Sharpest of historians

  • Themes: History

The early-modern historian James Sharpe was a man of many achievements, including the finest microhistory produced from English sources.

A print of a witchcraft trial.
A print of a witchcraft trial. Credit: Lebrecht Music & Arts / Alamy Stock Photo

James Sharpe (9 October 9 1946-13 February 2024) was one of the finest of early modern historians. He did his PhD at Oxford, under the supervision of Keith Thomas, then spent his entire career at the University of York. His subject was (to quote the title of one of his books) ‘Crime in Early Modern England (1550-1750)’, a subject that is bigger than it might at first seem, as it includes the Church courts as well as the secular courts, witchcraft as well as homicide. In his last book, A Fiery & Furious People: A History of Violence in England (2016), he tackled the long history of violent crime in England from the Middle Ages to the present day.

Sharpe was a prolific scholar. History students knew him primarily through excellent textbooks, such as Early Modern England: a Social History 1550-1760 (1987), but he was often at the forefront of new developments in the discipline, because he was alert to the questions asked, and answers proposed, not only by historians, but also by anthropologists and sociologists. A pamphlet, Defamation and Sexual Slander in Early Modern England: the Church Courts at York (1980) opened a subject that has been much explored since, particularly by feminist historians. ‘Domestic Homicide in Early Modern England’ (Historical Journal, 1981) was the first serious attempt to tackle a major subject that until then had been discussed only anecdotally. ‘”Last Dying Speeches”: Religion, Ideology and Public Execution in Seventeenth-Century England’ (Past and Present, 1985) took public executions seriously in the aftermath of Foucault’s Discipline and Punish (1977). In a profession which took quality more seriously than quantity, these three publications alone would represent a distinguished career.

No one knew the archives better, but, at the same time, no one was more alert to the need to ask new questions and test old assumptions. And no one could give a more reliable, sounder account of the state of scholarship in the field: his Instruments of Darkness (Penguin, 1996) was and is the standard survey of the important subject of witch trials in England, a subject opened up by Keith Thomas and Alan Macfarlane, where Sharpe quickly established himself as the leading expert. He also turned his hand to more popular books, on Dick Turpin and Guy Fawkes, in which he manages to combine a strong narrative with scholarly expertise. In all his books he had mastered the art of combining broad discussions with riveting details, large arguments with enthralling anecdotes.

Historians work with the sources that survive. In this respect, historians of crime in Early Modern England are distinctly unfortunate, for the average criminal trial produced almost no records for the simple reason that trials were performed by the interrogation of witnesses before a jury, and all that needed to be written down was the charge and the verdict. They often lasted a few minutes, never longer than a day. Appeals on questions of evidence were never allowed: when it came to the facts, the jury’s verdict was held to be infallible. This was not the case in countries where the Roman law tradition was dominant. There, criminal trials involved the construction of extensive dossiers recording the interrogation of witnesses. Within the Catholic Church heresy trials could produce extensive records. Hence the possibility of producing works such as Carlo Ginzburg’s The Cheese and the Worms (1976) and Natalie Davis’s The Return of Martin Guerre (1983), the leading examples of what has come to be called ‘microhistory’.

In my view (and his own) Sharpe’s best book is The Bewitching of Anne Gunter (1999). In the records of Star Chamber, a prerogative court which made decisions based on texts rather than oral testimony, he found a most extraordinary case. At first sight it was a simple case of witchcraft: Anne, it was claimed, had been bewitched, and vomited up pins. In the end it turned out that Anne had been pressured into faking her symptoms by her father in order to pursue a village feud. Even James I, always keen to believe in the reality of witchcraft, accepted this as a fraud. In extraordinary detail, Sharpe reconstructed the tensions and conflicts within the village that had resulted in these false charges. There’s not a better example – there perhaps never will be a better example – of a ‘microhistory’ written from English sources.

Sharpe was a leading light in what has been the golden age of early modern English social history. He was a fine historian – learned, clever, industrious, sophisticated, independently minded. At work he was tough-minded and occasionally sharp-tongued – he had managed to find a newspaper headline which read ‘Sharpe by Name and Sharpe by Nature’, which he proudly stuck on his door – until you got him on the subject of his family, for he was a happy husband and doting father. He leaves behind an extraordinary body of wonderful work.


David Wootton