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James Platt Jr (1861-1910) is a rather obscure figure in the history of Anglo-Saxon Studies. Undeservedly so. This guest blog by my student-assistant Amos van Baalen will discuss Platt’s tumultuous life, including his promising youth, subsequent plagiarism and his ultimate return to the ranks of respected scholars.
High hopes and harsh criticism: James Platt Jr arrives on the scene
“There are so few English Anglo-Saxon scholars that I shall not find it too hard to make a name among them,” James Platt Jr wrote in an introductory letter to Pieter Jacob Cosijn, a Dutch Professor of Germanic Philology and Anglo-Saxon. Despite his young age (he was only 21 at the time), Platt presents himself as a confident scholar; he had already read a number of papers at the prestigious Philological Society and one of his papers was due to be published in the Transactions of the Philological Society. This paper was a damning critique of Thomas Northcote Toller’s revision of Joseph Bosworth’s An Anglo-Saxon Dictionary (1838):
“[T]he continuation of the work by Toller appears to be almost as bad as the commencement of it by Bosworth—and that is saying a great deal. … A thorough criticism it would be impossible to give—a re-writing of the whole book would be easier” (Platt 1882-1884, 237-238).
One particularly snide piece of criticism in his paper is a list containing 128 Old English words that could not be found in the first 32 pages of the dictionary, which serves to underline Platt’s general belief that the dictionary was wholly inadequate:
Platt’s hostile review was certainly noticed among the Philological Society (Bankert 2003, 306, notes that Platt’s paper was criticized, mostly for its form, not its contents). Harsh though the criticism was, Toller does seem to have taken some of Platt’s remarks to heart: the dictionary’s 1898 edition and (primarily) its 1921 supplement (which can be accessed online here) actually do contain around two-thirds of the words in the list shown above (although the entries are sometimes spelled differently).
Platt’s rise to philological prominence and his high hopes for his own career in Anglo-Saxon Studies would prove to be short-lived, however.
A Philologist’s Fall from Favour: Platt and Plagiarism
During the early 1880s, Platt received accusations of plagiarism. Three prominent scholars of Old English and Old Germanic languages were involved in these accusations: Pieter Jacob Cosijn, Henry Sweet and Eduard Sievers (see Bremmer 1991, xxi-xxiv). The correspondence between Platt and Cosijn (which can be found in the Leiden University Library) bears witness to how Platt operated. After introducing himself to Cosijn (see above), Platt asked him for specific information on historical linguistic matters. In one letter, he had asked Cosijn to send him Dutch words with the feminine agentive suffix -igge/-egge, such as Mod. D. dievegge ‘female thief’. Platt subsequently used the information provided by Cosijn in an article about Old English words with a similar suffix -icge (“Angelsächsisches,” Anglia 6 (1883): 171-78). Regrettably, Platt ‘forgot’ to attribute this information to Cosijn in the article itself. In Platt’s own words, this was because “[he] introduced the remarks about the igge words in Dutch at the last moment” and therefore “did not see [his] way clear to acknowledge it in [Cosijn’s] name without making a heavy alteration”; Platt had apparently been asked to “alter as little as possible as [his] was the last proof out” (letter to Cosijn, 29 January 1883).
It soon turned out that Cosijn was not the only victim of Platt’s malpractice. Noted philologist Henry Sweet (see: Henry Sweet: The Man Who Taught the World Old English) warned Cosijn for Platt in a letter dated 3 February 1883:
Dear Sir, I feel it is my duty to give you some words of warning about a countryman of mine, Mr. J. Platt. He is in the habit of introducing himself to scholars as a friend of mine, extracting information from them, and then publishing it as his own without a word of acknowledgment.
Apparently, Platt had also used information from Henry Sweet and Eduard Sievers (a famous German historical linguist) without permission. Platt’s case was brought before the Philological Society and, as a consequence, Platt received (in Sweet’s words – letter to Cosijn, 19 March 1883) “a severe vote of censure” from the Council.
