Pierre Chaplais

Oxford Reader in Diplomatic
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The Independent Online

Pierre Théophile Victorien Marie Chaplais, historian: born Châteaubriant, France 8 July 1920; Lecturer in Diplomatic, Oxford University 1955-57, Reader 1957-87 (Emeritus); Literary Director, Royal Historical Society 1958-64; Professorial Fellow, Wadham College, Oxford 1964-87, Emeritus Fellow 1987-2006; FBA 1973; married 1948 Doreen Middlemast (died 2000; two sons); died Oxford 26 November 2006.

Pierre Chaplais was for some 30 years Reader in Diplomatic at Oxford. "Diplomatic" is not what it seems; it is the study of the form of documents, and is only incidentally connected with diplomacy. His task was essentially training research students in medieval history in deciphering and understanding documentary materials. The greater part of British medieval historians must have learned their trade from him, as did a fair number of Americans and others.

He was frequently consulted by colleagues baffled by some technicality or illegibility, to the solution of which he would cheerfully devote a day or more. Thereafter he would follow up by disconcertingly enquiring about the further progress of the research.

Chaplais published a large number of books and articles, editions of documents, interpretations of points at issue. His first area was of Anglo-French relations during the Hundred Years War. He then waded controversially into the dragon's tooth world of Anglo-Saxon and Norman charters. His last book, English Diplomatic Practice in the Middle Ages, was published in 2003, although completed some 20 years earlier.

He had been waiting to complete a second volume, which sadly did not materialise. It is about the mechanisms of medieval diplomacy; how, for instance, if you turned up at the papal court, you proved you really were the representative of the King of England and not some chancer. Professor Nicholas Vincent, of a much younger generation, hailed it as a masterpiece, comparable to F. Liebermann or F.W. Maitland. Like Maitland, Chaplais was extraordinarily capable of describing complex technicalities in lucid and indeed pleasurable prose.

Rather more unexpected was the success of his Piers Gaveston (1994), in which he argued that Gaveston's relationship to Edward II was not a sexual one. Innocent of how Gaveston and Edward had become gay icons, Chaplais was bemused by the (disapproving) comments in the gay press. Fortunately, perhaps, he did not have access to the internet.

He was born in 1920, at Châteaubriant in Brittany. His father was a postmaster. His mother died when he was small, and he was brought up, with his elder sister, by a fiercely puritanical aunt. After serving in the mounted artillery in 1939-40, he resumed his studies in Classics and Law at Rennes University. He hoped to become an academic lawyer, but needed some practical experience, and was sent to a practice run by his near- namesake Pierre Chaplet.

Chaplet was active in a "moderate and Catholic" resistance movement, Défense de la France, to which Chaplais naturally gravitated. They were picked up by the Gestapo just before Christmas 1943, and sent to Buchenwald. Both survived. Chaplais had several stories of the camp; most notably, of how the German political prisoners had established themselves in the camp offices and used their power to fight the class war.

He claimed that the elderly Marcel Michelin, boss of the tyre firm, was effectively condemned to death by fellow prisoners' allocating him to impossible tasks. He also remembered how a few of the guards ran the risk of slipping food to the prisoners. He admired the morale of the Russian prisoners, and was approached to join the Communist Party.

Liberated by the Americans, the prisoners descended on Weimar in their uniform pyjamas. Pierre arrived in Paris on VE day, bawling out the "Internationale" from the back of a lorry.

He resumed his studies in legal history (although also writing a thesis on Seneca), and came to London in 1946, to research on appeals from Gascony to the English Crown. There he married Doreen Middlemast, from a Newcastle professional family, working for The Times of India. He came to the attention of Vivian Galbraith, Director of the Institute of Historical Research, who persuaded him to do a London PhD.

The Public Record Office recognised his extraordinary ability to decipher crabbed manuscript (I have seen him read down a Latin roll as if he were scanning a newspaper) and employed him as an editor. In 1955 Galbraith, now Regius Professor at Oxford, manoeuvred his appointment as Lecturer, shortly promoted Reader, there. He also served as Literary Director of the Royal Historical Society from 1958 to 1964, was elected a Fellow of Wadham College in 1964, and became Fellow of the British Academy in 1973.

He retired from his readership in 1987, becoming Emeritus Fellow at Wadham. His last years were clouded by the death of Doreen in 2000, and by macular degeneration, which eventually deprived him of the ability to read.

Pierre Chaplais was a gentle man, always worried that he might have inadvertently given offence. His wartime experiences seemed to have little effect on his subsequent political views, which were unsophisticated, and with more than a whiff of pre-1939 French small town. His scholarly interests stopped short at institutions; he did not venture into medieval economics or ideas, and was totally innocent of the new generation's interest in "representation".

His pastime was gardening. He served Wadham as Keeper of the Gardens, established a vineyard at his house at Eynsham, and planted an arboretum at a later house near Bampton. He retained a Maurice Chevalier accent to the end.

Chaplais was an uncompromising perfectionist, as his friends Professor (Sir) Rees Davies, the publisher Martin Sheppard and myself discovered to our discomfort in preparing his last book for publication. No doubt it was that stubborn streak which had seen him through Buchenwald.

Clifford S. L. Davies

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