The Rev Professor John Mcmanners

Pre-eminent historian of 18th-century France
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The Independent Online

John McManners, historian: born Ferryhill, Co Durham 25 December 1916; ordained deacon 1947, priest 1948; Chaplain, St Edmund Hall, Oxford 1948-49, Fellow 1949-56, Dean 1951, Honorary Fellow 1983-2006; Professor of History, University of Tasmania 1956-59; Professor of History, University of Sydney 1959-66; Professorial Fellow, All Souls College, Oxford 1965-66, Fellow and Chaplain 1984-2001, Honorary Fellow 2001-06; Professor of History, Leicester University 1967-72; Canon of Christ Church and Regius Professor of Ecclesiastical History, Oxford University 1972-84; President, Ecclesiastical History Society 1977-78; FBA 1978; CBE 2000; married 1951 Sarah Errington (two sons, two daughters); died Oxford 4 November 2006.

John McManners was a pre-eminent historian of 18th-century France, and more particularly of the Roman Catholic Church in the last century of the ancien régime. He was general editor of The Oxford History of Christianity and, in his eighties, published the two-volume Church and Society in Eighteenth-Century France. He was also a man of great charm and goodness.

As a historian McManners was unpretentious and direct; he took no theoretical stance, and was happy to describe the past as he thought it had been. Yet his major books were shining exemplars of the historian's craft. They combined an elegant style with mastery of the telling detail, then moved unobtrusively into subtle interpretations, which frequently advanced the understanding of very general issues. His account of the links between the internal problems of the French church and the revolution, developed in his first book, his classic study of Angers French Ecclesiastical Society Under the Ancien Régime (1960), was perhaps the most notable example of this. Many of the sections in his final great book, whether on Jansenism, on church music, or on the revolt of the curés in 1789, are luminous surveys that constantly relate the particular to the general.

"Jack" McManners was the son of a miner from the Durham coalfield, a remarkable man in his own right who had been converted by his schoolmistress wife and become an Anglican vicar. From a penurious but happy childhood, and the local grammar school at Spennymoor, Jack took a lifetime's capacity for hard work and serious thinking; he was also a fine all-round sportsman. He attended St Edmund Hall, Oxford, as an Exhibitioner from 1936, where his academic prowess quickly developed, culminating in a First in Modern History in 1939.

On the outbreak of war that summer he volunteered for military service, starting as an ordinary soldier in the Northumberland Fusiliers. The story of his war service is told in an unforgettable work of autobiography, Fusilier (2002), surely one of the most moving war memoirs ever written. He was a junior officer in the North African campaigns of 1941-43, where he was wounded, then became a liaison officer with the Greek forces.

After he was demobilised as a major McManners studied theology at Durham, took holy orders, and was briefly a curate in Leeds. In 1948, however, he was invited to become Chaplain and Tutor in History at his old Oxford college, and began his outstanding academic career. In 1951 he married Sarah Errington, a geographer whom he had met at Durham; Sarah and their two sons and two daughters would be at the centre of his life until his death.

It may have been partly with the interests of his growing family in mind that McManners moved to Hobart in Tasmania as Professor of History in 1956. His time there coincided with a famous and rancorous dispute over another member of staff, so that he was glad to move on to a chair at Sydney in 1960.

In 1965-66 McManners returned to Oxford for a year as Senior Visiting Fellow at All Souls, which led indirectly to his taking a chair at Leicester University in 1967. In 1972 he was appointed as Regius Professor of Ecclesiastical History at Oxford, the post he held until his retirement in 1984. The major publication of these years was Death and the Enlightenment (1981), which won the Wolfson Prize. As a Canon of Christ Church he performed his ecclesiastical duties with some style, while he selflessly took on major administrative burdens for both the Theology and Modern History faculties.

Retirement was little more than nominal, since McManners now became Chaplain of All Souls, where he was elected as a Fellow. His life's work culminated in two important publications, evidence that his passion for tennis in almost any weather (until well into his eighties) only stimulated him to greater productivity.

As general editor of The Oxford History of Christianity (1990) he was responsible for a best-seller which also maintained exceptional scholarly standards. The massive two volumes of Church and Society in Eighteenth-Century France (1998) must represent one of the most notable works ever published by a scholar in his eighties. Finally in 2002, alongside Fusilier, he published a sparkling short account of an early-19th-century scandal, All Souls and the Shipley Case. Only as his health worsened did he finally resign as Chaplain in 2001, when he was elected to an honorary fellowship of the college where he claimed to have passed the happiest years of his long life.

Academic success was recognised with numerous honours: FBA in 1978, the Ordre des Palmes Académiques (1991), the Ordre Nationale du Mérite (2001). He was appointed CBE in 2000. McManners enjoyed these in the same uncomplicated way as he did many smaller pleasures of life, but was too modest ever to flaunt them or even mention them. His period as a Trustee of the National Portrait Gallery (1970-78) gave him special pleasure; he was also a member of the Doctrinal Commission of the Church of England from 1978 to 1982.

It was no surprise that Richard Cobb, that notably eclectic historian, felt something like reverence for Jack McManners's accomplishments, for they shared an exceptional capacity for sympathy with individuals from the past. In everything he wrote McManners brought his subjects alive, through his sensitivity to the peculiarities of human character.

His writing was also full of funny stories and humorous asides; when I told him how much Church and Society had made me laugh he answered gleefully, "No good story knowingly left out." In Death and the Enlightenment he also showed how deftly he could combine intellectual and social history. He was a great historian and a lovable man.

Robin Briggs