Ashamed and shunned by the Philological Society, Platt turned away from philological scholarship and he never seems to have informed his family about the plagiarism case. In James Platt the Younger: A Study in the Personality of a Great Scholar (), a biography of Platt written by his younger brother William, there is no mention of the plagiarism case. William simply makes reference to “a distinct lull in his philological activities” following this period in his life (10). According to William, James was hoping to take part in revising Bosworth’s dictionary, which he had criticised so severely. However, “one evening [James] abruptly announced […] that he had given up all idea of it!”. William reports that James felt “[his] health would not stand such a long concentrated effort” (11). It is not unlikely to think that Platt’s “severe vote of censure” from the Philological Society was the actual reason that prevented him from doing any further work on the dictionary. Bremmer (1991) certainly seems to think so when he decisively states that “[the vote of censure] put an end to Platt’s Anglo-Saxonist career” (xxiv).From Philology to Fiction: James Platt the Writer
The period in Platt’s life following this incident is marked by no real scholarly activity. However, he seems to have been quite occupied by various creative exercises. His brother William mentions that James “started a manuscript periodical” to which he and his brothers contributed articles and stories (W. Platt , 11). More intriguingly, Platt published a book of six horror stories called “Tales of the Supernatural” in 1894. This book has been uploaded to archive.org and may be found here. His biography mentions that the book was reviewed very favourably, with one reviewer even going as far to speak of “the advent of a writer of no common order, and one who will have to be reckoned with before long by the imaginative writers of his age” (W. Platt , 15). It would seem, then, that Platt was certainly not any stuffy old scholar!
A Triumphant Return: Platt and the Oxford English Dictionary
It would not be long before his attention returned to more scholarly pursuits. In addition to publishing articles in various journals from the early 1890s onwards, his most significant contribution to scholarship in the later part of his life is arguably the assistance that he provided to the Oxford English Dictionary (OED). Platt’s biography (W. Platt , 16-18) relates that he got in contact with Dr James Murray, the legendary founding editor of the OED, after he (in true Platt style) published a critique on the information provided in the entry for the word he. Murray was pleased with the article and Platt offered to help him with the dictionary. Starting in 1899, Platt supplied the OED with etymological information for loanwords from lesser-known languages, including those spoken in Africa, America and Asia. His decision to tackle lesser-known languages was apparently motivated by the great number of experts who were already dealing with well-known languages (W. Platt , 18) (Platt’s biography is included on the OED’s website [tip: scroll down!]).
As a Dutchman, I was pleasantly surprised to find out that Platt also contributed a number of articles to a Dutch weekly journal called Vragen en Mededeelingen [Questions and Notes] in January and early February of 1910. The journal published several of Platt’s articles (written in English) with such names as “Etymology of Toucan”, “Scottish ‘Z’ in Proper Names” and “The Pronunciation of ‘Gh’ in English”. Sadly, Platt would only be able to contribute for one month: he was just 49 years old when he died from “severe bronchial asthma” on 5 February 1910 (W. Platt , 23). Although he only contributed to Vragen en Mededeelingen for such a short period of time, he seems to have made quite an impact. The journal published a full-page obituary as the front page of the 18 February issue, in which it is stated that Platt’s death is “an irredeemable loss” (trans. from Dutch; Bense 1910, 73). Moreover, the editor writes the following concerning Platt’s qualities as a scholar: “We greatly fear that many a question will remain unanswered, because we do not believe he had an equal in terms of his knowledge of generally lesser-known languages” (trans.; Bense 1910, 73). This sentiment was apparently reflected in more than forty other obituaries in various publications, which likewise constituted “fine tributes to his scholarship” (W. Platt , 24).
It is clear, then, that James Platt’s youthful plagiarism did not permanently blemish his name. He ended up being a well-respected scholar who provided highly valued academic contributions during his, admittedly short, but fruitful life. It is hard to imagine why he is not more famous, seeing as he was praised by so many at the end of his life. I hope this blog post will in some way remedy his current obscurity.
This guest blog by my student-assistant Amos van Baalen is part of the project Pieter Jakob Cosijn’s Correspondence and Scholarly Collaboration at the End of the Nineteenth Century. On the 17th of November 2017, we are organising a conference on “Scholarly Correspondence on Medieval Germanic Language and Literature’ at Leiden University; see the call-for-papers (deadline 31st of August, 2017) for more information.
If you liked this blog post, you may also enjoy:
- Richard Morris: The Man Who Popularized Early English
- Benjamin Thorpe: The Man Who Translated Almost All Old English Texts
- Henry Sweet: The Man Who Taught the World Old English
Works referred to:
- Bense, J. F. “James Platt, jun.” Vragen en Mededeelingen. 1.1.7 (1910): 73.
- Bankert, Dabney Anderson. “T. Northcote Toller and the Making of the Supplement to the Anglo-Saxon Dictionary.” In: Textual and Material Culture in Anglo-Saxon England: Thomas Northcote Toller and the Toller Memorial Lectures, ed. Donald Scragg. Cambridge: D. S. Brewer, 2003. 301-322.
- Bremmer, Rolf H., Jr “Pieter Jakob Cosijn (1840-1899): A Dutch Anglo-Saxonist in the Late Nineteenth Century.” In: Notes on Beowulf. By Pieter Jacob Cosijn, eds. Rolf H. Bremmer Jr, Jan van den Berg and David F. Johnson. Leeds: Leeds Studies in English, 1991. xi-xxxvi.
