Sunday, 6 November 2011

In memory of Kevin Sharpe

The early to mid 1990s were an exciting time to be a history student or teacher, especially in respect of the early modern period.

The lazy conventions of "Whig" and "Marxist" history were being undermined not by mere contrarian counter-assertions, but by diligent research presented in an accessible and attractive way by the so-called "revisionist" historians.

The most well-known of these revisionists was, of course, Professor Conrad Russell, himself a liberal politician and heir to great Whig hereditary title.

Russell's detailed critique of the Anglo-centric Parliament-v-Crown narrative of the years before the "fall of the British monarchies" (not the "English Civil War") was profound: perhaps for the first time in seventeenth-century historiography, causes were connected to actual effects.

Alongside Russell, covering slightly different ground, was Professor Kevin Sharpe, whose untimely death was announced today.

In his magisterial The Personal Rule of Charles I (the knocked-about 980-odd pages of which is before me as I type), Sharpe set out to show that far from the 1630s being a time of increasing tension which "inevitably" would lead to a crisis, there was actually a great deal of stability: it was a personal monarchy which did work - and could well have continued working.

It may well be that the Russell-Sharpe moment has come and gone in Stuart studies: revisionism about the "English civil war" could now be as "old hat" as the interpretations it challenged.

But at the time it was an intellectually exciting debate - and it showed that to dismantle a prevailing school of thought it was not enough to make bare rebuttals; instead one had to do the hard evidential ground-work to show why the new interpretations should be exchanged for the old. And, of course, this is true for many disciplines, and not just history.

I will now put my volume of Sharpe back on the shelf, next to my Russells (and AJP Taylors, EP Thompsons, and GR Eltons). I will probably not have another opportunity to read the near-1000 pages of this great book. But I am glad that I did read it, and I am grateful for the intellectual confidence it (and the works of many other historians) gave for thinking critically about what other people would want me to believe as true.

History sometimes has a mixed press as an academic subject; but in my view there is simply no better way to learn how to properly deal with reasoned arguments based on assessments of documentary and other evidence. (Indeed, I often think it should be a compulsory degree for litigators.)

So I am very proud and fortunate to have a history degree. In the hands of a great historian, the subject has the power to change minds, and to promote an evidence-based approach and critical thinking.

And Kevin Sharpe was a great historian. RIP.


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GM said...

Sharpe's "Personal Rule of Charles I" was a great influence in teaching that topic at A-level for several years - although it IS a door-stopper and I fear I dipped into rather than read from p.1 to p.980! But thanks for your post - history remains a terrific subject to go on and study at university, and even A-level can raise up some expectations too!

vjohn82 said...

I have a degree in History too and I know how the skills you can gain will cross over into the legal profession very well. You can speculate in the field of History and come up with interesting arguments based on limited information but at it's heart is evidence. If you cannot work with evidence then you can never be a good historian. Same goes for the law.

Now I just need to decide whether to be a lawyer or a teacher!

thewhitespike said...

Lovely inspiring post and a great tribute to an inspirational man. I love history, blogs and twitter have rekindled my interest and love for the subject. I am going to show my son this blog, he Loves history too and is doing his higher at school just now, much more than I ever did, regretfully.

Anonymous said...

Friend of Kev

AllanW said...

How extraordinary! I've just finished Russell's book and came away with exactly the same sense of intellectual vigour you describe. I've always thought that history was a foundational subject for anyone to study for the reasons you mention (although I only studied to 'A' level); grasp of evidence, argument, reasoning and a fuller understanding of the causes of our present state.

I'm going through Howard Zinn's 'The People's History of the Unites States' on audio at the moment and I'm finding some of the same revelations that come from detailed examination of the documentary evidence although Zinn himself is not shy in stating that he does indeed wish to present a less objective history than has been achieved to date.

Rebellionkid said...

Me and my sister had a fun game. We arrived at the Tate Modern 20 minutes before closing and there was some performance art thing going one, lots of people in black and white running around in elaborate ways. 10 mins into the routine we both got bored, so decided to go look at the art.

In the next ten minutes we looked at every single work of art in all the public rooms. It was a really fun experience I recommend.

Elby the Beserk said...

Didn't know he was gone. We were contemporaries at college. A most unlikely candidate for the academic honours he was to win, with his straggly long hair and quiet demeanour. RIP Kev.

Bill Hilton said...

I had no idea you were such an accomplished early modernist - it was the period I did for my MA, though I focussed on print media in the 1650s. To my crushing shame, I've never read Sharpe all the way through - perhaps now is the time...