In memoriam of Elizabeth Jeffreys: A leading scholar in Byzantine and Greek studies

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Written by Professor Vrasidas Karalis.

Professor Elizabeth Jeffreys (FAHA, St Anne’s College, Oxford) died suddenly after a debilitating stroke early on the morning of 12.09.2023. Everybody who is aware of her research, studied or worked with her, understands that her departure is a serious and painful loss not only for her family but also the global community of Byzantine and Greek scholars in general.

Elizabeth worked hard in Sydney, with Michael Jeffreys, to consolidate Greek Studies since their arrival in 1976 and until her election at Oxford, in 1996. She remained one of the most active, and creative members of Greek academia in Australia. Most Greek Australians remember her charismatic and affable personality, her activities for the community and her participation in all things Greeks for over twenty years. 

Her work on Byzantine studies is one of the most enduring legacies. During her stay in Sydney, Elizabeth gave lectures and organised workshops, seminars and conferences. For many years she was the editor of the Modern Greek Studies journal one for the very few publications that help shape the character of Greek-Australian studies but also fostered their international prestige and reputation.

A book written by Elizabeth Jeffreys.

Despite the fact that she didn’t have a tenure academic position at the University, her academic performance as a research associate was of immense importance and her contribution to the emancipation of Byzantine studies from Classics is still to be evaluated. She worked hard with Dr Alfred Vincent who established the Department and Michael Jeffreys to establish and enhance its importance as a teaching and research centre.

Working together with prominent academics and scholars, like Roger Scott, Stathis Gaunlett, Anna Moffat, John Burke, Pauline Allen, Andrew Stone and of course her husband Michael Jeffreys, Elizabeth established a solid tradition on Byzantine studies in Australia through translations of original texts, edition of collective volumes and commissioning independent monographs. 

The series Byzantina Australiensia can be found today online and offers access to hard-to-find texts, some of them obscure and yet extremely significant. I would like to point out the translation of a post-Byzantine text, by Vitsentzsos Kornaros, Erotokritos, the masterpiece of the 17th century Cretan Renaissance, by Gavin Betts, Stathis Gountlett and Thanasis Spilias. 

Elizabeth Jeffreys book
A book written by Elizabeth Jeffreys.

Her own translation and commentary on the historian John Malalas, in collaboration with Michael Jeffreys and Roger Scott, is indeed one of the most enduring contributions to Byzantine scholarship by an Australian academic to this day.

When she left for Oxford, Elizabeth was already working on the great projects of her career; the edition of the Grottaferata and Escorial versions of Digenis Akritas, the letters of monk Iakovos and the Four Byzantine novels which were published in 2012. In her research she combined deep and meticulous scholarship with unique textual insights and observations. Her method was to synthesize modernity and tradition in order to consolidate the prestige and the kudos of Byzantine studies, especially when it was not recognised as a distinct area of studies. Her dedication was admirable and inspiring. He persistence was an example for many young scholars and shaped a very solid tradition of postgraduate research.

Beyond her academic work, Elizabeth was one of the most graceful and elegant people we worked with at the Department. Extremely punctual and highly professional, she praised without flattering and criticised without malice. She was one of the greatest mentors that the University of Sydney has ever produced, assisting a host of postgraduate students in their research while at the same time helping them to find their voice within their field of study. Her presence here created a number of prominent experts in the field and determined their future evolution as scholars and academics.

Elizabeth Jeffreys book
A book written by Elizabeth Jeffreys.

Within the Department, she facilitated the communication between our very different personalities and mediated effectively to resolve tensions. She appreciated the work of all young academics and promoted them through conferences and workshops. In the postgraduate seminars we organised almost every week she was always present, with positive feedback and encouragement.

There are so many memories about her that, I personally, and my colleagues Prof. Anthony Dracopoulos and Dr Panayota Nazou could share with affection and nostalgia. One will suffice. Before going for Oxford, we organised the conference on Modern Greek Studies at Sydney University. Despite the fact that she was leaving, she worked hard with all of us to organise the bookings, liaise with the invited scholars and even made catering arrangements. We offered her a bunch of native flowers with a huge waratah in the middle as a gift at the end. She looked really moved and emotional. “Your election in Oxford is a great vindication of your achievement and ethos”, I said. “We are vindicated only if people recognise our effort to do some good work”, she replied in her beautiful English accent. Indeed, all people will remember her fondly for her warmth, humanity and kindness. Her intellectual legacy will live on for many decades to come.

The Department would like to express their condolences to Michael, Catherine and her family for their loss.

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