Michael Clanchy (28 November 1936 – 29 January 2021)


Michael Clanchy was born in 1936. After receiving his BA in Modern History from Oxford in 1959, he taught school in Reading in 1959-1961. In 1962 he obtained a Diploma in Education at Oxford and in 1962-1964 was Lecturer in History at St Mary’s College, Strawberry Hill. In 1964 he was appointed to the University of Glasgow as Lecturer in Medieval History. In 1961 he had begun working part-time on his PhD thesis, which was accepted by the University of Reading in 1966. In 1982 he became Reader in Medieval History at the University of Glasgow, a post he held until 1985. In 1986-1992 he was Research Fellow at Westfield College, University of London, and in 1993-2000 he was Research Fellow at the Institute of Historical Research at the University of London. In 2001-2002 he was Professor at the Institute for Historical Research.

           In 1966, the year he earned his doctorate, he won the Alexander Prize of the Royal Historical Society, which is awarded to a published essay or article based on original historical research by a doctoral candidate or someone who has recently earned a doctorate. Other honours and responsibilities followed. In 1972 Michael Clanchy was Research Fellow at the Harvard Law School; in 1974 he became Fellow of the Society of Antiquaries; and, in 1999, he was made Fellow of the British Academy. In 1997-2003 he was Vice-President of the Selden Society. Highly appreciated as a lecturer, he was Neale Lecturer in History at University College London (1988), Edwards Lecturer in Diplomatic at the University of Glasgow (1990), Medieval Academy of America plenary lecturer at the 30th International Conference on Medieval Studies at Western Michigan University, Kalamazoo (1995), F.E.L. Priestley Lecturer in the History of Ideas at the University of Toronto (1998), Scholar in Residence and Distinguished Lecturer at New York University (1998), Denis Bethell Lecturer at University College Dublin (2001), Denys Hay Lecturer at the University of Edinburgh (2001), and Lecturer at the Musée national du Moyen Âge in Paris (2001).

Intellectual Contributions

Michael Clanchy’s book-length studies started with two editions and translations of records produced by the justices itinerant in 1249 and 1248 respectively. They concern more in particular the civil pleas of the Wiltshire Eyre of 1249 (Clanchy 1971), complementing the edition of the crown pleas of that year’s Wiltshire Eyre by C.A.F. Meekings (Meekings 1961), and the roll and writ file of the Berkshire Eyre of 1248 (Clanchy 1973). They provide a translation of all pleas, and, in the case of the Berkshire Eyre, of all pleas and writs, accompanied by an edition. The introductions of these two editions, a spinoff of the work done for his 1966 thesis, not only give a detailed description of the records themselves but also provide a study of the lawsuits that occasioned the records to be written, and of what can be learned from them about literacy in thirteenth-century England. There is also attention to the work of the clerks (e.g. Clanchy 1973: lxxv), and even the tedium this might entail (Clanchy 1971: 8). In retrospect, these introductions can be read as the kernel from which the ideas of what has come to be termed ‘pragmatic literacy’ were to grow.

            Excellent as these editions may have been, their importance was not comparable to the influence of Michael Clanchy’s third book, From Memory to Written Record: England 1066-1307 (Clanchy 1979). This monograph consists of two parts. Part I deals with “The Making of Records” and examines the making, keeping, and using of written records, mainly by the English royal government and its agents. Part II, “The Literate Mentality,” deals with the language of records and the distinctions between literate and illiterate and between hearing and seeing, and it discusses trusting writing and practical literacy. The impact this book has had on scholars of literacy, not only in medieval England but in all medieval Europe, cannot be overestimated. The book has become the canonical reference for anyone studying literacy in the medieval West. The first edition was followed in 1993 by a much enriched second edition, and in 2013 by a revised third edition. All three editions were very well received on the European continent and have led to several generations of scholars becoming attuned to questions of writing and its uses in the exercise of power, the reasons for the growth of the production of records in the twelfth and thirteenth centuries, and the implications of this type of literacy for our understanding of medieval history in general. From Memory to Written Record inspired, for example, a fourteen-year research project at the University of Münster (Meier 2006), which in turn inspired similar research in Germany, Austria, the Netherlands, Scandinavia, and East Central Europe. Clanchy’s expression “practical literacy” became “pragmatische Schriftlichkeit” in its German translation made in Münster. The German expression was then suggested by a Münster historian to an English colleague, who adopted it for the title of a collection of essays on Pragmatic Literacy East and West, 1200-1330 (Britnell 1997: vii), and this re-translation became a standard expression for studies of pragmatic literacy worldwide.

