A Simon memory: A leisurely afternoon wander through a Vienna art museum. Simon and I lagged behind the others in our group, talking about art, comparing notes on mutual friends, imagining late-career goals and aspirations, and laughing at ourselves. I’m pretty sure that afterwards we went for cocktails. For me, the Simonly pleasures of that afternoon were in his generous and incisive perspectives on our field, his concern for early career French medievalists, his smart insights about things I was trying to figure out, his dry humor, his care for me. I know that I am not alone in my experience of Simon’s generosity and wit. And I know that many share my grief at his loss.
Mary Fair Croushore Professor of the Humanities, University of Michigan
Director, Institute for the Humanities,
One of my favourite memories of Simon is from the SFS conference at Cork in 2018. I had introduced his very great friend and colleague, Sarah Kay, to deliver her wonderful plenary on opera, voice, and medieval texts, and had managed – perhaps unintentionally – to make a joke about leather underwear. In spite of the roar from the audience, I feared that I might have made the worst faux pas in the history of SFS plenary introductions. Simon sought me out afterwards, beaming. As he approached, he uttered the word ‘Outrageous!’ in a stage whisper and giggled with the deliciousness of recalling the moment. I always thought that was extremely kind, and I realised then that somehow I had acquired Simon’s approval along the way.
That approval and support has been an inestimable joy to me over the years of my association with the Society for French Studies, and throughout my career as a scholar of medieval studies. There are students and mentees of Simon’s especially who will be feeling his loss so very deeply along with the rest of the community. He was a fierce, maybe even ferocious, supporter of his flock, and you always had the vague and immensely reassuring sense that somewhere he was looking out for you behind the scenes. When I applied for my current post, Simon coached me for the interview; he read and commented on my application; he demanded ‘property porn’, as he put it, when I got the job and moved North.
Perhaps what I most admired about Simon was that he set the example of a scholar who never avoided responsibility. He realized early on that he could be of use to his discipline and to the disciplinary field by taking up leadership positions and advocating not only for medieval studies, but for French Studies and languages and cultures more broadly. Simon’s is the perfect example of a career dedicated to service to the scholarly community alongside the pursuit of his own exceptionally brilliant research and the teaching, supervision and mentoring of generations of students and early career academics. One of the many other things I admired about Simon was the way he savoured life. The phrase ‘we’re bunking off, are you coming?’, may or may not have been uttered at the various conferences I was lucky enough to attend with him, and fascinating conversations would then ensue over Portuguese wine in balmy squares in Lisbon, or while wandering through the cobbled streets of some picturesque venue, with the warm yet melancholy sounds of Fado or some other music hanging in the air.
The last time I saw Simon, aptly, was at the PhD viva I conducted together with Helen Swift earlier this year for his final PhD student, Melek Karataş. He was so delighted for her, and he had clearly supervised her tremendously well. I was honoured to have been invited, and only sorry that the pandemic prevented us from going for cocktails afterwards. Simon had been excited to introduce me, and his former student, Tom Hinton, to Scarfe’s bar on one trip to London, and I feel sure that’s where we would have headed. I still have the drinks mats I slipped into my bag on that occasion.
Most of all, Simon was looking forward to being well enough to travel again with his dear companion Manish. Manish tells us that when Simon was very ill in ICU, following a catastrophic reaction to the treatment he hoped would cure him, Manish visited him and asked where he would like to holiday after the treatment. ‘Australia’, Simon replied, and repeated this several times.
Travel well, dear friend, and may the earth lie gently on you.
Head of School of Languages, Cultures and Societies, University of Leeds.
Chair, University Council of Modern Languages.
