Tribute to Professor Richard Sharpe (1954-2020)

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Richard Sharpe was a person of quite exceptional learning—in depth, range, and rigour. He went from St Peter’s School, York, to Trinity College Cambridge, to read Classics for the first part of the Tripos. In 1975 he switched for Part II to Anglo-Saxon, Norse, and Celtic, graduating with a First in 1977. 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.’

            Kathleen Hughes was then teaching the early medieval history of Ireland, Scotland, and Wales. She had written The Church in Early Irish Society (1966) and Early Christian Ireland: An Introduction to the Sources (1972), both of them major milestones in the subject, and both of them fields in which Richard would make major contributions. One of Kathleen Hughes’s particular interests was in the cults of Irish saints: she had met and corresponded with the Bollandist, Paul Grosjean, the premier expert on the subject. This interest, also, she encouraged in Richard. 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. Richard was also working on the early history of the church of Armagh and on the early manuscript ‘The Book of Armagh’, on which he published a fundamental palaeographical study in 1982. All this work informed an article of 1984 that has changed our conception of the organization of the early Irish Church. Richard had two characteristics as a scholar: he believed in studying the history of a problem—the primary sources and the subsequent scholarship—before attempting to solve it, but once that had been done he had no compunction in overturning a consensus.

            In 1985 came his first large-scale publication in bibliography, a work of collaboration with Michael Lapidge, one of his Cambridge teachers, A Bibliography of Celtic-Latin Literature 400–1200. By this time he was an assistant on The Dictionary of Medieval Latin from British Sources. In that role he began to assemble what would become A Handlist of the Latin Writers of Great Britain and Ireland before 1540 (1997). The preface is characteristic of Richard: he began turning notes into a book (of 913 pages) in December 1994. ‘The work has been pursued at some speed, with three hundred pages of draft after only three months, five hundred pages after six months.’ By this stage he was Reader in Diplomatic, and his course for new research students on the forms and functions of medieval letters and documents of conveyance led to a new interest in the charters of Anglo-Saxon and Anglo-Norman England. This interest, soon translated into an impressive mastery of the evidence, inspired him to undertake a major new project to edit the writs and charters of William II and Henry I. He also became the general editor of the Corpus of British Medieval Library Catalogues (numerous vols. 1990–), and also published a significant work on medieval bibliography, Titulus (2003). As a result he was invited to deliver, last year, the Lyell Lectures (the main lectures in palaeography and bibliography), in which he again questioned old consensus views—on the role of the monastic scriptorium after the Carolingian period, and on the sole responsibility of the Dissolution for the dispersal of the books of monks, friars, and canons. He had also developed an interest in the history of printing in Irish: his collaboration with Mícheál Hoyne, Clóliosta: Printing in the Irish Language, 1571–1871. An Attempt at Narrative Bibliography, is complete and currently at the publishers in Dublin.

            Old loves were not forgotten amid the furious pace of all this work, as demonstrated by his Medieval Irish Saints’ Lives: An Introduction to Vitae Sanctorum Hiberniae (1991) and his Penguin Classics volume, Adomnán of Iona: Life of St Columba (1995). When he died, he had planned, and had just set in motion, a project to complete a new edition of the works of Gerald of Wales. We hope and intend to pursue this project to completion for its own sake and as a memorial to Richard.

 

Thomas Charles-Edwards


 

If you would like to add your own tribute or reminscence to this page, please send it to Laura at comms@history.ox.ac.uk 


 It’s taken me a while to come to terms with the sudden death of Richard, with all that is going on in the world I suspect many people haven’t quite had a chance to digest this.

My lasting memories of Richard revolve around a scarily in depth knowledge of fonts and a general disposition of irritation when he tried to use these in any Microsoft product… Making my job to support his IT needs especially challenging, but always entertaining.

Richard once showed me the attic in the Old Indian Institute (above his attic office), opening a random doorway which he shouldn’t necessarily have had access to (I do feel he thought this was his second home, so he had the right to go anywhere…). We walked up a small spiral staircase into a dusty old attic which I felt had an air of magic about it. This was brought to focus when he pointed out in the middle of the space the full frontage of a fireplace, just happily sitting there. No real reason for it to be there, it felt very CS Lewis like…

I always found it amusing hearing him go off on tangents about something that was troubling him, he would tell you whether you wanted to hear or not, but it was always told with such energy that you ended up smiling. I will miss him greatly.

Edward Rendel


Richard and I were almost contemporaries, and for me he has been a central and seemingly eternal part of the Oxford medieval scene. Like many others, I was initially daunted by his gruff and frighteningly acute manner, but quickly recognized the kindness and sensitivity that it concealed. He was a better Latinist than me, and I remember feeling slightly scared in the mid ‘80s when I asked him to criticize my edition of the Lives of St Frideswide, but there was no need: his comments were entirely positive and constructive. He was the most supportive and congenial of colleagues, as I discovered during the conferences that resulted in our co-edited volume Pastoral Care Before the Parish (1992), and Local Saints and Local Churches which he edited with Alan Thacker (2002). With any problem of medieval Latin or medieval history (and occasionally of politics, for which he had a surprising flair), I could always be sure of an engaged and clear-sighted response. In Catte Street and Broad Street, his wiry, energetic figure has been part of the landscape for nearly three decades. It is hard to think that we will no longer see that harbinger of summer, the first appearance of Richard in his shorts.