- Platt, James, Jr. “The Bosworth-Toller Anglo-Saxon Dictionary.” Transactions of the Philological Society, 1882-4: Part 2 (1883), 237-246.
- Platt, William. James Platt the Younger: A Study in the Personality of a Great Scholar. London: Simpkin Marshall, Hamilton, Kent & Co., Ltd., .
At the end of the nineteenth century, Dutch schoolmaster G. J. P. J. Bolland studied older Germanic languages with a particular interest in Old English. He studied under Eduard Sievers in Jena, Germany, and spend close to a year in England, where he interacted with prominent scholars of Old English, such as Richard Morris and Henry Sweet. On the basis of his studies, Bolland tried to write a chronological survey of English literature for the use in Dutch class rooms. While the work would never be published, his hand-written drafts are of interest, since they may contain one of the earliest student summaries of Beowulf…
Bolland and Beowulf: Inglorious youths
When Beowulf returns home to Geatland and is rewarded for his deeds in Denmark, the Anglo-Saxon poet remarks the following about his hero’s inglorious youth:
Hean wæs lange,
swa hyne Geata bearn godne ne tealdon,
ne hyne on medo-bence micles wyrðne
dryhten Wedera gedon wolde;
swyðe wendon þæt he sleac wære,
[For a long time he (Beowulf) had been lowly, as the sons of the Geats had not thought him good, nor had the lord of the Weders cared to put him in possession of much on the mead-bench; they had rather thought that he was shiftless, a slack lordling.] (Beowulf, ll. 2183b-2188a, ed. and trans. Fulk 2010)
The younger years of G. J. P. J. Bolland (9 June, 1854 – 11 February, 1922) were equally devoid of promise. Born to a family of peddlers in Groningen, Bolland lost his father at a young age, which forced his mother to make a living as a prostitute. As a boy of 14 or 15 years old and having enjoyed little education, he joined the army in 1868. Bolland proved to be a problematic recruit: he was convicted for cursing and foul language on several occasions, as well as for singing illicit songs. In May 1872, he spent half a month in jail, because he had sold his underpants and lied about this to his commanding officer. In January the next year, he physically assaulted a high-ranking sergeant and was convicted for insubordination: the Groningen-born Bolland would spend the next three years in a Leiden jail-house.
His jail-time in Leiden proved to be a turn-around in Bolland’s life: he began reading books and, following his release from prison, studied hard to become a teacher. As a schoolmaster, first in Groningen, then in Katwijk, Bolland became interested in the study of older languages (Gothic, Old English, Old High German) – his Katwijk students called him ‘Meester Sanskretans’, because he would occassionally teach them about Sanskrit!
Bolland got acquainted with P. J. Cosijn (1840-1899), Professor of Germanic philology at Leiden University and a specialist in the field of Old English. Under Cosijn’s guidance (as well as his financial support), Bolland continued his studies of Old English. He spent close to a year in London and a brief period in Jena, Germany, developing his expertise. Bolland showed great promise as a Germanic philologist, but a series of events led to his departure for Batavia, where he became a teacher once more. Upon his return to The Netherlands in 1896, Bolland was made a professor of Philosophy at Leiden University and he would never return to the study of Old Germanic languages. For the next twenty-five years, Bolland would be one of Holland’s most prominent and influential philosophers (the standard biography of Bolland is Otterspeer 1995). Quite a reversal of fortunes! Or, in the words of the Beowulf poet:
tir-eadigum menn torna gehwylces
[A reversal of fortune for all his troubles came to the man blessed with glory.] (Beowulf, ll. 2188b-2189, ed. and trans. Fulk 2010)
Bolland and Moritz Heyne’s Beovulf
Despite being an autodidact student and the absence of Dutch translations of Beowulf (the first one appeared in 1896), Bolland was a serious and highly critical reader of the Old English poem. He owned several editions of Beowulf, which included those by Alfred Holder (1882-1884) and Benjamin Thorpe (2nd edn., 1875); of the latter he wrote to Cosijn “I will show you that I have every reason to despise Thorpe’s horrible edition of Beowulf“, pointing out several of misprints in the Old English text. Bolland’s Beowulf edition of choice appears to have been the one by Moritz Heyne, Beovulf: Angelsächsisches Heldengedicht (3d imprint, 1873), which according to Niles (2015) “was long admired as the most authoritative edition of Beowulf” (p. 245).
Bolland’s own copy was donated to the University Library of Leiden and features ample hand-written notes in Bolland’s hand (see image below). These notes reveal that Bolland added Dutch glosses to many of the words, grammatical analyses (providing case and number for nouns, etc.) as well as interpretations (noting, for instance, that “se fróda fäder Óhteres” [Beowulf, l. 2929] referred to Ongentheow). He was also able to add five corrigenda to Moritz’s list of “bemerkte Druckfehler im Texte” [noticed printing-errors in the text], probably on the basis of other editions. A thoughtful and diligent reader, indeed!