It seems in some ways strangely appropriate that Simon should have invested so much energy during what would prove to be the final months of his life in serving on the REF2021 panel for Modern Languages and Linguistics. For his was a career characterized by remarkable service to the disciplines to which he contributed so much. Simon was of course an exceptional scholar, capable of sparklingly definitive interventions in the fields across which he worked. But he remained also a consistent servant of and self-effacing leader in those same research fields, committed to the often unglamorous but absolutely essential activity on which their successful functioning depends. President of the Society for French Studies, Head of Department and Dean at King’s, member of various advisory boards and dedicated external examiner were just some of the many roles he carried out with the insight, diligence, diplomacy, compassion and selflessness that this behind-the-scenes labour requires. As SFS President, Simon steered us diplomatically through a series of procedural reforms for the Society and also led vocal responses on behalf of the French studies community to cross-sector consultations on key issues such as the successor (initially proposed as metrics-based) to RAE. It was a particular privilege that the end of Simon’s tenure coincided with the hosting of the Society’s conference in Liverpool in the city’s year as European Capital of Culture. The qualities evident in this role were those he brought to REF2021, from the criteria-setting phase onwards, and that he had also deployed so judiciously as a sub-panel member in the previous 2014 exercise. In a process forced online by Covid-19, Simon’s input brought the REF2021 (Zoom) room alive. He was a vital, often charismatic presence, razor-sharp in his analysis, always ready to challenge and test process, scrupulously fair, and with unswerving integrity and invariable good humour. If REF must exist as a mechanism for distributing research funding, then Simon was exactly the sort of colleague our community needs to ensure its equitable, consistent, and rigorous functioning. But Simon’s judgments in this were rooted above all in his brilliance and range as a scholar. Others will have a better sense of his legacy in the areas of medieval Occitan and Old French literature, but in his dialogues with feminist theory, psychoanalysis, queer studies, and postcolonialism, Simon also spoke to us all more broadly. I first discovered his scholarship – through the insights of Gender and Genre in Medieval French Literature – when I was grappling with parallel questions in an entirely different area, and his recent pioneering work on understandings of French as a transnational language in the Middle Ages, funded by major grants from the AHRC and ERC, came at a time when I was trying to understand the intersections of French studies with formations that are both multilingual and transnational. Simon’s contribution to the forthcoming collection Transnational French Studies – on ‘Transnational French before the nation’ – was exemplary in this regard: a faultless essay, submitted exactly at the required word count, that understood entirely the ambitions of the project of which it was a part and spoke in lucid ways about urgent issues of shared concern. (It will appear posthumously, alas, but the volume will be dedicated to Simon’s memory.) In all of this – from the exemplary service to the searching scholarly contributions, via exemplary work as a teacher and supervisor – Simon remained above all a remarkable and most kind human being. Collegial and collaborative, he was dedicated in particular to supporting and promoting the work of emerging scholars in his field. He loved good company and good conversation. He will be sorely missed by all those whose lives he so enriched. We join with Simon’s loved ones in mourning his untimely loss.
James Barrow Professor of French.
Chair, REF2021 Sub-Panel 26, Modern Languages and Linguistics.
How to encompass the force of Simon Gaunt in a single paragraph? We will all have read, or know from personal experience, that he was a brilliant teacher, colleague, collaborator, editor, and administrator, a man who never lost sight of the forest for the trees. His eyes were always on the bigger picture, how this might fit into that and how that could lead to the unexpected. Heading two major research projects in the last decade of his life, he capped off a brilliant scholarly career that moved from Occitan studies, rhetoric, and gender studies to queer theory and psychoanalysis, then outward to philology, the place of French in pre-national Europe, the literature/history non-divide, and two major and immensely complicated databases (they said it couldn’t be done…) that will serve scholars for years to come. When I stepped somewhat trepidatiously into the role of President of French Studies a few years ago, a long-time member of the board assured me that it would all go fine: once Simon had taken over a few years earlier, he had dusted off the cobwebs, rid the meetings of stuffiness and hierarchy, brought in shorter and more efficient procedures, and an air of transgressive camaraderie that made work fun. He did this for departments as well, for schools and research projects, editing teams, and student discussions. This we know and could add to ad infinitum; but I want to end this on a more personal note. Simon was tireless, focussed, incisive, ferociously rational, candid, a visionary, caring, strategically camp, loved food and travel, nurturing, spontaneous, funny, and ever supportive. He was also a mélomane invétéré, in whose firmament Dusty Springfield and Dalida shone as brightly as Joyce di Donato and Jonas Kaufmann; a man who could recite a terrifying amount of troubadour poetry from memory; a Francophile, Italophile, and Europhile who saw how badly nationalist agendas had warped linguistic and literary history. Quick-witted and capacious, he asked so much of himself and we all followed suit, a mentor who could inspire and daunt in equal measure, then dance you off the floor. His last two years were quiet, due both to his illness and Covid, and his end was as much a result of the final treatment they offered him as the progress of the myeloma. Cruel and unfair, as always, and such a loss. Simon was my friend and I know I speak for all who loved and admired him when I say that I will miss him for the rest of my days.
Emeritus Professor in Medieval French and Occitan
University of Cambridge