John Merriman

June 15, 1946 ~ May 22, 2022 (age 75)


John M. Merriman, the Charles Seymour Professor of History at Yale, died in New Haven surrounded by his family on May 22, 2022, after a prolonged illness. John, as he insisted on being called, was a renowned historian who wrote 10 books on French history as well as a widely used European history textbook and earned the Award for Scholarly Distinction (lifetime achievement) from the American Historical Association in 2017 in recognition of his contributions to the discipline. He touched the lives of countless students and colleagues. He also reached hundreds of thousands through his popular courses “France Since 1871” and “European Civilization, 1648 to 1945,” which are publicly available on Yale Open Courses and on YouTube.


Among his many notable books are “The Red City: Limoges and the French 19th Century;” “The Margins of City Life: Explorations of the 19th Century Urban Frontier;” “Police Stories: Building the French State, 1815-1851;” “The Dynamite Club: How a Bombing in Fin-de-Siècle Paris Ignited the Age of Modern Terror;” “Massacre: The Life and Death of the Paris Commune;” and “The Ballad of the Anarchist Bandits: The Crime Spree that Gripped Belle Époque France.” He was also a devoted teacher, earning two teaching awards, the Byrnes/Sewall Prize in 2000 and the Devane Medal in 2019. 


Professor Merriman was born in Battle Creek, Michigan, on June 15, 1946, and raised in Portland, Oregon. After attending an all-boys Jesuit high school, he went to the University of Michigan, where he received his BA and Ph.D., under the mentorship of Charles Tilly. At Michigan, he earned an Intramural Athlete of the Year award, one of his proudest accomplishments, and developed a lifelong devotion to Michigan football. 


John joined the Yale faculty as an assistant professor in 1973. He was set up with Carol Payne at the Harvard-Yale football game in Cambridge by mutual friends. The pair commuted between Washington, D.C., and New Haven before marrying at Dwight Chapel in New Haven on May 31, 1980. John served as Master of Branford College from 1983 to 1991, during which time he shared an amazing life with his precious wife and two young children. After they moved to a house near Sleeping Giant, he and Carol hosted bountiful dinners (which he cooked) that often included touch football.


During his time at Yale, John spent as much time as he could in Balazuc, his second home in a village perched high above the Ardèche river, in southern France. He loved French food and wine, and proudly boasted that he had worked in all of France’s more than 90 departmental archives. His dear friend Peter McPhee says, “His books are characterized by a quite extraordinary knowledge of place: no other French historian—and only a handful of French historians—has had such a rich understanding of the diversity of French cities. And no other historian could claim to have worked in every departmental archive in the country — or to be able to recall where and what he ate while staying there. His delight in culinary and cultural particularities was infectious.”  He said he had “never written a thing without music on,” especially the Rolling Stones. 


At his core were John’s great love of his family, with whom he traveled the world; his commitment to archival research and scholarly writing; fostering community and friendships; and his loyalty to Yale, which was matched only by his zeal for Michigan’s Mighty Maize and Blue (he was known to travel from rural France to Ann Arbor to see his Wolverines take on rival teams). 


John had an infectious sense of humor and storytelling, a love of companionship and a distaste for pomposity and hierarchy. Above all, he was a loyal and loving friend, a remarkable individual for whom his family was the emotional bedrock. He was devastated by the early passing of his wife Carol in 2016 but sustained by the love of his children, Laura and Christopher, whom he adored. His family feels at peace knowing that he is no longer suffering and that he is reunited with his precious wife, and beloved grandparents, aunt and uncle, mother, and the father he never knew.

A memorial service is being planned at Yale University in the coming months, with a burial in Grove Street Cemetery on Wednesday, June 1st, at 10:30 a.m. Charitable donations can be made to COPE Laos, an NGO that provides rehabilitation services to landmine victims from the Vietnam War in Laos, at or to the Smilow Cancer Hospital, in deep appreciation for the fine care he (and his family) received

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