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In Memoriam: Peter A. M. Clemoes (1920-96)


A Remembrance by Donald Scragg, Univ. of Manchester

Peter Alan Martin Clemoes died of a heart attack while out walking with his wife Jean near their home in Cambridge on 16 March 1996, when the cancer with which he had battled in recent times was in remission. His sudden death came as a great shock to his family and friends.

Peter Clemoes was born and educated in Essex, but began his academic career relatively late in life. On leaving school he won a place at the Royal Academy of Dramatic Art, intent on an acting career, but at the last moment changed direction and joined his uncle's paper manufacturing firm. Soon afterwards World War II came, and it was only at the end of his military service that he entered university, reading English at Queen Mary College, London, and proceeding towards a doctorate on textual studies of Ælfric under Bruce Dickins at King's College, Cambridge. In 1956, he moved to Reading University, where he met his wife, but five years later he was back lecturing in Cambridge, where he spent the rest of his life. He was an honorary graduate of the Sorbonne, and last year was awarded the signal honor of a D.Litt. by Cambridge.

Peter transformed the study of Ælfric with his analysis of the chronology of Ælfric's work, appropriately published in the Dickins Festschrift, which he edited in 1959. He continued to publish on Ælfric's writings throughout his scholarly career, illuminating as he did so a variety of fields from liturgical punctuation to the analysis of prose style (his introduction to the facsimile of the Old English Hexateuch being a typically careful and discerning dissection of writings by different authors). It is appropriate that his last work on Ælfric, his edition of the First Series of Catholic Homilies, which will be published by the Early English Text Society next year, was also his first, in that it is a revision of his doctoral dissertation. In 1969 he succeeded to the Elrington and Bosworth Chair of Anglo-Saxon at Cambridge, which he occupied until 1982. He was a great advocate of an interdisciplinary approach to his subject, building on the work of his predecessors in establishing the pre-eminence of the Department of Anglo-Saxon, Norse and Celtic at Cambridge. In his lifetime his influence was at its greatest in his editorial work, as general editor of Early English Manuscripts in Facsimile (1963-74), as founding editor of Anglo-Saxon England (1972-89), and as Director of Fontes Anglo-Saxonici (1985-94). Later generations may have difficulty in recognizing the scale of his involvement in these projects, for he was not only a guiding spirit in all three but he contributed substantially to work which has appeared under others' names. The subtlety of his mind and clarity of his expression added greatly to the value and readability of the introductions to the facsimile volumes and to essays on a great range of subjects relating to pre-Conquest England in what quickly became the major periodical in the field. It was a standing joke among regular contributors to Anglo-Saxon England in its early years, told with affection, that though the ideas might be theirs the prose was Clemoes'.

Although Peter was an outstanding editor of the work of others, it is through his own scholarship that he will be remembered. Two books will stand as a monument to the man and his mind: the Ælfric edition, into which he put so much thought and care over many years, and his last published work, Interactions of Thought and Language in Old English Poetry, the culmination of a lifetime working with the poetry that he loved, published last year. Peter was a warm and generous man, firm in his views but ever gentle in his speech, always ready to entertain visiting scholars in the cosy rooms of his beloved Emmanuel College, and perhaps to a meal at High Table or a game of bowls in the Fellows' garden after lunch. His acting abilities never left him. Those who attended the 1985 International Society of Anglo-Saxonists' meeting in Cambridge, over which he presided, will remember his regal Hrothgar, and others his contemptuous Byrhtnoth at the causeway near Maldon at the millennium conference in 1991. As the large congregation mingled outside St. Andrew's church at Chesterton after his funeral, Helmut Gneuss echoed the thoughts of many who had traveled a distance to say farewell to the doyen of English Anglo-Saxonists: "I have always loved coming to Cambridge, until today."

— OEN 29.3 (1996): 11.