I seem to have spent quite a lot of last year not hearing about people dying. I guess the specifics of personal mortality were getting lost in the global version, and I also wasn’t looking at news very much, but still, there are those I would have expected to hear about somehow that I didn’t, and such a one was Richard Sharpe, Professor of Diplomatic at Oxford, who died suddenly of a heart attack all the way back in March 2020. I found out last week.
I didn’t know Richard very well, but I did know him. We first met, as with about half my academic contacts really, when he was presenting at the Institute of Historical Research, in 2002, on intellectual contacts in very early medieval Northern Italy, when I was much too junior to say anything much to such an eminence. It would have been fine, I subsequently learned, not least because he was back there again in 2006 to present a paper about a putative daughter of King Harold II of England (he of Hastings fame), who of course survived her father into the reign of the man who defeated him.1 That got a bit of a conversation going, as I recall, and then a few years after that I was in the same institution as him, in so far as Oxford is one institution, and considering whether or not to get him to lecture on the Celtic parts of the early medieval British syllabus. (I didn’t get him to, though I don’t now remember why.) Before I was gone from Oxford, we’d been thrown together by someone going on leave and thus making us supposedly the two most qualified people to run the Norman Conquest Special Subject that year. That’s where I really first had dealings with him. He was tremendously helpful and energetic and made me feel very much as if I were the person who knew what was going on, which compared to him could hardly have been further from the truth; but we got on fine and it ran OK. I think I ran into him twice after that, once at a paper in Cambridge and once again at the IHR, and thus (as it has transpired) ended our acquaintance. Still, his death has shocked me somewhat, not least because he was an active man in robust health bar one deaf ear, and everyone else seems to have been just as shocked when it happened, I imagine not least himself.
Thankfully, rather a lot of people who knew him better have been busy since he died recording stories about Richard that give a better impression of him than I have managed there. I might just quote some:
“As an undergraduate he acquired a firm grounding in the medieval Celtic languages and literatures to add to his Classics. But his first love was to history. Professor Simon Keynes remembers teaching him: ‘The depth of engagement with the primary source material for any given subject was phenomenal . . . I distinctly remember the appearance of his essays: the top five or ten lines comprising main text, and the rest of the page the numbered footnotes, perfectly judged to fit the page—but of course all hand-written rather than typed let alone word processed.’”Thomas Charles-Edwards, ‘Tribute to Professor Richard Sharpe (1954-2020)’
“His first job, in 1981, was as assistant editor of the Dictionary of Medieval Latin in Oxford; he made himself a formidable Latinist by reading nothing but Latin for a year.”Nigel Ramsay, ‘Richard Sharpe obituary’
“Used to the testing limitations of evidence from the ‘Dark Ages’, Richard was not reluctant to express his view that the study of English political history after the publication of Magna Carta was ‘mere journalism’.”Hugh Doherty and James Willoughby, ‘Richard Sharpe’
“Politically, he was liberal, and was a member of Oxford Town Council between 1987 and 1995, where he was a strong supporter of the rights of Headington freeholders to erect giant fibreglass sharks on their roofs. He felt such a thing could only add to the gaiety of the Oxford skyline, and enjoyed the self-answering objection of another councillor: ‘But if we give this shark permission, then everyone will want one!’”2Ibid.
“The volume and versatility of his research were nothing short of mystifying. Richard confessed that he himself found it difficult at times to keep track of the state of his many projects and side projects, which could range, in a single year (2016), from an article on the earliest Norman sheriffs, through early nineteenth-century printing of Irish poetry, to the composer Tommaso Giordani (‘accidents happen, as I sometimes pick something up along the way’, he wrote on his webpage in relation to that one).”Roy Flechner, ‘Richard Sharpe, 17 February 1954 – 22 March 2020’
“He was already working on Hebridean history: his first book, Raasay: A Study in Island History was published in 1977, the year he graduated, followed by a second the following year, Raasay: A Study in Island History. Documents and Sources, People and Places (Raasay lies between Skye and the mainland). At the same time he was working on editions of the two earliest Lives of Brigit, a saint of peculiar interest—as a female counterpart to St Patrick, as the premier patron-saint of Leinster, and as someone widely culted in Britain as well as Ireland. He never published his editions but was generous in allowing others to use them.”Ramsay, ‘Richard Sharpe obituary’, as above
That last strikes chords with me all the way back from those years in Oxford. I remember hearing, on two different occasions, someone (Hugh Doherty once, I think; can’t remember who the other was) say that they’d been to talk to Richard up in his office about some new problem they’d just stumbled on in a project, a saint’s life or manuscript they’d never heard of before or similar and were going to have to track down, and Richard going, “Oh yes! I wrote a piece about that years ago”, striding over to a cupboard and after a short search pulling out a neat stapled and paper-covered typescript on the exact topic, existence unknown to anyone but him. I should say, it’s not that Richard was shy about publishing; as Roy Flechner’s obituary that I’ve linked above says, his total of works even at the point of death was at least 212 separate items. But apparently he still wrote more than he could manage to publish… If there is a tiny crumb of compensation for him being dead it’s that we will now presumably have found out what else was in the cupboard; but it’s not how either he, I’m guessing, or I would have wanted that learning to be made available. I don’t know how many other people the world can make like this, or what the academy looks like if ever we run out.
Next post will be a final short one about (early) medieval remains in Rome as of some time ago; and after that I promise some actual academic content for once; but having finally got this news I didn’t want to let a kind colleague go unrecorded when he was so very important in understanding records.
1. That paper eventually published as Richard Sharpe, “King Harold’s Daughter” in Haskins Society Journal Vol. 19 (Woodbridge 2008), pp. 1–27. No-one seems to have attempted a full bibliography of Richard’s work, for reasons which may be suggested by what follows, and I’m not up to the challenge; there was a lot…
2. I’m bravely assuming that most of these anecdotes can stand by themselves, but the Tale of the Headington Shark—in which I’d had no idea Richard had had any part—might need a link for the unfamiliar…
Yes, a giant in the field of early medieval studies in an Insular context. The loss is keen.
Nicholas Brooks, hardly a man shy of varied publications, once said of him to me that he would love to see what would happen if Richard Sharpe actually focussed on one project, preferably the Irish hagiography. The context for this was me realising that Sharpe seemed to be cropping up all over my (also hardly tightly-focussed) PhD. Kind of indicative of both the standard and breadth of his scholarship.
Indeed. I guess he just had a lot of tracks running at once… I can manage two at best these days myself!
I have no idea what promoted me to google Richard Sharpe just now. I knew him when he was a Liberal councillor in Oxford. He won his seat against expectations in 1987 – against the ex CND Chair Bruce Kent, if I recall correctly. I remember walking to the count with Alan Griffiths – then Labour leader of the council, us both assuming Bruce would have won. I didn’t know him well, but I recall he came across as principled, fun – and liberal. (I’m glad he supported the Headington shark – a planning cause celebre of its time.)
Well, in so far as there is any happy outcome to such a post it’s sharing good stories, so I’m glad you found that one here. Thanks for commenting.