In Memoriam: Buchanan Sharp (1942–2020)

To: Campus Community

From: Marilyn J. Westerkamp, Chair of the History Department

Buchanan Sharp

With profound sadness, we announce the death of Buchanan Sharp, professor emeritus of history, an extraordinary person, a lively spirit, and one of our department's most outstanding teachers. 

Born in Scotland, Buck spent his childhood in the royal burgh of Dumbarton; his family came to Oakland, California in 1955. He attended Berkeley, receiving his B.A. in 1964 as he discovered almost by accident the joys of historical research. He then studied at the University of Illinois, Champaign, earning an M.A., 1965, then returned to UC Berkeley to complete his Ph.D. in 1971, pursuing his study of Tudor/Stuart England. He arrived at Santa Cruz in 1970, joined the Board of Studies in History, and served UC Santa Cruz for forty years. 

Buck was admired, and loved, by colleagues and students, and he was a good friend to many. He was a generous citizen of the campus community, and he built a reputation for fairness, integrity, and good judgment along with his ability to keep calm and carry on, whatever the crisis du jour; he was frequently asked to assumed major administrative responsibilities in the history department, the colleges, the Humanities Division, and the campus. He was a founding member of College V (Porter), later an active fellow of Stevenson. He twice served as department chair and shepherded the reinvention of the graduate program in history. He particularly enjoyed serving on the editorial board of the University of California Press, which benefited from his extensive and wide-ranging knowledge.    

Buck taught an extensive range of courses, including early modern Europe, the Dutch republic, Scotland, and even California. His primary teaching grew out of his absorbing, and rich research in Tudor/Stuart England, always speaking in his rolling Scottish burr. A social historian whose work faced towards the people so seldom noticed, he had found in the archives traces of popular dissatisfaction and resistance. He pulled the uninterested students into these worlds of the past by designing classes on Scottish history through the novel or posing key historical problems to solve, such as who killed the princes in the tower (spoiler alert: not Richard III). He lectured easily and fluidly without notes, introducing students to kings and queens, bishops and revolutionaries as well as weavers and miners, all ordinary people. It was, noted one student, “like being taught history by a brilliant Sean Connery.” Fascinated by agriculture and the farmers in the countryside, he emphasized the nitty-gritty of living in desperate times. He convinced students of the importance of food and production to the historical record, pointing to the law requiring every baker to produce a loaf affordable to the poor, the farthing loaf. Failure to do so resulted in riots. He fought against Friday afternoon desertions with stories about filthy water and the necessary consumption of beer, reporting that Henry’s court consumed 100,000 barrels per year. (For those who couldn’t do the math, 275 barrels per day.) While some professors fought absences with tests and assignments, Professor Sharp withheld tales of beer.

The bookends of his research are volumes focused upon food, poverty, and popular resistance. He challenged assumptions that people leading riots were working under the direction of the gentry, arguing instead that their actions represented the efforts of independent agents working for themselves and their own community. The final volume pushed this possibility further chronologically, tracking activities from the mid-13th to the mid-17th century, arguing that popular responses to grain shortages led the monarch and the cities to regulate the market. In this work Buck engaged one of the central problems driving early modern western history, the moral economy—offering not only an alternative vision, but an extensive, 400-year archival trail asking provocative questions and providing significant alternative interpretations.     

Buck was an accomplished outdoorsman; he enjoyed camping, hunting, and fly fishing, always ready to bring his chainsaw and axe to help his friends. He enjoyed music and theater, especially Shakespeare’s history plays, upon which he was a public lecturer as well as a fan. He would provide insightful commentary on the nature of the plays and the customs and traditions illuminated. He even published an essay on Coriolanus, adding something new to the body of Shakespeare scholarship. 

He is survived by his wife, Meg Lilienthal, his children Duncan Sharp (Renee) and Heather Cortez (Anthony), grandchildren Gwen and Graham Sharp and Sharar Muir, and the mother of his children Jeannine Blazzard. 

Buchanan Sharp died of Covid 19. In lieu of contributions the family asks that you take care of yourself and others by wearing a face covering and respecting social distancing.