Respected Southeast Asian history scholar, Michael Vickery, dies

Michael Vickery.

With the death of Michael Vickery in Battambang, Cambodia last Thursday, Southeast Asian history lost a giant.

American by birth, Vickery trained as a European classicist, but became a historian of Asia. His extraordinary talent for languages, retentive memory and analytical skill made him a historian's historian.

Although his first love was Cambodia, Vickery also wrote a dozen articles on Siam that are acknowledged as major and lasting contributions. He was fascinated by chronicles, by the problems of untangling dates, by words, by the importance of royal and official titles, and by old administrative structures.

In 1971, he came across a manuscript in the Thailand National Library and realised it was part of a lost chronicle, the only one found within the last century. He translated the text and explained its content, revealing new aspects of relations between Siam and Cambodia in the 15th century. The Thai historian, Nidhi Eoseewong, suggested this discovered chronicle should be named the "Vickery Chronicle" in his honour.

He wrote a series of articles on the Three Seals Code, the collection of old law texts compiled in 1805. He showed that the dates on these texts were often wrong, but the royal titles provided an alternative guide to dating. He used these law texts to map the administrative structure of the Ayutthaya kingdom. Another set of articles urged scholars to be more sceptical about the dating of the Traibumikatha, the Three Worlds cosmology attributed to King Lithai of Sukhothai.

Around 1990, he joined the group of scholars that challenged the authenticity of the Ramkhamhaeng Inscription from Sukhothai, provoking a controversy that inspired new interest in Thai history. He liked nothing better than a good argument.

Except when he was advising the Khmer Rouge Tribunal defence or teaching in Phnom Penh, Vickery spent much of his later life in Chiang Mai, and produced another batch of articles on the Lanna chronicles, Si Satchanalai kilns and related subjects. His range was very wide. He also wrote on regional elites in 19th century Siam.

The rigour, depth and discipline of his work became legendary. He was sometimes merciless with colleagues who failed his standards, but loved to lend his expertise to students and scholars who shared his enthusiasm. He will be sadly missed, but his work will live on.

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