            Michael Clanchy’s teaching led to several other book-length studies. In 1983, England and its Rulers 1066-1272: Foreign Lordship and National Identity, an introduction to medieval England in the two centuries after the Norman Conquest, was published. Several new editions of this book have slightly altered titles, reflecting changes in its content. In Early Medieval England, published by The Folio Society in 1997, extracts from the second edition of From Memory to Written Record were added to the corrected text of the first edition of England and its Rulers. The true second edition of the latter work was published in 1998 with the subtitle With an Epilogue on Edward I (1272-1307). The third and fourth editions, published in 2006 and 2014 respectively, both have the title England and its Rulers, 1066-1307. In the fourth edition, a new chapter on family and gender roles was added, reflecting developments in the author’s historical interests.

            In 1997, Michael Clanchy published his biographical study Abelard: A Medieval Life. The book is dedicated to the students who in 1970-1985 took the Abelard Special Subject Class at the University of Glasgow. Chapters 2-14 all have titles dealing, roughly in chronological order, with topics that were central to Abelard’s life. Chapter 3 is entitled “Literate” and starts with a short section on “Gender and Literacy.” The book, which was translated into French and German, was well received. It also led to the invitation to undertake a revised edition of Betty Radice’s The Letters of Abelard and Heloise, a translation which had been published by Penguin Books in 1974. The revised and augmented edition was published in 2003.

            Meanwhile, a new interest in gender unmistakably rose in a series of articles in which Michael Clanchy reviewed his ideas on literacy. Already in the 1990s he had been contemplating a book on female literacy but was prevented from undertaking it by work on Abelard and the new editions of From memory to Written Record and England and its Rulers. In 2004 the article “Images of Ladies with Prayer-Books: What Do they Signify?” appeared. This was followed a year later by another article entitled “An Icon of Literacy: The Depiction at Tuse of Jesus Going to School.” In 2011, “The ABC Primer: Was it in Latin or English?” and “Did Mothers teach Their Children to Read?” were published. These four articles attest to an appreciation of the role of mothers in the teaching of reading. Together, they show a shift from the earlier emphasis on pragmatic literacy to attention for the forms of literacy in which women may be presumed to have played a large role. These articles also show a widening of the geographical and chronological scope of Clanchy’s investigations of literacy, as an increasing number of examples is introduced from outside England and the continental realms ruled by its kings in the period 1066-1307. In 2018 these four articles have been republished, together with two other republished articles and a new introduction, in Utrecht Studies in Medieval Literacy as Looking Back from the Invention of Printing: Mothers and the Teaching of Reading in the Middle Ages. The book is illustrated in colour throughout, using the photographs that could not be reproduced in the original publications of the articles. Sadly, as he predicted, it proved to be his last book

Continuing Influence

Michael Clanchy’s fame rests primarily on his ground-breaking From Memory to Written Record, which has inspired scholars of medieval literacy all over the world. The number of times it is referenced remains astonishing for a study that is by now forty-two years old. The three editions of the book continue to inspire generations of young scholars. His limpid prose continues to attract new readers to what may seem, at a first glance, a dry-as-dust topic: how and why did medieval people come to write down what previously had not merited a permanent record? The study of archival records is not often fascinating students so much that they choose to become medievalists. This book did engender medievalists. As a consequence, pragmatic literacy is being studied all over Europe, from Scandinavia to the Mediterranean and from the Atlantic to the Urals. And the topic is studied from the earliest appearance of documents in late Antiquity to the fifteenth century and beyond.

            For those who had the chance to talk with Michael personally, and there were many, very many of them, his most famous book was not the only, or even the main reason for falling under his spell. He was kindness personified to all who approached him, for instance during the Leeds International Medieval Congress in July, where he returned year after year, until his health started to deteriorate. Sessions where he spoke were always packed, and he was always willing to speak with scholars young and established alike. Those who had a chat with him most likely will remember the occasion for the rest of their lives.

