On July 1, 1954, Carl Stephenson became emeritus and on July 27, President Deane W. Malott announced the appointment of Theodor Ernst Mommsen as Professor of History.
Mommsen was the grandson of the German historian and Nobel Prize winner Theodor Mommsen and the relative (by marriage) of sociologists Max Weber and Alfred Weber. In Germany, he had been associated with the Monumenta Germaniae Historica. In 1935 he left Germany in protest against Hitler’s totalitarianism and anti-Semitism. Subsequently, he taught at Johns Hopkins, Yale, and Princeton. In 1946 he taught a history course at Fort Getty in Rhode Island as part of a U.S. Army project to rehabilitate German prisoners-of-war so that they could work with Allied forces in post-war Germany.
At Cornell, Mommsen taught a survey course on “Civilization of the Middle Ages” and two seminars for advanced students: “The Empire and Papacy during the Middle Ages” and “The Italian City States of the Middle Ages and the Early Renaissance.” According to his Memorial Statement, Mommsen “believed medieval history to be an ideal subject for teaching young historians because the relative scarcity of the records available for study made every fragment precious. They must learn, as he said, to squeeze the sources dry.”
Soft-spoken, suave, and a gentleman, Mommsen was popular with students, especially with closeted gay men. Small groups of students occasionally met with him after class to discuss literature and listen to classical music (a passion Mommsen shared with Laistner).
Mommsen had wide-ranging academic interests and he published more than twenty articles on topics such as St. Augustine, the topography of medieval Rome, and football (soccer) in Renaissance Florence. He also translated and edited Petrarch’s Testament (Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1957). In his analysis of the text, Mommsen studied every clause in the will, relating each one to an episode in Petrarch’s life. In recognition of his efforts, the Department of Rare Books conferred on him the unprecedented privilege of keeping the department’s holdings of books by and about Petrarch in his library study in Boardman Hall.
Mommsen suffered from depression and committed suicide in 1958. His last will and testament included a bequest to Cornell University to be used to endow a fellowship for travel to Europe by students of the medieval period and the Renaissance.
Theodor Mommsen with Students, mid-1950s
N.B. Photostat projection photocopier technology revolutionized the study of rare medieval manuscripts after the 1920s. “Photostats” were widely used until the 1960s