John Blair 


From the time I first met Richard, in the Kings Arms, where I often had lunch with David Howlett, and there met his assistant just arrived in Oxford to work on the Dictionary of  Medieval Latin from Insular Sources.

I was struck by his friendliness and sense of humour. He had clearly surmised my interest in animals and dislike of hunting them, and  started to talk about the hunt in which he participated, doubtless noting my rising indignation and then he added 'Next year I will be the hare!'... It turned out this was no more than a hill run with young men chasing each other.

Much later, on a more academic occasion, in July 1999,he participated in the British Archaeological Association's Annual Conference in which I was deeply involved and subsequently co-edited the Transactions [Alban and St Albans. Roman and Medieval Architecture, Art and Archaeology, BAA Conference Transactions XXIV, Maney,Leeds 2001). Richard gave me a lift from Oxford to Hatfield where we were staying on the Campus of the University of Hertfordshire. It was a roiling hot day and Richard drove there earing only a bair of boxer shorts. As we drove in we were met by a reception committee of the President and various venerable members of the Association and Richard with presence of mind was able to bolt through a side door and reappear suitably dressed. His ontribution, 'The late antique Passion of St Alban'.published on pages 30--37 was of the brilliance we have all come to expect debunking the vast number of false claims about the life of the saint. As an archaeologist and historian of Roman Britain I was delighted, and it was by no means the only time he helped me in my own field of study. Indeed only a few years ago when I was working on a  paper on Roman gems re-used in Medieval personal seal matrices he effortlessly pointed out to me half a dozen references of which otherwise I would have been in ignorance.

On occasion I would find myself in a gathering after a lecture where I knew almost nobody. If Richard was there he always put me at my ease. He summed up to me one of the ideals of a great scholar, great learning worn lightly.

May he rest in the peace he so richly deserves.

Revd.Dr Martin Henig MA,DPhi,DLitt,FSA (Wolfson College)


I regret very much that I only enjoyed two short Oxford terms’- worth of DPhil supervision from Richard Sharpe. My previous supervisor in palaeography at the University (a long time ago) had been the late Malcolm Parkes but in Richard I encountered a polymath whose extraordinary diversity of intellectual interests equalled if not exceeded those of Malcolm which (like Richard’s) had ranged across the entire Middle Ages and beyond. An academic at another university, on hearing my plans for working with Richard on pre-Conquest British palaeography, remarked that Richard ‘is not a palaeographer’. By what measure that judgment was meted, I do not know: my own naïve confidence that I had struck up a pretty decent acquaintance with the works of auctoritates like Mabillon, Maffei, Delisle, Traube, Lindsay, Lowe, Schiaparelli, Cencetti, Mallon, Masai, Marichal – and so on - was shaken to its very foundations in my first supervision with Richard. I recall leaving the ‘Institute’ in something of a daze: the discussion had ranged from Gildas’s authorship of the Praefatio Gildae through to the historical background of Canu Llywarch Hen, the cutting of type-faces for the printing of Irish vernacular books, to St Samson’s fondness for Leonine hexameters, to the enthusiasm for National Socialism of Harald Steinacker, the inventor of ‘schrifttendenzen’ in palaeography and rector of wartime Innsbruck University. Along the way Richard tossed in such ephemera as the non-existence of ‘scriptoria’ and ‘Insular half-uncial’. I realised in short order that palaeography was not the only discipline of which Richard was master and that I as very lucky that my jobbing DPhil project had prompted sufficient interest in him for him to ‘take me onto the books’.

The last time I saw Richard he was settled into one of the tall-backed chairs in the ‘snug’ that is situated behind the bar in the ‘King’s Arms’. I had committed the offence of sitting on his left, which (as I should have known) was the side of his ‘bad ear’, but once that omission had been fixed and two pints of his favourite St Austell Brewery’s ‘Proper Job’ were settling on the table in front of us, Richard treated me to his concerns about the typesetting of the book representing his collaboration with Michael Hoyne: some eleven hundred pages had arrived from Dublin which Richard had naturally assimilated in about one-fiftieth of the time that it would have taken me to work out what was the beginning and what the end. He had been exercising and taking care of his health. Before Christmas he had lost quite a bit of weight and was pleased that he’d had to tighten his belt a couple of notches. His only declared ailments were the ‘bad ear’ (which I think he exaggerated) and some concern with the sight of one eye, caused by a torn retina some years back but quite adequately remedied by the use of a size twelve font for footnotes. His death was a horrible unexpected shock and I will miss him very much along with the rest of the Faculty.

