond the call of duty.
When William Bouwsma passed away he had been married to his wife Beverley for sixty years. The couple had four children, John and Sarah of Portland, Oregon, Philip of Guerneville, California, and Paul of Santa Cruz, California. There were also six grandchildren.
Retired UC Berkeley History Professor William J. Bouwsma Dies at Age 80, Media Relations, March 5, 2004, www.berkeley.edu/news/berkeleyan/2004/03/10_obit.shtml
In Memoriam, William J. Bouwsma, Sather Professor of History, Emeritus, Berkeley, 1923-2004, www.universityofcalifornia.edu/senate/inmemoriam/williamjbouwsma.htm
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