Once I was a clever boy learning the arts of Oxford... is a quotation from the verses written by Bishop Richard Fleming (c.1385-1431) for his tomb in Lincoln Cathedral. Fleming, the founder of Lincoln College in Oxford, is the subject of my research for a D. Phil., and, like me, a son of the West Riding. I have remarked in the past that I have a deeply meaningful on-going relationship with a dead fifteenth century bishop... it was Fleming who, in effect, enabled me to come to Oxford and to learn its arts, and for that I am immensely grateful.

Monday, 30 March 2020

Prof Richard Sharpe

I was deeply shocked and deeply saddened to hear this evening of the very sudden death, apparently from a heart attack, on March 22nd of Richard Sharpe, the Professor of Diplomatic in the University of Oxford at the early age of barely 66.

I met him in my first week of study here in Michaelmas 1993 when he was tasked with teaching diplomatic and palaeography to the new intake of graduate historians. He was Dr Sharpe as he then was was sharp, very sharp, by intellect and occasionally, but with a twinkle in his eye, by tongue. After our classes a group of us used to repair to the adjoining tea room in the History Faculty looking down Broad Street and he would join us. On one occasion a new friend and I were having, as one does, a profound discussion as to whether there actually were green galeros worn by medieval bishops, as opposed to the heraldic ones. "Are you two really interested in that or are you just talking?" When weassured him that we were genuinely interested in the question we realised we had his respect. 

Other years often found him rather formidable or forbidding but most of us found him friendly and supportive. He wanted us to find the deep delight he obviously found in the obscurities of the Middle Ages. I recall his enthusiasm in showing me texts he was choosing for a primer on readind medieval sources during my first summer in Oxford, or on another occasion at a formal dinner in Oriel expounding the correct Old English pronunciation of Latin - speak it as English teasing out the syllables.

He was clearly highly intelligent and accomplished in the intricacies of things linguistic and diplomatic. His mind appeared constantly to be roving over the many academic fields in which he had an interest, expertise and knowledge. He is a great loss to the academic community not only in Oxford but across the whole sphere of medieval studies.

At my first meeting him he was a City Councillor and told us one morning that he was off to inspect the city wall at New College. This went back to the agreement between William of Wykeham and the then town of Oxford when the Bishop founded New College late in the fourteenth century. An hour or so later we saw him retuning from this, with his fellow Councillors in ceremonial robes and cocked hats. Very Oxford.

He was always friendly and supportive and I shall miss seeing him around the Bodleian and Wadhsm where his Fellowship was based, or in a restaurant we both patronised.

One final memos is of him giving the best academic put-down to a friend of his and distinguished academic from another prestigious University, whose entire seminar paper hinged on one word in an early twelfth century text. In his first question Richard Sharpe queried whether ‘violentia’ should be in fact read as ‘volentia’. The whole edifice of the seminar fell about its deliverer who gamely said something on the lines of "Well yes, yes, you’d know better than me..." I have no doubt but that Richard Sharpe was indeed right on that and many other things.

May he rest in peace - but maybe now he can catch up with scores of medieval scribes and find out exactly what they meant.

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