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News > The House > Richard Hamer, Emeritus Student: 19 February 1935 – 01 November 2021

Richard Hamer, Emeritus Student: 19 February 1935 – 01 November 2021

Richard Hamer, Emeritus Student, English Tutor from 1962 to 2002, and Librarian for many years, has died aged 86.
8 Nov 2021
Written by Olivia Tan
The House

Richard Hamer, Emeritus Student, English Tutor from 1962 to 2002, and Librarian for many years, has died aged 86. 


Professor Mishtooni Bose, Christopher Tower Official Student in Medieval Poetry in English, writes: “A graduate of New College, Oxford, Richard Hamer taught medieval English literature at Christ Church for many years, and was a greatly valued tutor and colleague, in particular working alongside Professor Christopher Butler and Mr Peter Conrad for several decades. He is still very much a presence in tutorials because of A Choice of Anglo-Saxon Verse, first published by Faber in 1970. The current cohort of English freshers all know Richard's name and his work. 

Still in print, this is a scholarly and accessible introduction to a period of English literature in which, miraculously, nothing mediocre seems to have been produced (or, if it was, has certainly not survived). That Faber are currently promoting this volume as an 'essential companion' to Seamus Heaney's translation of Beowulf says everything about their pride and confidence in a set of translations that has more than stood the test of time. It has become a classic. It is nothing if not appropriate that I have heard by way of oral tradition that Jorge Luis Borges, whose love and respect for Old English literature was well-attested, and considerably pre-dated the publication of Richard's translations, wanted to meet Richard to discuss Old English as a result of encountering this volume. I do not know if this encounter actually occurred, but it is very pleasing to imagine it.

Richard also worked on later medieval literature. With Vida Russell, he edited for the Early English Text Society a three-volume edition of the Gilte Legende (2006-7, 2012) a prose compilation of saints' lives in Middle English. This is a translation of Jean de Vignay's Legende Dorée, itself a translation of Jacobus de Voragine's Legenda Aurea (Golden Legend), which is one of the most influential texts in the medieval period, leaving its mark on sermons, illustrations and a variety of other kinds of writing. The Gilte Legende was translated in 1438 by a self-described 'sinful wretch' whose name is still unknown to us. In producing this volume so painstakingly, Hamer and Russell performed the invaluable service of making accessible a substantial witness to the intellectual energy that continued to manifest itself in English religious writing in the wake of the Wycliffite controversies. Richard had earlier established his expertise in this area by publishing Three Lives from the Gilte Legende (1978), which confirmed this compilation's importance as a literary intermediary between the manuscript culture in which the Legenda Aurea achieved its influence and Caxton's 1483 print of the Golden Legend, for which Latin, French and English versions were consulted. This edition was described as 'carefully introduced' and 'flawlessly edited'.

But most recently, and again for Faber (2020), Richard produced a translation of Beowulf into blank verse. He offers a spirited defence of blank verse in his introduction, and the first person mentioned in his acknowledgments is his former undergraduate tutor, Christopher Tolkien, who inspired him towards what he calls the 'life-changing decision' to specialise in medieval literature. Richard offers this translation as a 'form of relaxation in old age'. It is difficult to imagine a more elegant and appropriate way to conclude a scholarly career.”


Judith Curthoys, the archivist, writes: “Richard Hamer was appointed Librarian in 1987 after John Mason stepped down, and remained in office for fifteen years until his own retirement.  He was the first of the Fellow Librarians to step back a little from the day-to-day administration of the library and yet he was still a real presence, popping in most days during term to make sure that all was well.  Richard was concerned to modernise whilst maintaining the tranquillity of the library.  Under his care, the library catalogue was made available on computer for the first time, and major cataloguing projects – of the early Western manuscripts, the music collection, and the early printed books - were initiated.  All these schemes took far longer than he had hoped – the manuscripts cataloguing in particular being dogged by bad luck – and this was a source of regret to him.  His relief when the music catalogue finally went on-line and the Western manuscripts catalogue eventually published was palpable!  Richard was a keen contributor to the collections, too, adding all sorts of items to the Alice cupboards particularly including copies of Wonderland in odd languages as he found them on his travels.

His methods of staff recruitment were, by modern standards, perhaps unorthodox; he hated to interview preferring to employ directly people whom he knew and who were evidently devoted to the library.  As a boss, he was kindly and gentle often coming in for a chat at morning coffee time but he did always seem slightly surprised when the library staff asked for holiday!  Not many of the current librarians remember him but those of us who do are saddened by his death.  It is only a few weeks since he last came in to bring new additions to both library and archive.  He will be much missed.”

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