What Was the Role of a Clerk During the Middle Ages?

The role of a clerk during the middle ages was that of a civil service employee whose primary responsibility was to document and maintain the handwritten records of the day-to-day operations of city governments. The clerks worked in the various administrative offices of city mayors and assisted the aldermen, sheriffs and coroners by creating the records of their daily business. Recent historical scholarship points to the Medieval clerks as having played a significant role in the copying and preservation of literary works in the time available to them when not engaged in their civil responsibilities.

In England, a growing middle class began to emerge during the years following the end of the epidemic known as the Black Death. The upper portions of England’s economic classes were becoming literate, and in 1362, English became the official language of the courts for the first time since the Norman Conquest. This created a need for a workforce trained in written English and an educated class of administrative clerks developed. Because the royal court was in London, the city became a hub for the new class of English-language clerks.

Because of their professional connection to prominent officials, some of the clerks of 14th-century London were able to play a role in the politics of the time. Many of them also acted as scribes and are credited for the copying and preservation of the works of English writers, such as Geoffrey Chaucer and William Langland.