“A conspicuous specimen of Anglosaxon poetry”: Beowulf in Bolland’s ‘Early English Literature’
Upon returning from his studies in London in 1880, Bolland wrote to a friend about the possibilities of publishing “A short Chronological List of English Literature, with analyses and explanatory notes, being intended as a help for the memory of all who teach or study English literature”. Regrettably for Bolland, this late nineteenth-century version of SparkNotes was never published. Two hand-written drafts related to this work have survived, however, and are currently held at Leiden University Library.
The first draft is found in a little student notebook with the title ‘Early English Literature’. In this notebook, two essays, on Old English Literature and Transitional English [Middle English], precede a brief survey entitled “Landmarks for a chronological survey of Literature in North-America”; lists of English expressions and proverbs; and a chronological overview of Arthurian literature. The essay on Old English features a brief analysis of Beowulf:
A conspicuous specimen of Anglosaxon poetry is the epic poem of Beowulf, which consists of far more than three thousand lines. It is the oldest extant epic in any Germanic language and strongly tastes of ancient heathenism, in spite of a few traces of Christianity, which may be later interpolations. Its hero sails from a land of the Goths to a land of the Danes, where he frees a chief of the names of Hrôthgar from the attacks of the marshfiends Grendel and his mother, two monsters lurking in neighbouring fens and moors. In course of time Beowulf comes to be a ruler himself, and in this capacity is deadly wounded at last in a struggle with a fire-spitting dragon that had infested the environs of his residence. He is buried in great statue under a great barrow on a promontory which rises high above the sea.
This fine, brief summary of Beowulf, is followed by an evaluation of the historical value of the poem, which lies in its depiction of “actual life of ancient Germanic leaders”:
Real events have been transformed into legendary marvels in this story of old Teutonic exploits, but the actual life of ancient Germanic leaders is vividly painted. We read of feasts in the mead-hall, of the leader and his hearth-sharers, of their customs and manners, and of rude beginnings of a courtly ceremony. There is much boastful talk and reliance upon strength of hand in the poem, and a practical spirit of adventure that seeks peril as a commercial speculation. For the hero is undisguisedly a tradesman in his sword.
Following Daniel Haigh (1819-1879) (for which, see Shippey & Haarder 1998, pp. 315-317), Bolland then situates the scenery of Beowulf in Yorkshire:
The original scene of the story was probable a corner of the isle of Saeland opposite to Gothland, but though England is never mentioned it seems that the scenery for its existing English shape as taken from the coast of Yorkshire, between Whitby and Bowlby Cliff.
Next, Bolland rounds up his analysis with a few words about the Beowulf manuscript (London, British Library, Cotton Vitellius A.xv):
The manuscript in which the poem has been preserved belongs to the Cottonian library in the British Museum and is held to have been written in the tenth century. It has been much damaged in course of time and shows many gaps; especially the 32d, the 33d, and the 44th or last canto have come down to us in a fragmentary state.
Bolland, obviously, had nothing new to add to the scholarship of Beowulf, but it is interesting to see that he gave the poem such a prominent place in his survey – the analysis of Beowulf precedes his discussion of Caedmon, for instance.
Bolland’s summary of Beowulf in A short Chronological List of English Literature (1880)
Bolland’s hand-written version of A short Chronological List of English Literature (1880) expands over 400 pages and features a chronological list of landmark publications, interspersed with summaries of well-known works, such as Milton’s Paradise Lost, Spencer’s Faerie Queene and Thomas More’s Utopia. For the Anglo-Saxon period, Bolland dwells at length on Beowulf, providing a 5-page summary. I provide his full text below (with added white lines for legibility):
Hrôdhgâr, a Danish King and descendant of Scild Scefing, the mighty warrior, causes a grand hall to be built, to which he gives the name of Heorot. This hall is soon made a scene of slaugter by the mighty attacks of Grendel, a fiendish being, that lives in gloomy marshes and carries off at one time no less than thirty thanes, whom he devours in his retreat. These dreadful visitations continue for a period of twelve years. Intelligence of this calamity having reached Bêowulf, the valiant son of Ecgthêow and a nephew to Hygelâc the King of the Geats, he sets out to rid the Danes of the monster. In company with fifteen other warriors he sails from home. When reaching Hrôdhgâr’s realm he is desired by an outpost standing on the extreme point of the land to give his name and tell the reason of his coming. After a parley Bêowulf and his companions are brought before Hrôdhgâr, who recapitulates all that he has suffered from Grendel; all then sit down to drink. During their potations Hunferth, a quarrelsome and envious courtier, taunts Bêowulf on the subject of a swimming match between the latter and Breca, prince of the Brontings. Bêowulf however retorts effectually and related the perils he underwent at the bottom of the sea in his struggles with the nickers. Wealhthêow, Hrôdhgâr’s queen, then stepping in, presents the mead-cup to the guests; after a while she and her consort retire to rest, leaving Bêowulf & his companions in the hall.
