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November 7, 2011 / Mathew Lyons

Kevin Sharpe (1949-2011)

I was very sorry to read on Twitter yesterday of the death of historian Kevin Sharpe. I cannot claim any direct connection with him, but as a postgraduate student in the late 1980s, I found his writing thrilling. Intellectual excitement isn’t much remarked on these days as a class of pleasure, but reading work which both makes you appreciate the complexity of the past and  helps you understand it more clearly, and which also offers you an exemplary and instructive approach to historical research and analysis that could illuminate your own work and its limitations, was an enthralling experience.

I had come to early modern history through the writing of Marxist historians such as the late Christopher Hill, in particular through works of Hill such as The World Turned Upside Down, Puritanism and Revolution and The Intellectual Origins of the English Revolution. But once I was in a position to read the primary sources with more care, I found myself more often than not disappointed. Perhaps “more often than not” is an overstatement; but certainly too often. The compelling progressive narratives that I had taken for unyielding certainties came to appear more delicate, not to say hazardous, constructs.

Kevin Sharpe’s work of the time – Sir Robert Cotton 1586-1631: History and Politics in Early Modern England (I might be wrong, and I don’t have a copy to refer to, but memory tells me that this was Sharpe’s doctoral thesis expanded into a book) and Criticism and Compliment: The Politics of Literature in the England of Charles I –  was a corrective to that. It would be wrong to describe them as abrasive, that’s a word with too many negative connotations, but there was a stimulating vigour and freshness to his thinking, and his arguments seemed to grow naturally out of the evidence, rather than using the evidence to serve a theory. (This is a gross simplification, I know.)

Moreover, because he was disinclined to believe in the inevitability of events, he made the past seem more contingent, more chaotic and therefore more alive, with individual human judgements and choices – partial, fallible and flawed though they may be – leaving their impress on the world, even as it moulded them.

Sharpe’s impress on my own thinking – and I am sure that of many, many others – was profound. I can’t think of anyone who better defines what a historian should be; the discipline of history has been burnished by its association with him and his work.

Rest in peace.

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