Professor Paul Edward Dutton became the first permanent faculty member of Humanities in 1983 and helped to establish Humanities as a vibrant contributor to liberal education at SFU. In 2004 he was elected a Fellow of the Royal Society of Canada and in 2005 a Fellow of the Medieval Academy of America. Photo: Laura Dutton

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Department of Humanities launches student award to honour retired professor Paul Edward Dutton

November 12, 2020
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After 37 years of service at Simon Fraser University, Professor Paul Dutton from the Department of Humanities has retired. Dutton is an historian of the Middle Ages who introduced thousands of SFU students to the delights and mysteries of early European history and culture in such courses as HUM 105: Western Civilization, HUM 103: The Invention of the Book, and HUM 307: Carolingian Civilization.

As a researcher he is renowned for taking deep dives into obscure and hard-to-interpret sources to show how seemingly small things connect to large and important events and trends. A self-described “particle historian,” Dutton developed special interests in medieval weather, historical dreams, the Irish philosopher Eriugena, Charlemagne’s mustache, medieval Platonism, and microhistory.

“I think of myself, in my better moments, as a historian of small things—fragments of conversations, whispers in corridors, haunting lines of lost poems, broken stones and shards that do not fit the pot we carry about in our heads—and how they connect to larger things and the worlds that made and nestled them,” Dutton wrote.

Dutton is also a prolific author who has written eight books, more than 35 articles and reviews, and edited three series of books for the University of Toronto Press that have resulted in close to 30 books by distinguished authors and editors.

Over his years at SFU, Dutton witnessed the remarkable arc of rapid technological innovation and says it has impacted both his own work and research interests.

When he arrived at SFU in 1983, the university was on the cusp of the computer age and Dutton had already been creating computer punch cards to digitize medieval Latin poetry as a graduate student at the University of Toronto, from which he earned his PhD in 1981. He later received a higher doctorate, the Doctor of Mediaeval Studies, from the Pontifical Institute of Mediaeval Studies in 1988.

While at SFU Dutton wrote his second book, The Politics of Dreaming in the Carolingian Empire (1984), on a Wang word processor that used eight-inch floppy disks. He had put the book aside for a couple of years and when he picked it up again, SFU no longer supported that particular word processor. He scoured Vancouver for a solution until finally finding a small company that was in the business of converting outdated computer technologies to new and usable ones.

“Every time we change these technologies we leave a whole lot of stuff behind us and it's almost always the hardware and not the software that's the problem,” he says. “There's nothing wrong with the wax cylinders Edison used to make the first sound recordings, but they can't be played on any surviving machines.

Paul Dutton with the medieval manuscript of legal texts acquired by the SFU Library. The manuscript was made in 1269.

Familiar with old forms of data storage, Dutton was instrumental in helping SFU to acquire a 13th-century manuscript produced in France. He says that that parchment manuscript will long outlive most paper and digital storage, and he anticipates that SFU’s single medieval manuscript should be around for as long as the university is.

Commemorating his long and distinguished history at SFU, the Department of Humanities is establishing The Dutton Essay Prize in the Humanities (DEPTH) in his name. The award will recognize and reward excellent student writing.

Commenting on the newest forms of textual expression, Dutton comments: “We all write all the time. but quite frankly, Twitter and e-mail just don't draw out of us our best writing. The essay is an endangered thing. It would be nice to bring it and fine student writing some recognition and reward.”