Whilst the other warriors are snoring Bêowulf awaits the coming of Grendel. At last the latter suddenly appears and gets hold of a sleeping warrior whom he devours. He then is caught by Bêowulf, whose companions run to his assistance; but they find that the monster’s carcass is proof against their weapons. Bêowulf, however, grasps him & tears his arm from his shoulder; so mutilated Grendel succedes in escaping to his fen-dwelling. All the people are eager to behold Grendel’s hand & arm; the praises of Bêowulf are sung and one of the King’s thanes recites the heroic deeds of Sigemund Waelsing & Fitela his son & nephew. After this a horse race is held. Heorot is restored to its former splendour and at a great feast Bêowulf & his companions are munificently rewarded for their services. A glee-man having sung some heroic deeds Bêowulf is presented with a rich dress & golden collar.
When the warriors have betaken themselves to sleep Grendel’s mother, bent on vengeance for her dead son, enters the hall; the warriors rousing themselves she hastens back, not however without taking with her Aeschere, an old friend of Hrôdghâr’s. When hearing of this new disaster Beowulf courageously resolves to attack the monsters in their own retreat, and accompanied by Hrôdhgâr he sets out on an exploring expedition towards the marshes. On their way they find Aesc-here’s head lying on the bank of a lake. Notwithstanding its horrid aspect and the monstrous beings it contains, Bêowulf makes up his mind for a descent, armed as he is with a famous sword named Hrunting, lent him by Hunferth. Having plunged into the water he encounters Grendel’s mother, and an awful struggle ensues. After an anxious suspense Hrodhgâr sees the brave Gêat reappear a victor, with Grendel’s head for a trophy, which is borne before Bêowulf in triumph. Bêowulf presents Hrôdhgâr with the hilt of a magic sword found by him in the sub-marine cave; the blade of this goodly weapon melted away when he slew the witch, through the heat and venom of her blood. The monsters now being destroyed once for all, the Danish King & Beowulf take leave of each other. Richly endowed with presents Bêowulf and his warriors return home. They find a welcome reception, and Bêowulf relates his story to Hygelâc, his kinsman.
By a series of subsequent events Bêowulf becomes the successor on the throne of the Gêats; in the latter part of his reign a dragon begins to sorely invest the neighbourhood of the residence. This monster is the keeper of a treasure hid in a mound and laid down there by some prince in by-gone days. He has been enraged by the theft committed by a subject of Bêo-wulf’s, who, having to meet the demands of his master, has ventured in his despair to invade the spell-bound cave. The dragon begins to vomit forth glowing embers and devastates the whole neighborhood. If the dreadful foe is not to lay waste every particle of land the old king must make an effort to overcome him. Bêowulf accordingly prepares for the conflict. In the ensuing struggle the old hero is reduced to great straits; valiantly the noble Wiglaf, his kinsman comes to his help, notwithstanding the cowardice of the followers of the King, who seized by a panic, have fled to a wood.
The fight continues; Bêowulf’s sword, Naegling, snaps asunder and the dragon clutches the aged hero in his talons. Wiglâf having wounded the dragon, Bêowulf draws his knife with which he puts an end to the struggle by cutting the monster through the middle. But though a victor now he feels his own death too to be at hand, the dragon having infused his venom into his veins. Sitting on a stone he bids Wiglâf go and bring the treasure from the cave, that, having looked at it, he may die in peace. Coming back from this mission Wiglâf finds his lord dying; and Bêowulf breathes his last after having given his faithful kinsman his directions for the funeral. Bitterly are the king’s men reproached by Wiglaf having left their prince in the lurch at the time of his need, after having received so many favors at his hands. The funeral pile is constructed according to the wishes of the dying king, and a mound is erected in Hrones-naes as a token of remembrance, that the sailors who will afterwards pass by it, call it Bêowulf’s mount.
His incorrect notion that the dragon clutches Beowulf in its talons and infuses him with its venom notwithstanding (the dragon fatally bites Beowulf in the neck), Bolland provides an accurate and fairly detailed summary of Beowulf. The text holds few surprises for readers who are familiar with the poem, but it is as useful today as it would have been in the 1880s. Bolland’s interesting use of slightly archaic and highly idiomatic English is noteworthy – not bad for a Dutch autodidact student, who spent the first twenty-five years of his life in the gutter of Groningen and a Leiden jailhouse!
