Duncan Probert: 1961 - 2016

Medieval monks believed that true scholarship could only flourish in conditions of poverty. American boxers have the same philosophy: one should ‘stay hungry’ or lose the ability to fight. Duncan William Probert lived this medieval ideal.

He was born on 13 April 1961, and died on 15 December 2016, after a relatively brief but devastating final illness. He was a brilliant and unconventional soul with a kind heart. Like so many who attend university in later life, he had not flourished in the conventional educational environment of his childhood.  A notable exception was the young primary school teacher who realised that the disruptive little boy in her class wasn’t stupid, but very bright and bored – she gave him a book about the Anglo Saxons and set him a project on place-names, at which point we might say the die was cast.  The road to onomastics, however, would not be direct.  Duncan left the local grammar school before finishing his A-levels, to become a bio-mathematician at Grasslands Research, then after a succession of other jobs (at various times he made intricate miniature model figures, drove a skip lorry, was a school caretaker, a computer programmer, and even did some building work) he started his own graphic-design business in Stoke on Trent, before returning to full-time education in his mid-thirties. He caught up by completing the Open University’s Arts Foundation Module in 1994, then studied at the University of Birmingham for his BA, between 1995 and 1998 where, of course, he met Steve Bassett and Margaret Gelling. Having moved straight from BA to PhD, Duncan’s doctoral thesis, ‘Church and Landscape: a study in social transition in south-western Britain, c.300 to c.1200’, was completed in 2002 (and has just been made available as an e-thesis). Three years as a British Academy Fellow at Birmingham followed, which involved both lecturing and research. Duncan also became a council member of the English Place-Name Society. Professionally, he was involved in two large and widely-publicised research projects: the Leverhulme-funded ‘Profile of a Doomed Elite’ project based at King’s College London (a comprehensive and detailed survey of English landed society in 1066) with Stephen Baxter and Chris Lewis; and FaNUK, the Family Names of the UK project, based at the University of the West of England, Bristol, led by Richard Coates.

Duncan’s work appeared in many publications.  As early as 1983 he had a hand in a scientific paper, ‘A model for evaluating lamb production systems’ (Agricultural Systems 10 (1983), 213–44) which appears to foreshadow an eventual transition to the world of academia, but it would be a long time before the next article appeared.  Once Duncan found his true vocation as historian and onomast, however, there would be regular articles in respected peer-reviewed journals and contributions to collections of essays published by Boydell & Brewer and by Oxbow, as well as in Nomina (the journal of the Society for Names Studies in Britain and Ireland); and the Journal of the English Place-Name Society (one of them, on ‘Old English stoc ‘place’’ published in JEPNS in 2010 was the reworking for publication of a paper Margaret Gelling left unfinished when she died). A full list is attached to the end of this notice. It is also hoped that his partner, Alison, and his friend and former supervisor, Steve Bassett, will be able to bring some of his unfinished pieces to publication in the future. Unfinished work includes a draft dictionary of Devon place-names.       

To his students, a surprising number of whom went on to further study, Duncan was an entertaining and inspiring teacher. To the wider academic world Duncan will be remembered not only for his published work, but for his remarkable skill as an historic cartographer.  He was able to combine his artist’s eye and understanding of the constraints of the printing process with a specialist’s understanding of landscape and history to produce painstakingly accurate and visually pleasing maps to illustrate the publications of his friends and colleagues.  Such commissions were not limited to medieval topics – Duncan was versatile and produced maps ranging in date from ancient Nubia to the Boer War.

Those of us who knew him personally will remember qualities such as his great friendliness and his enthusiasm for his wide-ranging interests.  He was a keen gardener and naturalist as well as a skilled cook and compulsive jam maker.  His kindness, too, impressed everyone on the EPNS Council, when he made regular visits to Margaret Gelling when she was ill in hospital, ensuring she was supplied with the latest Terry Pratchet novel to read (she was a devotee), and – as a notable cat lover himself, who would always cross the road to pass the time of day with a feline – he was able to reassure her about the care of her cat, Lucy. And his great kindness is not only illustrated by his care for Margaret Gelling. In summer 2004 he flew to Australia to save his brother’s life by donating a kidney.  He never doubted that he and Chris would be a good match, and so it proved to be.

Before his formal training as a historian, Duncan had taken an interest in medieval re-enactment as a member of a group called ‘Living History’, with which Duncan fought the Battle of Stamford Bridge and the Battle of Hastings several times, as well as hosts of minor skirmishes at public events from Lindisfarne to Beaumaris to Battle. They brought great scholarship to their hobby – re-enactment is not only fun but also a serious reconstruction exercise that contributes to historical understanding. Duncan’s stocky build and shaggy hair would certainly have lent itself to a convincing persona in medieval warfare. Rumour has it that he was even one of the many extras in the fight scenes in Braveheart (1995), but his preferred role was that of a Viking. He made his own impressive costume and weapons and was known as ‘Tangwyn’ to his comrades. The name looks archaic but Alison remembers it evolved from the strange thwacking orange creature in the Tango adverts.  Presumably they knew when they’d been ‘Tangwyned’! It is also said that Duncan’s gesiþas could find their way back to their tents at night, navigating by the sound of his laughter.

