Professor Richard Sharpe (1954-2020)

23rd March 2020


Wadham College is saddened and shocked to report the death of Professorial Fellow, Richard Sharpe.

A cremation ceremony for Wadham Professorial Fellow, Richard Sharpe will take place on Wednesday 29 April at 3.30pm, attended by immediate family only and officiated by Wadham Chaplain Dr Jane Baun. His friends and colleagues are invited to remember him privately at that time. Cards addressed to Michael Clarke can be sent c/o Wadham College. A memorial service is planned to be held in College on 21 March 2021. Details to follow.

  • Richard Sharpe

Richard Sharpe, 17 February 1954 - 22 March 2020

Obituary by Roy Flechner

Richard Sharpe once wrote that although the Venerable Bede carefully listed his many works, 'an agreed count is difficult'. This observation can just as well apply to Richard's own prodigious output as a historian, who specialised in charters from the Anglo-Norman realm, but also in saints' cults, in early medieval church organisation, in medieval and early modern book culture, and in much else besides. When he last updated his list of publications, about half a year before his untimely death on 21 March 2020, it amounted to 212 published works. To those attempting to download and print the long list from his faculty webpage he left a cautionary note: 'This is for the seriously curious...Think before you print'. With several unfinished works in progress, some of which will be seen through the press by willing friends and colleagues, the list remains incomplete. 

Always ahead of the pack, Richard told that he started researching towards his doctorate already as an undergraduate in Cambridge while reading Anglo-Saxon, Norse, and Celtic. And when his fellow graduates at Trinity College were just beginning to contemplate future career plans, Richard was already gaining international recognition with a series of ground-breaking articles on medieval Irish saints, on the manuscripts that transmitted their Lives, and on church organisation in Ireland. His work on the latter subject in particular has turned on its head much of the received wisdom in a field whose chief protagonist had been his PhD supervisor, Kathleen Hughes. Richard's first job as an editor for the Dictionary of Medieval Latin from British Sources took him first to London and then to Oxford, where he devoted his spare time to completing his monumental Medieval Irish Saints' Lives, which was published a year after his appointments as Reader in Diplomatic and Fellow of Wadham College in 1990. In the same year he became general editor of the British Academy's Corpus of British Medieval Library Catalogues, which now comprises eighteen out of its planned twenty-four volumes. A personal chair followed in 1998. 

Speaking to a Dublin audience in 2012 he referred to his work on charters and on the library catalogues as 'my day job', which represented only one aspect of his wider historical and literary interests, which he said 'are very, very hard to classify'. 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). Richard blended in perfectly among experts in every field that he mastered, but only a few of his followers seemed to be aware of the full range of his versatility, and fewer still possessed the intellectual stamina to be able to keep up with the flow of contributions across fields. 

What scholarly disposition motivates a man to try his hand in so many different subjects? To the same Dublin audience he told of wanting to explore 'the riches of how things connect and lead on, and lead on'. There was always new intellectual ground to be conquered and Richard dashed towards every new subject with fresh energy, acumen, and rigour. Ever the champion of a strictly evidence-based approach, some of his articles and at least one book developed from rants about how others kept getting things wrong. If written by anyone else, a book like Titulus: Identifying Medieval Latin Texts (2003), on the art of identifying medieval texts for the purpose of cataloguing, would be utterly unreadable. But Richard's strong emotional engagement with the subject, which stemmed from his frustration with the facile methods of some cataloguers, is so absorbing that it makes the challenge of cataloguing medieval texts seem more like an exciting ontological riddle than a drudging exercise in taxonomy. Richard could be as critical of himself as he was of others, and on the eve of important occasions (like giving the Oxford O'Donnell Lectures or delivering the Latin sermon at the University Church in 2003) one could glimpse an endearing sort of boyish insecurity beneath the serious scholarly exterior. Validation, rarely sought but always forthcoming, arrived in the form of a litany of accolades, among them a British Academy Fellowship (2003), a launch by the President of Ireland of Roderick O'Flaherty's Letters (2013), and most recently an Honourary Membership of the Royal Irish Academy (2018) and a Corresponding Fellowship of the Medieval Academy of America (2020). The list goes on, but 'an agreed count is difficult'. 

To his research students and postdocs Richard was a committed and supportive mentor. It took a while for me as a novice graduate student to understand that what I initially interpreted as impatience was actually his knee-jerk reaction to predictable or synthetic ideas. But when he sensed original thinking, even when its ember was slight, he would be quick to engage and foster. He was generous with his knowledge, he was always available, and he would continue to follow the careers of his graduates closely, supporting them in both ordinary and extraordinary ways, which included creating research positions on funded projects and even providing temporary accommodation when this was needed. The big house with the beautiful garden on the Whitehouse Road was always open to visitors: friends and colleagues from the world over would be treated to nauseously large pots of filter coffee or a bottle of Prosecco to lubricate high spirited conversations on his latest work in progress, on the future of Oxford libraries, on recollections from trips to the Veneto or from island hopping in the Hebrides; and to finish off the evening there would be a dose of ordinary academic gossip with some punning jokes and, lastly, his resoundingly hearty laugh. 

Roy Flechner

Richard Sharpe, Professor of Diplomatic at the University of Oxford

In a statement to the Wadham College community, the Warden Ken Macdonald QC said; “Richard was a hugely valued member of our community, a scholar of the highest standing and a man of the very best human qualities. The College held him in deep affection. I join with all of you in mourning a good friend and a towering intellect. We shall, of course, pay proper tribute to Richard in due course.”

Richard Sharpe (1954–2020) was Professor of Diplomatic at the University of Oxford, based at Wadham College.

His research interests included medieval books and libraries over an extended period; medieval Latin texts; medieval charters and deeds; various aspects of medieval English, Irish, Scottish, and Welsh history; antiquarian learning in England in the seventeenth and early eighteenth centuries; Irish manuscripts.

He was the general editor of the Corpus of British Medieval Library Catalogues, and editor of a forthcoming edition of the charters of King Henry I of England.

An undergraduate at Trinity College, Cambridge, he read Classics followed by Anglo Saxon, Norse and Celtic. His Phd thesis was submitted in the department of Anglo-Saxon, Norse, and Celtic. It dealt with Latin Lives of Irish saints and their manuscript transmission from the seventh century to the seventeenth century. The resulting book was called Medieval Irish Saints' Lives. An Introduction to Vitae Sanctorum Hiberniae (Oxford, 1991). Richard is a Fellow of the British Academy.