This is the third in a series of blogs related to my research project “My former Germanicist me”: G. J. P. J. Bolland (1854-1922) as an Amateur Old Germanicist , which explores how a Dutch student at the end of the nineteenth century tried to master Old English. Other blog posts include:
- Henry Sweet: The Man Who Taught the World Old English
- Benjamin Thorpe: The Man Who Translated Almost All Old English Texts
Works referred to:
- R. D. Fulk, ed. and trans., The Beowulf Manuscript. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2010.
- John D. Niles, The Idea of Anglo-Saxon England 1066-1901: Remembering, Forgetting, Deciphering, and Renewing the Past, Malden: Wiley-Blackwell, 2015.
- Willem Otterspeer, Bolland: Een biografie, Amsterdam: Bert Bakker, 1995.
- T. A. Shippey and Andreas Haarder, Beowulf: The Critical Heritage, London: Routledge, 1998.
Henry Sweet (1845-1912) was a remarkable scholar who laid some of the foundations for the academic study of Old English. This blog provides an overview of Sweet’s publications with respect to Old English and Anglo-Saxon texts. It also relates how a nineteenth-century Dutch student of Old English felt utterly insulted by Sweet, who had ignored him despite his pointing out several mistakes in Sweet’s published work.
Henry Sweet (1845-1912): A formidable scholar with an abrasive personality
Henry Sweet is known as one of the founding fathers of the scholarly study of Old English: a reputation he owes to his highly popular textbooks of Old English: The Anglo-Saxon Reader and The Anglo-Saxon Primer. Even today, many students of Old English will own one or more of Sweet’s works (his Primer and Reader remained classroom texts for at least a century after their publication and can be bought for a penny in most second-hand book stores). Sweet himself probably got his first grounding in Old English from T. O. Cockayne (1809-1873), a teacher at King’s College School, London, which Sweet attended from 1861 to 1863. Sweet later studied comparative and Germanic philology at the University of Heidelberg, Germany, and read classics in Baliol College Oxford, where he got a fourth-class BA degree in 1873. This rather mediocre degree was likely due to his energetic study of the Germanic languages, which he favoured over the study of Latin and Greek. Indeed, by the time he graduated, he had already published an edition of the Old English translation of Gregory’s Pastoral Care (1871-1872) and had begun work on a dictionary of Old English (which would eventually be published in 1896). Sweet had also read several papers to the Philological Society, which he would serve as its president from 1876-1878. Thus, while Sweet failed to impress as a classicist, he became a remarkable specialist in the field of comparative linguistics, phonetics and the study of Old English (MacMahon 2004).
Henry Sweet was more respected abroad than he was in England. Despite his impressive list of publications, he had to wait until 1901, when, aged fifty-five, he was offered a position at a university: the readership of phonetics at the University of Oxford. By contrast, as MacMahon (2004) outlines, institutions outside of Britain were more appreciative of Sweet: he was awarded an honorary PhD degree in 1875 by the University of Heidelberg and he was made a member of various academic societies abroad, including the Munich Academy of Sciences, the Royal Prussian Academy of Sciences, the Royal Danish Academy and the International Phonetic Association (which he served as its president from 1887 to his death). He had also been offered various university chairs on the Continent, where the study of Old English and comparative philology was much more advanced than in Britain. Sweet had declined those offers, because he felt he had a mission back home.
Sweet’s mission was the promotion and establishment of the scientific study of linguistics, particularly Old English, in England. In this field of inquiry, continental scholars outshone the English; a fact Sweet himself often lamented. He voiced his concerns in the prefaces to his publications and in personal correspondence. An example of the latter is the following excerpt of a letter by Sweet to P. J. Cosijn (1841-1899), Professor of Germanic Philology at the University of Leiden, The Netherlands:
Sweet’s crusade to turn the academic tide was partially fuelled by his patriotism. As Frantzen (1990) has observed, Sweet “saw language study as a matter of national pride” (p 72). Sweet’s endeavours resulted in various didactic works, suitable for a whole range of students of Old English – from dummies to experts, Sweet’s works catered to all (see below).
With the quality of his scholarship beyond any doubt, one of the reasons why Sweet never managed to land a university teaching job may have been his abrasive character. As Niles (2015) puts it, “Sweet was a man with a sharp tongue who was not known for living up to the promise of his name” (p. 249). MacMahon (2004) also notes how “Sweet’s personality was partly to blame for his lack of success in Britain”. Interestingly, some of his nasty traits were immortalised by the playwright George Bernard Shaw who based the character Professor Higgins in Pygmalion (1912; better known, perhaps, as its musical adaptation My fair lady) on Henry Sweet. At the end of this blog post, we will see that Sweet also wasn’t very kind to a Dutch student who desperately wanted to get acquainted with the “gentleman from Baliol College Oxford”.
