Obituary: Peter Riesenberg, professor emeritus of history, 92


Peter Riesenberg, professor emeritus of history in Arts & Sciences at Washington University in St. Louis, died in his sleep May 14, 2018, in Harpswell, Maine. He was 92.

Riesenberg, a beloved member of the faculty from 1960 until his retirement in 1993, was the mainstay of “History 101,” the history of Western civilization, for generations of students.

In his first book, “Inalienability of Sovereignty in Medieval Political Thought,” Riesenberg noticed repeated mentions of citizenship. This led to a long study of that institution, especially in a much-neglected but huge body of legal cases known as Consilia. These were legal questions put to Roman and canon lawyers for their judgment. The Consilia thus gives insight into the actual medieval duty, privilege and functions of citizens.

These studies resulted in “Citizenship in the Western Tradition,” a prize-winning work now translated into Mandarin. This book also developed from Riesenberg’s first published work, co-authored with John Mundy, “The Medieval Town.” And with Jack Hexter, Riesenberg contributed to a volume of readings and commentaries for classes in Western civilization.

Riesenberg was known as a legendary teacher in both large classes and seminars. At Washington University, he also was a figure in university governance, serving as the first secretary of the faculty; the first faculty member to sit with the Board of Trustees; and chair of the Faculty Senate Council.

He taught occasionally in the School of Law and with colleagues in physics and in comparative literature in Arts & Sciences.

Born in 1925 in New York, N.Y., Riesenberg entered Rutgers University in 1942. His education was interrupted by World War II, during which he served for two years in the U.S. Air Force. He graduated from Rutgers with a bachelor’s degree in 1947.

Riesenberg earned a master’s degree in history in 1949 from the University of Wisconsin and a doctorate from Columbia University in 1954. He studied in Rome on two Fulbright fellowships and a Cutting Fellowship from Columbia University.

He joined Washington University’s history department in 1960 after faculty positions at Swarthmore College and Rutgers.

Riesenberg is survived by his wife, Helen (Trudi), two daughters, Julia and Anne, four grandchildren and four great-grandchildren, as well as two stepsons and two step-grandchildren.

At Riesenberg’s request, there will be no funeral service. Riesenberg supported many charitable organizations, especially those benefiting the arts and equality. Donations are suggested in his name to a charity of one’s choice.

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