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Retired UC Berkeley history professor William J. Bouwsma dies at age 80

 William J. Bouwsma
William J. Bouwsma

– Berkeley - William J. Bouwsma, a retired University of California, Berkeley, history professor and preeminent scholar of early modern European culture, died on March 2. He was 80.

The Berkeley resident died at Alta Bates Summit Medical Center following complications from an aneurysm. A funeral service will take place at 2 p.m. this Saturday (March 6) at St. Mark's Episcopal Church, 2300 Bancroft Way, Berkeley.

Bouswma taught at UC Berkeley from 1957 until his retirement in 1991. His research focused on the history of European culture in the early modern period, from the 14th to the 17th century.

"Since the early 1960s, Bouwsma's writings became widely influential among scholars and graduate students in the general area of Renaissance studies," said UC Berkeley history professor Thomas Brady. "He explored the relationships between humanist cultural values and public life in the Renaissance, and in his later works, meditated on why the ideals of that age seem to be growing less attractive to our own."
Bouwsma's first book, published in 1957, was a study of Guillaume Postel, a French intellectual of the late 16thcentury. In 1968, he published "Venice and the Defense of Republican Liberty: Renaissance Values in the Age of the Counter-Reformation."

His initial interest in the career of a Venetian cleric, Paolo Sarpi (1552-1623), expanded into an analysis of Venetian politics and its social and cultural context, and beyond that to a consideration of the issues raised by the confrontation between a Renaissance republic and the Counter-Reformation papacy.

In 1988, Bouwsma published an intellectual biography of John Calvin, a significant contribution to the scholarship about that major Reformation figure. In 1990, the University of California Press published a collection of Bouwsma's essays, "A Usable Past: Essays in European Cultural History."

His last book, "The Waning of the Renaissance 1550-1640,'' was published in 2000. This work surveys the history of the Renaissance culture, from its heady origins in the 14th century through a period of maturity followed by a reaction and rejection of its basic values.

A "Publishers Weekly" review of the book stated that "Bouwsma produces a masterful portrait of an era ... it will be increasingly difficult to teach or discuss the 16th century without it."

Retired UC Berkeley history professor Henry May said of his longtime friend and colleague's work: "His historical thought was powerful, complex and profound."

Bouswma was born in Ann Arbor, Mich., and raised in Lincoln, Neb. He received his bachelor's degree from Harvard University in 1943 and, after three years in the U.S. Air Force, returned to Harvard and obtained his doctorate degree in history in 1950.

Bouwsma taught at the University of Illinois for seven years before coming to UC Berkeley in 1957. Except for two years teaching at Harvard, from 1969 to 1971, he would remain at UC Berkeley until his retirement. He served two stints as chair of UC Berkeley's Department of History -1966-67 and 1981-83 - and was the campus's vice chancellor for Academic Affairs from 1967 to 1969.

From the 1970s to early 1980s, he led numerous professional academic organizations, serving as president of the American Historical Association; president of the Society for Italian Historical Studies; fellow of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences; and fellow of the American Philosophical Society.

He was a recipient of Fulbright, Guggenheim and National Humanities Center fellowships. The Jesuit School of Theology in Berkeley awarded him an honorary Doctor of Divinity degree in 1988 in recognition of his scholarship. And in 1992, he received the American Historical Association's Nancy Lyman Roelker Mentorship Award.

Upon his retirement in 1991, Bouwsma was awarded the Berkeley Citation, which is given to those whose attainment exceeds the standards for advancement in their fields and whose contributions to UC Berkeley are manifestly "above and beyond the call of duty."

William Bouwsma is survived by his wife of 60 years, Beverly; four children, John and Sarah of Portland, Ore., Philip of Guerneville, and Paul of Santa Cruz; and six grandchildren.