Publications relating to Old English
Thanks to the Internet Archive, most of Sweet’s publications with regard to Anglo-Saxon texts and the Old English language are now freely available. Below follows a chronological overview of his works (I have limited my selection to works touching on Old English; Sweet also published works on Middle English, Icelandic and general linguistics):
- King Alfred’s West-Saxon Version of Gregory’s Pastoral Care: With an English Translation, the Latin Text, Notes, and an Introduction (1871-1872): An edition and translation of the Old English translation of the Gregory the Great’s Cura Pastoralis. Still the standard edition of this text.
- An Anglo-Saxon Reader in Prose and Verse: With Grammatical Introduction, Notes, and Glossary (1876). A second, revised and enlarged edition (1879); a third, revised and enlarged edition (1881); a fourth, revised and enlarged edition (1884). The text of the fourth edition was retained without further alterations through to the sixth edition (1888). The seventh edition (1894) was partially re-written and enlarged. This seventh edition remained the definitive text, until, in 1967, Dorothy Whitelock revised the fifteenth edition of Sweet’s Reader.
- An Anglo-Saxon Primer, with Grammar, Notes, and Glossary (1882). A second edition, with minor corrections, was published in the same year. A third edition with many improvements appeared in 1886. The text remained the same for the fourth edition (1887), through to the sixth edition (1890), seventh edition (1893) and eighth edition (1905). In 1953, Norman Davis revised the ninth edition of Sweet’s Primer.
- The Épinal Glossary, Latin and Old-English (1883). An edition of the late seventh-century glossary, along with a photo-lithograph facsimile of the manuscript. Unfortunately, this edition has not been digitized by the Internet Archive. Those interested in the Épinal glossary are in luck, since the manuscript itself has been made available and can be accessed here, along with a transcription.
- King Alfred’s Orosius. Part 1: Old-English Text and Latin Original (1883): An edition of the Old English translation of Orosius’s Historiae adversus paganos, along with the Latin source text. No modern English translation or glossary is provided.
- Extracts from Alfred’s Orosius (1885): Extracts from the 1883 edition of the same work, with limited glossary. Published as a supplement to his Anglo-Saxon Reader. A second edition appeared in 1893.
- Selected Homilies of Ælfric (1885). Extracts from Benjamin Thorpe’s edition of Ælfric’s Catholic Homilies, with limited glossary. Published as a supplement to his Anglo-Saxon Reader. A second edition, with some additions to the glossary, appeared in 1922.
- The Oldest English Texts (1885). According to the preface, this edition was “intended to include all the extant Old-English texts up to about 900 that are preserved in contemporary mss., with the exception of the Chronicle and the works of Alfred”. Edition includes glossaries, genealogies, charters and glosses. No translation is provided, but there is a full glossary.
- A Second Anglo-Saxon Reader: Archaic and Dialectical (1887). Another supplement to Sweet’s Anglo-Saxon Reader, featuring a selection of non-West Saxon texts and older material (e.g. glossaries and charters). In part, this is an abridged version of his Oldest English Texts.
- The Student’s Dictionary of Anglo-Saxon (1896). An abridgement of the Bosworth-Toller Anglo-Saxon Dictionary (which has now been digitized here: http://www.bosworthtoller.com/ ) .
- First Steps in Anglo-Saxon (1897): A short, simplified beginner’s guide to Old English with texts and glossary. Texts include Ælfric’s Colloquy and a prose paraphrase of Beowulf in Old English, by Sweet himself.
- Collected Papers of Henry Sweet (1913). A posthumous collection of Sweet’s shorter writings, arranged by Henry C. Wyld. The collection includes various notes on Old English sounds and etymologies. An interesting piece is Sweet’s earliest paper: ‘The History of TH in English’ (1869), with an amusing afterword by Sweet’s former teacher T. O. Cockayne (1809-1873), which is interspersed with þ’s and ð’s – the Old English symbols for TH.
A glance at Sweet’s publications reveals that a good portion of his publications were intended for students of Old English. A remarkable feat, given that Sweet never really held a teaching job. Indeed, the fact that he had no students to teach actually made it hard for Sweet to improve his didactic works, as he himself lamented in the preface to third edition of the Anglo-Saxon Primer:
If I had any opportunity of teaching the language, I should no doubt have been able to introduce many other improvements; as it is I have had to rely mainly on the suggestions and corrections kindly sent to me by various teachers and students who have used this book, among whom my special thanks are due to the Rev. W. F. Moulton, of Cambridge, and Mr. C. Stoffel, of Amsterdam.