 Jason Chess


 

The recent sudden and unexpected death of Richard has been a tragic loss to us here in Ireland as well. He was almost as regular a sight on the streets of Dublin in recent years as he was in Oxford. In addition to his occasional formal public appearances in Dublin, Galway, and elsewhere, he could also be found regularly in the Library of the Royal Irish Academy, of which he had been elected an Honorary Member, and with whose Dictionary of Medieval Latin from Celtic Sources he was closely involved at its inception (being co-author, with Prof. Michael Lapidge, of the Bibliography of sources for that project, 1985). On the occasions when he could be extracted from his RIA researches Richard was a very convivial café conversationalist and an easy and entertaining house-guest. I had the pleasure of reviewing two of his many publications, his marvellous Penguin Classics annotated translation of Adomnán’s Life of St Columba (1995), and his monumental Handlist of Latin writers of Great Britain and Ireland before 1540 (1997). Either volume on its own would have been a worthy monument to any man’s career; that Richard produced so many other important works as well, on an astonishingly wide variety of topics, makes his untimely loss seem all the more shocking. His edition of Roderick O’Flaherty’s Letters (2013, also for the Royal Irish Academy), and his soon to be published Clóliosta [‘Inventory’] of all known printed texts in Irish (provisionally available already online from the Dublin Institute for Advanced Studies since 2018) were only the most recent of his many contributions to Irish Studies, both medieval and modern. He published two seminal articles in PERITIA, Journal of the Medieval Academy of Ireland, ‘Some problems concerning the organisation of the Church in Early Medieval Ireland’, Peritia 3 [1984] 230-70, and ‘Books from Ireland, fifth to ninth centuries’, Peritia 21 [2010] 1-55 (the text of his O’Donnell Lectures for 2004). They may be said to have book-ended his brilliant career in Medieval Irish Studies. Both papers set the agenda for further study in their respective fields.

Suaimhneas síoraí ar a anam dílis.

   Dáibhí Ó Cróinín


 

One of the many irons in the fire that Richard kept glowing throughout his scholarly life was his interest in Scottish history. It is well known that his first publication was on the history of Raasay. It is perhaps less well known that in recent years he was not only an important contributor to the Innes Review but a very active member of its editorial board. (Plans are afoot to bring his articles in the Innes Review together as an online volume.) Richard's work on English royal acta was a direct inspiration for recent scholarship on Scottish charters, to which he also made his own significant contribution in a substantial essay on the charter evidence for people and languages in the eleventh and twelfth centuries. More fundamentally, Richard's approach to history--the exceptional depth and range of his understanding of sources, and his ability to bring them to life as texts and objects created and handled by real people in the past--was a beacon of scholarship. For example, on a trip to Inchcolm Abbey (where Walter Bower wrote Scotichronicon), accompanied by Dr Simon Taylor and the present editor of the Innes Review, Richard was determined that we could complete the fragmentary sentences, which survive on the walls of the the warming room, and then identify their source. The result was a note in the Innes Review (produced in short order) which identified the four sentences as coming from a fourteenth-century collection called Manipulus Florum. That short note allowed others to identify the previously unnoticed reception of Manipulus Florum in Bower's Scotichronicon.  But Richard's commitment to understanding the past extended well beyond the written word, and last summer he was part of a two-week sailing expedition in Argyll to learn firsthand what it was like to travel in the age of the saints. Richard's guidance and support will remain deeply appreciated, and we are thankful for his life and scholarship, and the opportunity to have been a part of it.

 

John Reuben Davies (editor of the Innes Review) and Dauvit Broun (editor of the Innes Review 1991-1999)

 


 

Probably the most recent academic event to have tempted me into Oxford from rural retirement was Richard’s lecture in Jesus, under the auspices of the Oxford bibliographical society, on early printing in the Irish language. As well as an illuminating talk, Richard had organized a small exhibition of examples, drawn from Jesus and other college libraries. His enthusiasm and numerous discoveries were much in evidence, as always.

I know also that he was much liked and respected in the Irish universities in which he acted as an external examiner. He was always generous in sharing his latest work and ideas with me. And modest. A sad, sad loss.

Toby Barnard


The Committee of the British Academy Project, Corpus of British Medieval Library Catalogues, has been deeply saddened by the death of Professor Richard Sharpe. At the same time we are proud to have had so brilliant, meticulous and generous a scholar as our General Editor for three decades. He had many other irons in the fire besides our series - in Ireland, and in Henry I and in the diplomatic of  documents, for instance. But one of his greatest monuments will be the 18 or more volumes (the vast majority) of our series, on which he himself reflected in his 2019 Lyell Lectures, and which bear the stamp of his hands-on general editorship, his fabulous learning and his peerless high standards.

Henry Mayr-Harting (Chairman)

Teresa Webber (Secretary)