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Lawrin Armstrong

BA’80, First Class Honours in Classics (King's), MA’85 (Dalhousie; thesis on Platonist readings of Aeneid VI, under Robert Crouse)

Professor of Medieval Studies and Economics, University of Toronto

After a PhD in Medieval Studies at the University of Toronto on the controversy about usury and public finance in late medieval Florence, Dr. Lawrin Armstrong spent ten years teaching history and Classics at Simon Fraser University. In 2002, he returned to Toronto as professor of post-classical Latin and diplomatics, which he combines with seminars in legal and economic history. For five years, he served as associate and then acting director of the Centre for Medieval Studies, was a fellow of the Harvard Villa I Tatti Centre for Renaissance Studies in Florence in 1999-2000, and is currently Fellow and Public Orator of Trinity College. He has just been awarded a four-year SSHRC Insight Grant for a study of civic humanists as the organic intellectuals of early quattrocento Florence.

For Dr. Armstrong it was, in part, the University of King’s College’s deep Anglican ties that brought him from rural Nova Scotia to Halifax. While his original intent had been to go through King’s and then seek Ordination in the Anglican Church of Canada, he decided in the mid 1980s, to pursue an academic career instead. Through the King’s Chapel, Dr. Armstrong became acquainted with the Classics Department and professors Wayne Hankey and Robert Crouse, at which point he recalls deciding “that Classics was a good preparation for Theology.”

While he was first taken up with the study of ancient philosophy, it was Latin literature on which he would come to focus, and which eventually lead him to study Roman law with Dr. Peter Kussmaul. Armstrong credits this time studying Roman law with laying the foundation for what he would study in graduate school in Toronto:  “It was this last bit that determined the shape of my later studies, because my doctoral research focused on the medieval revival of Roman law and its influence on classical canon law in the period after 1150.”

Dr. Armstrong is currently a professor of post-classical Latin at the Centre for Medieval Studies at the University of Toronto but he also researches and teaches legal and economic history. He has held two tenured positions at different Canadian institutions since 1992 and credits Classics with helping him get there. “In both, it was my background in Classics and Classical languages that provided the crucial factor in my hiring – it has been critical at every stage.” He adds that the transition to graduate medieval studies was made all the easier by his earlier language study.

The importance of Classics for students, Armstrong says, is unique in that it offers them a different way of viewing modernity. “Students are seeking a perspective from which to critique the sterile instrumentalism that seems to dominate so much of our public discussion of tertiary education. Education is not training; it’s about wisdom,” and it is through disciplines like Classics and Medieval Studies, Armstrong says, that this perspective is better gained. “Classics matters if only because the study of antiquity is a prolegomenon to the study of the Middle Ages, early modernity, and modernity.”

Thinking back to his days in Dal’s Classics Department, Dr. Armstrong fondly recalls the seminars: “My warmest memories are of the small-group seminars (often of only two or three students along with the teacher) and intense discussions with our professors, all of whom, I now realize, were remarkably dedicated to their profession.”