Duncan’s fearless enthusiasm appeared early and was recalled by his brother Chris at his funeral, in Birmingham on 23 December. On an early trip to the seaside Duncan had decided to carve a tunnel through a sand-dune. Graham, his older step-brother, pulled him out by the ankles when it inevitably collapsed.  Duncan always credited Graham with saving his life.

Duncan loved classical music and learnt the cello as a child, before his geography teacher complained about him missing lessons for the sake of music and the lessons were stopped – to Duncan’s great and lasting sorrow. Cello music nevertheless remained a love.  Alison also tells me that Duncan ‘had an excellent ear’ not just for music but also for birdsong. He could identify most birds by their song and the linguist and mathematical modeller in him was intrigued by the phenomenon of bird dialects, particularly that of the wren. He never earned much of a living, but would still feed the birds in his garden when he could hardly afford to feed himself.

After he met another medievalist, Alison, at the Leeds Medieval Congress in 2007, a new Duncan emerged, one who shared his great happiness with all his friends. This was a partnership founded on shared academic interests and enthusiasm for all manner of things. There would be long discussions and mutual proof-reading; music, cooking, books and laughter were also shared, in a house without television. I for one was certainly in receipt of this happiness, when ‘Duncan&Alison’ (for they were rarely apart) would come to my bookstall at the annual Leeds Medieval Congress and similar places and talk to me about all they were doing, and then return at each coffee break to tell me more.

Duncan died all too young. He was not as healthy as he seemed (asthma, and the exhaustion of ME were burdens he had carried for a long time, but few knew of them). There was so much more to do: so much history to explore, culture to relish, and so many friends to share it with. He ‘stayed hungry’ to the end.

Shaun Tyas

Duncan’s publications

‘A model for evaluating lamb production systems’, Agricultural Systems 10 (1983), 213–44.

‘Church and Landscape: a study in social transition in south-western Britain, c.300 to c.1200’, Birmingham University, Ph.D. thesis (2002).

‘Mapping early medieval language change in south-west England’, Britons in Anglo-Saxon England, ed. N. J. Higham (Woodbridge: Boydell & Brewer, 2007), 233–44.

‘Towards a re-assessment of ‘Kingston’ place-names’, JEPNS 40 (2008), 7–22.

‘Two Devonshire “Cheritons”, The Church in English Place-Names, ed. E. Quinton (Nottingham: EPNS Extra Series 4, 2009), 15–22.

‘New Light on Aldhelm’s letter to King Gerent of Dumnonia’, Aldhelm and Sherborne: Essays to Celebrate the Foundation of the Bishopric, ed. K. Barker (Oxford: Oxbow, 2010), 110–28.

[co-authored with Margaret Gelling], ‘Old English stoc “place”’, JEPNS 42 (2010), 79–85

‘The pre-Conquest lands and parish of Crediton minster, Devon’, Place-Names, Language and the Anglo-Saxon Landscape, ed. N. J. Higham and M. J. Ryan (Woodbridge: Boydell & Brewer, 2011), 175–94.

[co-authored with S. Baxter and C. Lewis], ‘Profiles of a Doomed Elite’: on-going on-line publication since 2012 in the Prosopography of Anglo-Saxon England.

Wulfnođ, Olaf and the Domesday scribes’, Nomina 35 (2012), 1–19.

‘Algar son of Leofflæd and the earliest stratum of the Fratres Kalendarum of Exeter’, Notes & Queries 60 (2013), 26–8.

‘Peasant personal names and bynames from late-eleventh-century Bury St Edmunds’, Nomina 37 (2014), 35–71.

[co-editor with several others], The Oxford Dictionary of Family Names in Britain and Ireland, ed. P. Hanks et al. (Oxford: OUP, 2016).


The following extra articles have not been formally published but are available on Duncan’s Academia page:

‘The formation and fossilization of medieval boundaries: a case study’, 2001

‘Unravelling Exeter’s post-Conquest manumission and gildscip records: the example of Colwin the reeve’, 2003

‘Anglo-Saxons in Devon: place-name formation in Exeter’s hinterland’, 2005

‘Manumission formulae in post-Conquest Exeter’, 2006

‘Locating the performance and practicalities of early medieval manumissions’, 2009

‘A community of names in post-Conquest Exeter’, 2010

‘Some ambiguities and identifications among Domesday names’, 2012

‘Ingold, Thorgisl and the S 1026 charter for Upper Swell’, 2015

‘Interim report on the identification of the Anglo-Saxon hunting lodge at Bicanleag’, 2016

‘Two misread names in the Cornish folios of the Exeter Domesday’, 2016.