            Michael took an interest in the series Utrecht Studies in Medieval Literacy from the start, and that was a reason as good as any to keep in contact. His work inspired many of the books published in the series, directly or indirectly. The manuscripts of some volumes were read through by him from cover to cover, and, as their authors and editors would no doubt confirm, they were much the better for his attention. He was also instrumental in pointing prospective authors, among whom totally unknown PhD students, to the series, introducing them on the soft lawns of Bodington during the Leeds IMC. In Oxford, where he went to live with his wife after her retirement, we visited from time to time, and over long walks along the banks of the river Thames, which ran just behind the Clanchys’ house, or just sitting in their pleasant back garden, we talked about literacy, the Middle Ages, and the state of the world generally.

            Michael’s death came as a shock. A few weeks earlier he had told me that he and his wife Joan had had their COVID-19 jabs. Joan caught the virus in hospital during her final struggle with lupus, from which she had suffered for many years. She died, in hospital, on 15 January 2021. Michael suffered a stroke five days later and died serenely at home, as he had wanted, on 29 January 2021. On his death certificate, the doctor has put as the final cause of death the medical equivalent of a broken heart. He will be sorely missed.

            At the Leeds IMC in July 2021 will be organised a round table celebrating the work of Michael Clanchy.

Marco Mostert


Clanchy, Michael T. (ed). Civil Pleas of the Wiltshire Eyre, 1249, Wiltshire Record Society 26 [for the year 1970] (Devizes: Wiltshire Record Society, 1971).

Clanchy, Michael T. (ed). The Roll and Writ File of the Berkshire Eyre of 1248 (London: The Selden Society, 1973).

Clanchy, Michael T. From Memory to Written Record: England 1066-1307, first edition (London: Edward Arnold, 1979); second [revised and much augmented] edition (Oxford and Cambridge, Mass.: Blackwell, 1993); third [revised] edition (Oxford and Malden, MA: Wiley-Blackwell, 2013).

Clanchy, Michael T. England and its Rulers 1066-1272: Foreign Lordship and National Identity, The Fontana History of England [2] (London: Fontana Paperbacks, 1983, and Totowa: Barnes and Noble, 1983).

Clanchy, Michael T. Early Medieval England, A History of England 2 (London: The Folio Society, 1997) [a revised reprint of Clanchy (1983), with extracts from Clanchy (1979), entitled ‘The written word in the Middle Ages’].

Clanchy, Michael T. Abelard: A Medieval Life (Oxford and Malden, MA: Blackwell, 1997).

Clanchy, Michael T. England and Its Rulers: With an Epilogue on Edward I (1272-1307) (Oxford: Blackwell, 1998) [second edition of Clanchy (1983)].

Clanchy, Michael T. England and its Rulers, 1066-1307 (Oxford and Malden, MA: Blackwell 1998) [third, revised and augmented, edition of Clanchy (1983)]; ‘fourth [revised and augmented] edition’ (Chichester and Malden, MA: John Wiley & Sons Ltd, 2014).

Clanchy, Michael T. Looking Back from the Invention of Printing: Mothers and the Teaching of Reading in the Middle Ages, Utrecht Studies in Medieval Literacy 40 (Turnhout: Brepols, in preparation for 2018).

Radice, Betty (trans.). The Letters of Abelard and Heloise, revised edition by Michael T. Clanchy (London: Penguin Books, 2003).


Britnell, Richard (ed). Pragmatic Literacy, East and West 1200-1300 (Woodbridge: The Boydell Press, 1997).

Meekings, Cecil Anthony Francis (ed). Crown Pleas of the Wiltshire Eyre, 1249, Wiltshire Archaeological and Natural History Society, Records Branch 16 (Devizes: Wiltshire Archaeological and Natural History Society Records Branch, 1961).

Meier, Christel. “Fourteen Years of Research at Münster into Pragmatic Literacy in the Middle Ages. A Research Project by Collabroative Research Centre 231: Agents, Fields and Forms of Pragmatic Literacy in the Middle Ages.”, In Transforming the Medieval World: Uses of Pragmatic Literacy in the Middle Ages: A CD-ROM and Book, edited by Franz J. Arlinghaus, Marcus Ostermann, oliver Plessow, and Gudrum Tscherpel, Utrecht Studies in Medieval Literacy 6 (Turnhout: Brepols Publishers, 2006): 23-39.

Mostert, Marco. “Michael Clanchy.”, In Encyclopedia of Archival Writers, 1515-2015, edited by Luciana Duranti and Patricia C. Franks (Lanham, MD: Rowman & Littlefield Publishing Group, 2019): 129-131.

I gratefully acknowledge the permission given by Rowman & Littlefield Publishing Group to use my entry in their Encyclopedia of Archival Writers in the writing of this obituary.