St Peter's School
Richard Sharpe, who has died in post as Professor of Diplomatic in the University of Oxford, was a brilliant man who would have made his reputation in any field. The fact that he chose medieval history belonged partly to the satisfaction of pure intellectual enquiry in an area where he felt a contribution was still possible, and in part to a boyhood spent surrounded by the antiquities of York. His engagement with the middle ages owed more to the gifts of imagination than, perhaps, he would have admitted or his colleagues would have guessed.
Diplomatic, defined as the study of the forms and formulas of ancient and medieval correspondence and conveyances, is a demanding specialism which requires a suite of technical skills. Richard saw no satisfaction in an historical argument that had not sought out the sources of evidence and understood them in their physical reality. His celebrated expertise as a textual critic allowed his published work to move with equal authority from late antiquity through the entire middle ages and into the modern period. It is difficult to think of any other British historian of the last fifty years who could march with such authority over so vast a territory.
Richard Sharpe was born in 1954, at York, the only son of John Sharpe and his wife Dorothy, who together owned and ran the family pharmacy. Dorothy was the pharmacist, the first woman to have graduated in pharmacology at the University of Manchester. Richard had an elder sister, Jean, and a happy beginning in a family with distant Methodist roots. Responding to an early aesthetic piety which never left him, he was drawn rather to the older certainties of Anglican worship and the elegant cadences of the Book of Common Prayer. Evensong at the Minster and a brilliant schoolboy career at St Peter’s School (founded, he was pleased to think, by St Paulinus in AD 627) shaped an interest in the institutions of national life.
A scholarship followed at Trinity College, Cambridge, where he read Classics and then Anglo-Saxon, Norse, and Celtic, quickly adding the medieval Celtic languages to his roster. Early medieval Ireland would become the first focus of his work. In a time of glittering prizes—he was Head of the River, a champion on University Challenge—he began a doctorate on the earliest Irish accounts of St Brigit, a fiendishly complicated exercise in textual criticism that had defeated all comers. The first hurdle he clipped was the competition for a research fellowship at Trinity. The college would always remain for him the land of lost content, but he would admit that the subsequent search for a position forged a more ambitious and versatile scholar.
Like so many research students in the 1980s, when university jobs were few and far between, he was creative in searching out other opportunities. A year at the Public Record Office, then still in its historic venue on Chancery Lane, was followed by a position with the Oxford Dictionary of Medieval Latin From British Sources. He was exposed there to the rich variety of Latin texts composed in the British Isles between Gildas in the late fifth century and Thomas More in the early sixteenth. He gained a mastery not only of the more predictable Latin of letter collections and sermons but also the energetic language of muster rolls, tool inventories, ship manifests, miracle books, and private deeds. These texts appealed to his interest in the essential realities of the past: the nature of tools and weapons, shrines, the boundaries of estates, the workings of water clocks. It also furnished him with the means to publish in later years a masterly bibliography, his Handlist of the Latin Writers of Great Britain and Ireland before 1540 (1997).
His reputation was first made in the 1980s with a string of articles on the early Irish church, which redrew the subject and whose ramifications are still being worked through today. The book of his thesis, Medieval Irish Saints’ Lives (1991) was a virtuoso piece of textual and linguistic analysis, while a book in the Penguin Classics imprint, Adomnán of Iona’s Life of St Columba (1995) brought Irish and Scottish Christianity vividly alive for general readers.
The delayed publication of his thesis came at an opportune moment. In 1989 the charismatic Reader in Diplomatic at Oxford, Pierre Chaplais, retired. Richard was in a sense entirely untrained for the position, which required specialist expertise in medieval charters and letters. Yet the appointment committee recognised in him, not least in his remarkable monograph, a gifted forensic scholar able to unlock and exploit the intricacies of medieval texts. He was appointed Reader in Diplomatic and Fellow of Wadham College in 1990. In 1998 he was made Professor of Diplomatic.
He threw himself into his teaching, immersing himself in the forms and functions of Anglo-Saxon and Anglo-Norman charters. He became, almost by default, a historian of the British Isles in the eleventh and twelfth centuries. (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’.) Unencumbered by historical orthodoxies, his mastery of charter material was the foundation for a significant contribution to the study of political history under the Anglo-Norman kings, providing important new insights into the workings of administration, the operation of law, and the business of kingship.
Medieval texts and their books formed another branch of his learning. His work on medieval British libraries, nearly all of them broken up and scattered at the time of the Reformation, involved an enormous effort of reconstruction to discover what was available to be read where in medieval England. That led him also to a study of the writings of sixteenth- and seventeenth-century antiquaries, particularly the Welsh polymath Edward Lhwyd (1660–1709) and the father of Irish antiquaries, Roderic O’Flaherty (1629–1718), whose correspondence Richard treated to a monumental edition.
There were occasions when he was compelled to restrain his interests. A study into inscriptions in early medieval Rome beckoned, but was resisted, another on the textual transmission of the Latin Fathers: simply too much to do, on too many fronts, in too many fields. Even so, the range of his publications, more than two hundred of them, testifies to his prodigious reach. Books unfinished at the time of his death include a monumental edition of the royal acts and charters of Kings William II and Henry I, a book of essays on the early history of St Mary’s abbey in York, a defining survey of medieval libraries in Great Britain, and a catalogue of every work printed in Irish between 1571 and 1871.
He was elected a Fellow of the British Academy in 2003, on whose committees he could indulge his enjoyment of machination and the intricacies of form and protocol. (The same talents were employed by a grateful university when he held office as Junior Proctor in the millennium year.) More recently, he had been elected an Honorary Member of the Royal Irish Academy and a Corresponding Fellow of the Medieval Academy of America. He was President of the Surtees Society from 2002. 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!’
His certainties, expressed with wit and sometimes a bluntness, commanded authority. He had a view on everything and it was always thought out from first principles. Not one naturally inclined or necessarily attuned to the joys and perils of small talk, he might take conversational refuge in the discussion of his research. There was an aspect of display to his table-talk, which could range in only minutes from vowel changes in Old Irish to the English hymnal to potted histories of obscure East Anglian landed families. But the sometimes austere exterior concealed depths of sentiment and a matchless sense of humour. A man who prized the English landscape and cherished the quiet nobility of its parish churches, he spent the spare time he gave himself exploring the landscape. A fell runner in his youth, in later years he was a prodigiously well-informed walking companion, be it in the Hebrides, the Veneto, Ireland, Rome.
His intellectual capacities, extraordinary learning and dislike of cant may sometimes have provoked a sense that he was unapproachable. He was in fact, as those who knew best can testify, the kindest and most generous of men. He was a loyal friend and a generous mentor. He was happiest, perhaps, when ‘making progress’, his favourite watchwords, but when the books were closed for the day he cherished no less friendship and laughter, a reflex of his vivid enjoyment of scholarly community. Although the delights of the table were not one of his central preoccupations, he greatly enjoyed fine wine, in particular Pol Roger champagne, and was deservedly proud of his scrambled eggs. He never married but is mourned by a wide circle of colleagues, friends, and admirers around the world.
Richard Sharpe, scholar, was born on February 17, 1954. He died after a heart attack on March 21, 2020, aged 66.
[Drafted by Hugh Doherty and James Willoughby, with comments by Alan Thacker, Bill Stoneman and Cristina Dondi.]