Wednesday, 9 November 2011

Kevin Sharpe 1949-2011

I cannot claim any direct connection with Professor Sharpe but this does not stop me feeling somewhat sad that a historian of his calibre has passed from the historical scene at such a young age. Having already lost another significant historian of the 17th century Barry Coward this year, Early Modern historical study has been diminished by the loss of two historians of stature.

Sharpe never really subscribed to the great historical genres of Whig" and "Marxist" history studies. He was in fact from an early period in his career very much part of the revisionist group of historians who not only rejected both Whig and Marxist historiography but sought by counter argument to provide something different.

It must be said that Sharpe was not the first to concentrate on the “superstructure “of events of the English revolution. His concentration on politics to the detriment of “base” i.e.  Economics was developed to a fine art by Professor Conrad Russell. Russell has been attributed with being one of the few historians to link causes that were connected to actual effects. Whether this is true this is not really the place to argue.

Perhaps Sharpe’s most important book was The Personal Rule of Charles I. It is certainly a tour de force of about 980 pages. Sharpe in this book strikes me as being sympathetic to his subject of Charles 1st.   He shares this admiration of Charles with another historian John Adamson. Sharpe presents the period of Charles 1st rule as one of stability and that his rule did really accomplish a lot. Suffice to say he does not subscribe to the Marxist theory that this was a time of great crisis and the Civil war represented an important stage in the transformation of England from a feudal society into a capitalist one.

I must admit have not read all of Sharpe’s work so therefore I cannot comment yet on their merits. Of the work I have read Sharpe comes across as a historian who was passionate about his subject. He was methodical and according to one writer had a fierce work ethic. He paid great attention to accuracy. Whether you agreed with his conclusions he wrote in a manner which was able to explain in simplified terms complex problems. This appears to be a dying art these days.

It appears his attitude to life bore a remarkable resemblance to another historian who died recently Barry Coward. According to Joad Raymond “those fortunate enough to have been his friend will know him as a truly and remarkably caring and funny man, whose humour was deep, broad and frequently inappropriate. Many of the anecdotes will be unpublishable and have to be saved for the pubs across the world where he will be being remembered. He was an insightful and empathic commentator and adviser on affairs of the head and heart; he was the first person I would have called to express my grief at his absence”.

It will be to future historians to judge whether Sharpe’s contribution and other subscribers to revisionist history has transformed our understanding of early modern England. Unlike some writers I believe this debate to be on going and far from “sterile”. One of the most important aspect of Sharpe’s history writing was his attempt to cross the divide between history and politics. Again it is not within the remit of this appreciation of Sharpe’s life to judge whether this ‘cultural turn’ will “refigure our understanding of the history and politics of early modern England and the materials and methods of our study”.

His method can be found in my favourite book of his called Reading Revolutions-The Politics of Reading in Early Modern England Yale University Press 2000. It is a fascinating book.

It offers one of the very few comprehensive studies of reading and politics in early modern England. The book is based on the huge notes Sir William Drake. According to Michael Mendle Sharpe adopts “a meticulous treatment of the readership of Sir William Drake (1606-1669), a Buckinghamshire gentleman whose vociferous literary appetite is chronicled in his own notebooks, marginalia, and diaries. At the core are fifty-four volumes, mostly commonplace books, in the Ogden Mss. at University College, London. Sharpe also tracked down important Drake manuscripts at the Huntington and the Folger Shakespeare Libraries, and still others at the House of Lords Record Office and the Buckinghamshire Record Office. He identified printed books likely to have been owned by Drake amidst the books in University College, London, and another one, extensively annotated, in the Folger. It is a large body of material, written in Drake's hand or in that of an amanuensis, in English, Latin and Italian, the three tongues sometimes sharing the same page. As with the textual corpus, nothing in the presentation is done on a small scale; Sharpe, who is not known to favor compression, provisions his fourth chapter with 627 footnotes”.

To concentrate a whole book on the notes of one person is a very hazardous thing to do. However the book deservedly won the 2001 SHARP Award from the Society for the History of Authorship, Reading, and Publishing for the best new book in Book History.

The study of Drake who was an important figure during the English revolution shows how many people not just what was then the middle class but ordinary people managed to read or were relayed information which allowed them to formulate opinions and act on them. This process enabled many to adopt radical social value. This can be seen by the explosion of multifarious radical groups such as the Levellers, Diggers etc.

Not all shared this enthusiasm for knowledge the poet and playwright George Chapman said

“Away ungodly Vulgars, far away,
Fly ye profane, that dare not view the day,
Nor speak to men but shadows, nor would hear
Of any news, but what seditious were,
Hateful and harmful and ever to the best,
Whispering their scandals ... "

Sharpe highlights that very act of reading was in itself a political act. It is only really now that we are getting a clearer picture not only of peoples reading habits during the Civil War but how they managed to get hold of reading matter. The world of the secret printing presses is an area of research that has been woefully under researched.

Many diverse political figures took advantage of the relatively mobile printing presses. The beginning of the 17th Century saw a significant increase in the number of books printed each year, literacy rates also increased. With the onset of civil war England became the ideological battleground of competing social classes represented by Crown and Parliament.
How great a historian was Kevin Sharpe should be answered by his peers. But in my mind he was a good one. I do not agree with much of what he wrote but he wrote well and sought to reach and educate a wide audience.


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