Here, Sweet sounds appreciative of the corrections he had received. Not every reader’s suggestion was greeted with such grace, however, as the case of Dutch schoolmaster and autodidact student of Old English G.J.P.J. Bolland (1852-1922) reveals…
“A schoolmaster need not expect deference from a gentleman of Baliol College Oxford”: How Henry Sweet ignored and insulted a helpful, nineteenth-century Dutch student
At the end of the nineteenth century, the Dutch schoolmaster G. J. P. J. Bolland (1852-1922) had decided to devote himself to the study of Germanic languages, focusing on Old English in particular. Thanks to a grant of sorts, Bolland had been able to spend a few months in London, where he trained himself in the academic study of Old English. Naturally, he had read some of Sweet’s publications and even had some suggestions for improvement. As it turns out, Sweet did not want to meet with Bolland, who, being utterly insulted, turned to his mentor, Professor of Germanic Philology in Leiden, P. J. Cosijn. Bolland wrote to Cosijn on October 10, 1879:
..our [Dutch] linguists seem less condescending than the English half-thinkers appear to me. It is with emphasis and without flattery, that I wouldn’t dare to compare you as a Germanicist to H. Sweet; even if that gentleman were the editor of the Pastoral Care [the Old English translation of Gregory’s Cura Pastoralis] a thousand times over! And still, you refer me to his work on phonetics as being authoritative?
Bolland then lists a number of errors he had found in Henry Sweet’s A History of English Sounds from the Earliest Period (1874), a ground-breaking work in historical English phonology. Bolland’s errors include Sweet’s suggestion that Modern English mate came from Old English gemaca ‘companion’ (while Sweet’s suggestion makes sense semantically, the change from /t/ to /k/ is unlikely; indeed, the OED notes that English mate is a borrowing from Middle Low German mát, while gemaca still survives today in Scottish and regional English usage as make ‘partner, spouse’. In other words, Bolland was right: mate and gemaca are not related). Another one of Bolland’s faults with Sweet was the latter’s assumption that the Anglo-Saxon name Offa was a Germanicized form of the name Aba (there is no evidence for this, whatsoever). Bolland’s other remarks concern the phonological status of the sound eaa in Old English (which Bolland considered doubtful) and Sweet’s apparent ignorance that Old English dǽl ‘part’ was an i-stem (which Bolland thought was deplorable). A harsh review, indeed!
Bolland explains to Cosijn that he had asked for a meeting with Sweet, but that the latter had never returned his calls:
Having expressed my desire to get acquainted with him some time before, but having received no answer, I have, thinking no evil of this, written to him again, pointing to one thing and another which I have written about above…but that Sir did not deign to give me an answer. I am awfully sorry, but it seems a schoolmaster [Bolland had worked as a school master in Katwijk, The Netherlands, the year before] need not expect deference from a gentleman of Baliol College Oxford.
His grievance concerning the fact that Sweet had not taken the time to meet with him appears to have lingered with Bolland. This much becomes clear from a letter written by Cosijn to Bolland, a year later (24 August, 1880). It seems Bolland had managed to get acquainted with Richard Morris (1833-1894), another English philologist; the two had compared notes on Sweet’s behaviour and Bolland had shared this again with Cosijn. Cosijn wrote:
Morris’s judgement concerning Sweet appears to me to be sound. I have not heard from Sweet for a long time, even though I urged for a speedy reply. But Sweet appears to be ‘this’ today and ‘that’ again, tomorrow.
In the end, Henry Sweet never met with G. J. P. J. Bolland, much to the latter’s chagrin. Perhaps Bolland eventually found some solace in the fact that Sweet’s revised second edition of A History of English Sounds, published in 1888, no longer featured any of the errors pointed out by Bolland:
Perhaps, Sweet had read Bolland’s letter after all?
This is the second in a series of blogs related to my research project “My former Germanicist me”: G. J. P. J. Bolland (1854-1922) as an Amateur Old Germanicist , which explores how a Dutch student at the end of the nineteenth century tried to master Old English. The first one can be found here: Benjamin Thorpe: The Man Who Translated Almost All Old English Texts
Texts referred to:
- Frantzen, Allen J. The Desire for Origins. New Language, Old English, and Teaching the Tradition, New Brunswick and London: Rutgers University Press, 1990.
- Niles, John D. The Idea of Anglo-Saxon England 1066-1901: Remembering, Forgetting, Deciphering, and Renewing the Past, Malden: Wiley-Blackwell, 2015.
- MacMahon, M. K. C. ‘Sweet, Henry (1845–1912)’, Oxford Dictionary of National Biography, Oxford University Press, 2004; online edn, Oct 2006 [http://www.oxforddnb.com/view/article/36385, accessed 29 May 2016]