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Richard Morris: The Man Who Popularized Early English

Richard Morris (1833-1894) was a remarkable scholar who laid some of the foundations for the academic study of Old and Middle English. This blog provides an overview of Morris’s publications with respect to Old English and Middle English texts. It also relates how Morris’s edition of some Old English homilies became the object of mockery in the correspondence of a nineteenth-century  student of Old English and his professor.

Richard Morris (1833-1898): One of the founding fathers of Early English and Pali philology

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Having failed to find a photograph of Richard Morris, here are two of his close associates: Frederick Furnivall and Walter Skeat. Judging by this circumstantial evidence, we may assume that Richard Morris had a beard.

Rev. Richard Morris, born in 1833 in Wales, was a self-taught schoolmaster and priest with a great interest in both Early English texts of the Middle Ages and the sacred language of Buddhism, Pali. An eclectic scholar? Not quite.

Richard Morris was one of the greatest nineteenth-century scholars in the field of Comparative Philology (a branch of historical linguistics that compares languages in order to establish their historical relatedness). He was member of various scholarly societies that promoted the study of Old English and Middle English, including the Chaucer Society, the Early English Text Society and the Philological Society. For the last society, he served as President and vice-president for several years. Richard Morris is best remembered as an editor of medieval texts: his editions of texts in Old English and Middle English amount to a staggering number of thirty-one volumes! Below, I provide links to all his books, now freely available on the internet.

First and foremost, Morris was a teacher and some of his most popular publications were of a didactic nature.  His interest in teaching already underlied his first publication: at the age of only 24, Morris published an overview of the etymological origins of English place names, hoping “to supply teachers with the chief root or key-words which are necessary for the explanation of local names in England” (The Etymology of Local Names, p. 13). He also produced an English grammar (the first to approach teaching English grammar from a historical perspective) and various student editions of medieval English texts.

Morris’s career took a radical turn when he exchanged Early English for Pali, the sacred language of Buddhism. From the 1880s onwards, he produced four text editions for the Pali Text Society, including the The Puggala-paññatti. His interest in Pali was due to its historical relationship to Sanskrit. More and more philologists were finding their way to Pali, as Morris had himself noted in his in the fourth presidential address to the Philological Society:

Of late years Sanskrit scholars have been turning their attention to Pali, Prakrit, and the modern dialects of India; and their value to general philology cannot be over-rated. Pali bears very much the same relation to later Sanskrit that Early English does to Old English.

With his text editions, Richard Morris paved the way for the professional study of both Early English and Pali – a combination which, judging by his own words, may not be so strange after all.

Edition, edition, edition: From a cookery poem to the Cursor Mundi

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Richard Morris’s edition of Legends of the Holy Rood (1871), with an illustration of St. Cyriac by art professor Henry Philip Delamotte on the basis of the Vernon Manuscript – did he base Cyriac’s facial features on Morris? Perhaps, there is no beard though!

Thanks to the Internet Archive, most of Morris’s publications with regard to Early English  are now freely available. Below follows a chronological overview of his works (I have limited my selection to works touching on Early English; Morris also published an edition of the collected works of Edmund Spencer and editions of four texts in Pali):

Pieter Jacob Cosijn (1840-1899) on Richard Morris: A good person, perhaps, but a bad musician

In a letter to one of his students (dated 9 August, 1880), the Dutchman Pieter Jacob Cosijn (Professor of Germanic Philology and Anglo-Saxon at the University of Leiden) wrote a damning review of Morris’s edition of the Blickling homilies:

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Letter by P. J. Cosijn to G. J. P. J. Bolland (BOLLAND ARCHIVE, UB LEIDEN)

In the meantime, I have worked through the B[lickling] Homilies and discovered that the rev. R. Morris might be a good person but he certainly is a “bad musician”. His edition is diplomatically faithful, but that is about all there is to say. His translation, however, is regrettably free and he does not know Anglo-Saxon.

Cosijn then provided some specific examples, such as Morris’s translation of “risende wulf” as “rising wolf” [Cosijn, correctly, notes it must mean “devouring wolf”]. The second volume of Morris’s edition was the worst, according to Cosijn, who complained that he occasionally spent an hour trying to make sense of the errors:

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Letter by P.J. Cosijn to G.J.P.J. Bolland (Bolland Archive, UB Leiden)

The second volume gets só bad near the middle, that I would occasionally spend an hour on just one page. I will see whether I can clean these Augean stables, but that remains to be seen. One single manuscript is always rather difficult.

Cosijn’s comparison of the editing of the Blickling Homilies to the Herculean task of cleaning out the Augean stables is an interesting one. A more recent attempt at re-editing the manuscript by Richard Kelly (2003-2009) was not received well (see the reviews listed on this Wikipedia site) and Morris’s edition still remains the standard edition. Editing the text of this manuscript, it seems, is indeed a daunting task. A glance at the manuscript itself may explain why: it is filled with distractingly brilliant sketches in the margins:

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Distracting margins of the Blickling Homilies. © Princeton, Princeton University Library, W. H. Scheide Collection, MS 71, ff. 21r, 22r.

Eventually, Cosijn seems to have changed his opinion about Morris. On 24 August 1880,Cosijn wrote another letter, in a much milder tone, to his student G.J.P.J. Bolland, who had gotten acquainted with Morris:  “I was very pleased to learn that you have met mister Morris. He is an intelligent man, who has edited and translated the Blickling Homilies very well”. Quite a turn-around!

Cosijn also regretted the fact that Morris, like many other English scholars, did not fully devote himself to Old English, unlike the Germans and, perhaps, the Dutch:

It is regrettable that he does not completely devote himself to Anglo-Saxon. The English appear to leave that to the Germans. But we Dutchmen shall show that we are there too, won’t we, young iron-eater?

Indeed, Cosijn’s student (G. J. P. J. Bolland) was on his way to become a decent Anglo-Saxonist, until fate decided otherwise, as you can read here: “A conspicuous specimen of Anglosaxon poetry”: A student summary of Beowulf from 1880

This is the fourth 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:

 

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