bonæ litteræ: occasional writing from David Rundle, Renaissance scholar

Good Night, Prof. Sharpe

Posted in Obituaries by bonaelitterae on 5 April, 2020

This site takes on at times the nature of a necrology. It already includes half a dozen reminiscences of departed scholars whose path I was lucky to cross. Now I have to add another, but with this one we move down another generation. It is a fortnight since Richard Sharpe, Professor of Diplomatic at Oxford, died of a heart attack. He was in post, a couple of years shy of retirement, and I for one anticipated that some of his most productive decades lay ahead of him.

I do not pretend to any special knowledge of him. He was, for all his ability to assert himself in public, a private man, and few, perhaps, can claim with truth to have known him well. At the same time, he did nurture a cohort of scholars, and any of them knew him much better than I did. He has, though, been part of my universe for all my adult life, and perhaps I can add to the richer recollections that others will provide by giving a few vignettes which may hint at some of the elements of his many-sided personality.

It happens that I saw him the morning before he died. I was walking through Oxford’s Covered Market and heard, over my shoulder, the greeting ‘Good Morning, Dr Rundle’. I turned to see Richard’s back, striding on, and so the last words I spoke to him were ‘Good Morning, Prof. Sharpe’. We might think the brevity of that contact was a symptom of the social distancing for which 2020 will be remembered, but from my experience I would say that such curt courtesy was characteristic of him.

Curt could undeniably at times be cutting. I never felt the full brunt of that but I still smile at the thought of one occasion when he was brutally honest with me. A couple of years ago, we were both attending a conference at the Bodleian and, in an interval, we talked of one of the projects he oversaw, the digital version of the classic Medieval Libraries of Great Britain. There was a technical issue about inputting a specific set of information, and I thought I had a solution for him. I explained for a few minutes until he stopped me with the sobering line: ‘I am not listening to a word you say’. I thanked him for his sincerity.

With that honesty came an absence of feigned praise. Richard prided himself on exacting standards of scholarship, and he saw as integral to that being sparse with words of encouragement. I once observed to him that he was readier to criticise than to compliment; I think the precise wording of his response was: ‘That’s right. If I see someone doing a good job, I think that best thing I can do is keep quiet and let them get on with it’. Something of this attitude is at the heart of my favourite anecdote about him. In the course of a bibulous college dinner, I revealed to him that some of his graduate students had given him the sobriquet Magister Acutus. His reply: ‘I would prefer to be Acer’.

That tale, however, is not the memory I cherish the most. That comes from several years earlier, when I was a young graduate student. I had already made his acquaintance when I was an undergraduate, but that was through his involvement in politics — while he worked at the Dictionary of Medieval Latin from British Sources, he was also Liberal Democrat councillor for the main student area of the city, Central Ward. A couple of years later, he — alongside Malcolm Parkes — was the first to induct me into the arcana of palaeography, and also of diplomatic. He was an exacting tutor, but my most vivid recollection is not of a seminar. It was of a day in spring 1992 when I was sitting in one of the bays of Duke Humfrey’s squinting at a copy of William de Pagula’s Summa summarum. It was one of my first encounters with a manuscript, and I was attempting to deploy the skills I had been taught but was wondering at the mass of abbreviations that appeared to end each section of text. Richard happened to walk past and he stopped, came over and asked what I was studying. I showed him the manuscript and its challenges, and he began to unfurl the complexities of the canon law references which were bemusing me, even taking the time to lead me upstairs into the Upper Reading Room to show me where to find the Corpus Iuris Canonici and how to consult it.

As I write, the more I appreciate how he has informed my practice, for good or ill. I try in my own teaching to emulate those minutes of scholarly generosity, in the realisation that they can be more enlightening and encouraging than any number of hours in the classroom. I suspect I have also inherited from him a certain reticence about giving praise — and believe I sense the virtue he saw in it: its concomitant is to suppress one’s own desire to be praised and to seek instead to be spurred on always to do yet better.

What I also now realise is how much more I want to hear from him. As I said, I would not consider myself ever to have been close to him but he has been a constant of my adult life. Nearly a decade after the incident I have described in Duke Humfrey’s, he was appointed my mentor when I was J. P. R. Lyell Fellow in Palaeography. That role ended in 2004, but subsequently we found ourselves often at the same events. For one year (2017-18), we taught Oxford’s new graduate historians alongside each other, Richard dispensing his expertise in diplomatic and documentary scripts, while I introduced them to bookhands and codicology. The following year, I was able to attend only the first of his Lyell Lectures in person but watched the rest from afar by the wonders of podcasts (or aptly named Bodcasts); our last face-to-face conversation was about them and Richard’s plans for their publication. Most recently, he had agreed to speak this June at an event, on the Legacy of Oxford Palaeographers, which I am organising with Colleen Curran. He has left us in medias res, and my overwhelming sense now is of a conversation interrupted. We still have so much to learn from him.

These few memories also hint at something else about Richard. He was not shy of taking on ambitious projects: his listing of Anglo-Latin writers, his work on Medieval Libraries of Great Britain and his oversight of the Corpus of British Medieval Library Catalogues (on these last two, he was ably supported by James Willoughby) are only three examples from a longer list. I mention these because they signify something important about his intellectual career. He placed himself in a grand tradition of bibliography, one which had flourished particularly in Oxford in the mid-twentieth century through the work of Neil Ker, Roger Mynors and Richard Hunt. Their work had been continued by Andrew Watson, who was allowed to enjoy a long and productive retirement in Oxford, and to whom Richard was literary executor. To all these scholars, Richard was not only heir; he, more than anyone, ensured their tradition of learning progressed into the new millennium. It is a tradition which demonstrated how medieval studies needs to be based on precise study of the manuscript evidence, informed by the skills of palaeography, codicology and diplomatic. We look to others to continue that legacy. They will be standing in a long shadow.