Margaret M. McGowan, who expanded the field of dance history, dies at 90

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Margaret M. McGowan, who expanded the field of dance history, dies at 90
She took a unique interdisciplinary approach and created a new field of study by exploring the collision of politics, ballet, design and music.

by Alastair Macaulay

NEW YORK, NY.- Margaret M. McGowan, a British cultural historian who created a new international area of academic study, now known as early dance, and received national honors in both Britain and France, died March 16 in Brighton, England. She was 90.

Her death, in a hospital, was confirmed by her husband, Sydney Anglo, a fellow Renaissance historian. He said the cause was bladder cancer.

McGowan, who was bilingual, exposed the collision of politics, ballet, design and music at the French court of the late Renaissance and early Baroque era in her first book, published in French in 1963, “L’Art du Ballet de Cour en France, 1581-1643.” In that book, she analyzed the spectacular mixed-media genre in which kings and members of royal and aristocratic families performed in public. Her interdisciplinary approach, hailed by her fellow dance historian Richard Ralph as “precociously modern,” enlarged the field of dance history. Her devotion to research was lifelong and diverse.

Her scholarly work reached beyond Europe. Linda Tomko, a dance historian at the University of California, Riverside, wrote in an email, “Margaret McGowan’s research on dance and spectacle in France, of the early to mid-17th century, vividly explored dancing’s connection to operations of power, modeling a research question that has since gained wide adoption in U.S. scholarly dance studies, and abroad.”

In 1998, McGowan was honored in Britain with the title Commander of the Order of the British Empire; in 2020, she was made a Chevalier de l’Ordre des Arts et des Lettres in France.

Margaret Mary McGowan was born on Dec. 21, 1931, in Deeping St. James, Lincolnshire, England. Although she could have studied French at the prestigious University of Oxford, she chose instead to do so at the University of Reading because Reading, unlike Oxford, would give her a year in France.

She remained in France to teach at the University of Strasbourg from 1955 to 1957, after which she took a position at the University of Glasgow, where she taught until 1964. She undertook postgraduate studies at the prestigious Warburg Institute, which is globally renowned as a center for the study of the interaction of ideas, images and society across international history.

Her topic was the ballet de cour at the courts of the French kings Henri III, Henri IV and Louis XIII; her adviser was the eminent Renaissance historian Frances Yates. The inspiration she derived from both the Warburg and Yates became a source of lifelong loyalty.

Speaking in 2020, McGowan recalled Yates’ guidance in her work on the ballet de cour. Yates “realized that the material on which I was working had not before been considered in an interdisciplinary way,” she said. “Musicologists had explored the vocal music, art historians had begun to find drawings belonging to festivals, and literary scholars had recognized the importance of the court context for understanding lyric poems.” Yates, the pioneering French scholar Jean Jacquot and Jacquot’s colleagues at the Centre National de la Recherche Scientifique all guided McGowan in her endeavor to join those artistic elements in a larger European context.

The importance of McGowan’s 1963 book on the ballet de cour was recognized by scholars in France, Britain, the United States and elsewhere. She joined the staff of the University of Sussex in 1964 and rose to deputy vice chancellor in 1992. She held that position until 1998, a year after retiring as a professor.

In 1964, she married Anglo, who specialized in the parallel area of Tudor tournaments, and whom she had met while they were both students of Yates’ at Warburg.

In an interview, Anglo spoke of his wife with intense, affectionate and wry admiration: “She was 75% of our marriage. I was 25%.” (Writing two days later, he gave himself a lower percentage than that.)

McGowan edited several books that brought together the latest work of a range of colleagues. One of those colleagues, Margaret Shewring of the University of Warwick, observed in an email that McGowan’s retirement from university duties had brought new riches by allowing her to pursue many new lines of investigation.

Some of her books were primarily concerned with the literature of the French Renaissance: poet Pierre de Ronsard, essayist Michel de Montaigne. But she remained true to the interdisciplinary nature of the Renaissance itself.

Introducing her “Ideal Forms in the Age of Ronsard” (1985), she observed the pervasive importance of praise to Renaissance thought, as “the dominant mode in public life, in literature and in art.” She went on to put Ronsard’s verse into the complex context of the mid-16th-century reigns of the Valois monarchs. With “The Vision of Rome in the French Renaissance” (2000), she examined the vital significance of classical ruins to Renaissance Rome and, in turn, the importance of Rome to French culture.

Her “Dance in the Renaissance: European Fashion, French Obsession” (2008) won the Wolfson History Prize, given annually to a British subject for excellence in the writing of history; four years later, she published a companion volume in French, concentrating on source materials.

Catherine Turocy, artistic director of the New York Baroque Dance Company, wrote in an email that “Dance in the Renaissance” was “a detailed analysis of 16th-century society and how dance was at the center of philosophical and aesthetic thought feeding current politics,” and that she had been inspired and guided by McGowan’s “insights, passionate views and new research.”

Her three final books showed the breadth of her understanding of the Renaissance. “Festival and Violence: Princely Entries in the Content of War, 1480-1635” (2019) connected public performance to military politics. “Charles V, Prince Philip, and the Politics of Succession” (2020) addressed the dynastic politics of the Habsburg emperor Charles V’s use of spectacular festivities as propaganda in imposing the future king Philip II on the Low Countries. Her final book, completed just three weeks before her death, is yet to be published: Its title, “Harmony in the Universe: Spectacle and the Quest for Peace in the Early Modern Period,” indicates the characteristic scope of her historical vision.

Loyal to the Warburg Institute, McGowan was chairwoman of its Review in 2006 and 2007. From 2011 to 2014, when she was in her 80s, she spearheaded the institute’s case for independence from the University of London, taking it to the British high court — with eventual success.

In addition to her husband, she is survived by a sister, Sheila.

McGowan in 1993 was made a fellow of the British Academy, the national academy for the humanities and social sciences. In 2007, the British journal Dance Research, where she had been assistant editor for 25 years, honored her with a special Festschrift issue, hailing her as “Pioneer of Academic Dance Research.”

This article originally appeared in The New York Times.

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