Lecturer in medieval history who explored the work of Peter Abelard served Penguin biscuits to his students and was once trapped on Lindisfarne
How and why did we start to write things down? It was a question that Michael Clanchy, a lecturer in medieval history at the University of Glasgow from 1964 to 1985, endeavored to answer in From Memory to Written Record: England 1066-1307 (1979), a ground-breaking book that considered the rise of the signature as a guarantee of authenticity on contracts.
My dad watches, worries about his new Parkinson’s diagnosis, the dystonia in his neck,
which presses his chin to his chest, his cancer, resurgent again, and always, his depression.
Each day we walk the same loop round the meadow and each day he finds it longer.
~ Kate Clanchy
For several centuries the signature was mistrusted, with people preferring methods such as plunging a sword into the earth or cutting each other’s fingers and exchanging blood. Even when the written contract came to carry more weight, a wax seal was used to indicate originality and as a liquid metaphor for the blood that might have flown.
Clanchy, a leading light among medievalists, also produced England and its Rulers 1066-1307 (1983), another authoritative work that has become a classic textbook.
Although Clanchy’s specialism was English medieval history, the broad curriculum at Glasgow meant he was teaching European history. Thus he came to discover Peter Abelard, the medieval French philosopher who seduced his student Heloise, was castrated, stood accused of treason, and was twice condemned as a heretic. Clanchy wrote Abelard: A Medieval Life (1997), which he dedicated to the students.
Clanchy’s students, who recalled being served coffee and Penguin biscuits during tutorials, told of his “gentle, thoughtful approach to teaching . . . something of a contrast to the norm at the time”. They once visited Lindisfarne, which is only accessible by causeway at low tide. Somehow they managed to misread the tide table and were trapped on Holy Island for several hours on a cold, February day. “Even that turned into good fun and was part of the enjoyment of the whole weekend,” one recalled.
Michael Thomas Clanchy was born in Reading in 1936, the son of Henry Clanchy, a Royal Navy captain from an Irish Catholic family, and his wife Virginia (née Cane), who was from New Zealand. At a few weeks old he traveled to Moscow, where his father had been appointed naval attaché; they returned on one of the last trains back through Nazi Germany in 1939. He had an older brother, John, and a sister Elizabeth; both died in the 1980s.
At Ampleforth College, North Yorkshire, his interest in history was encouraged by Basil Hume, the future archbishop of Westminster and cardinal, and as a teenager, he wrote a letter that was published in History Today.
While reading modern history at Merton College, Oxford, he was president of the archaeological society. Emerging with a second meant being unable to secure funding for a full-time Ph.D. He instead taught at Presentation College, a Catholic boys’ school in Reading, before returning to Merton College for a DipEd and then becoming a lecturer at St Mary’s University, Strawberry Hill. In 1961 he started a part-time doctorate at Reading University that led to his first two books.
At Oxford, he had met Joan Milne, a fellow historian, and a Scot They were married in 1963 and the following year moved to Glasgow, where he would spend the next 21 years at the university. When Joan moved to North London Collegiate School, Clancy left his secure post at Glasgow. With the success of his books, he had hoped for a life free from academic bureaucracy. However, the loss of tenure, the absence of colleagues, and the stress of tackling dry rot in their house in West Hampstead brought on depression, an illness that periodically returned.
He held an honorary position at Westfield College and taught at University College London, but remained essentially an independent scholar. Some years after Joan retired, they returned to Oxford, in part because they both enjoyed cycling. Joan predeceased him by two weeks, and he is survived by their son, James, a lawyer, and daughter Kate, a teacher and writer.