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Fighting Philologists: A Diffused Dispute between Eduard Sievers and Pieter Jacob Cosijn

Eduard Sievers (1850 – 1932) and Pieter Jacob Cosijn (1840 -1899) were both scholars in the field of Old English Philology. While the former is still well-known today (Sievers laid the foundation for the study of Old English metre and his ‘five types’ of Old English poetic verse lines are still taught in every Old English class room), the latter has become somewhat obscure. The two scholars were acquainted with one another and maintained a fruitful correspondence. In this guest blog, my student-assistant Jodie Mann uncovers some aspects of their relationship, including a potential falling out between the two.   

Cosijn and Sievers: A tale of two scholars

On the face of it, the friendship between Eduard Sievers and Pieter Jacob Cosijn seems unsurprising. Both were professors in their respective fields of research – Cosijn of Germanic and Anglo-Saxon Philology at Leiden and Sievers of Germanic and Romance Philology in Jena, Tübingen, Halle and Leipzig – and both were respected scholars in the field of Germanic studies. Indeed, Barend Symons (1853-1935) stated in Cosijn’s obituary that Cosijn’s name should be added to the list of most important Anglo-Saxon scholars, along with that of Sievers (Symons, 1900:23). However, a closer look at the letters between these two men reveals a friendship that may have been viewed as something of an odd pairing to those who knew them well.

Sievers and Cosijn

Eduard Sievers and Pieter Jacob Cosijn

Both men were prolific letter writers, but this is hardly surprising given the times in which they lived. Most scholars of the day kept up an inspiring and impressive number of correspondents. Of course, this was the only method available that allowed them to collaborate with each other on papers, receive peer feedback on their work, and check to see they weren’t reinventing the wheel by doing something that someone else had already done. Without international bibliographical databases, barring library catalogues, scholars had to rely on correspondence heavily. Furthermore, due to the innovation in railways and the spread of a rail network across Europe in the latter half of the nineteenth century, it was much easier and faster to send letters. As evidenced by the series of letters I will be examining in this article, it was quite easy for a letter to reach Leipzig from Leiden within twenty-four hours.

However, these scholarly relationships were not without certain pitfalls. In this case, Cosijn was something of an outsider when compared with the superstar Junggrammatiker (a highly influential group of linguists, based in Germany). Cosijn came from humble beginnings and was a gifted pupil at school, but he was never formally trained as a historical grammarian. Indeed, as a result of skipping a year at school (a fact he later regretted, according to Symons), he had only a fraction of the usual training in Greek and Latin. But his passion was historical grammar, and thus he taught himself. He eventually became an accomplished Germanicist in his own right, having instructed himself in Gothic, Old English, Old Norse, Old High German and a number of the modern Germanic tongues and their dialects (Cook, 1901:389).

Enter Eduard Sievers, a celebrity of the German circle of scholars and lauded for his work as a Junggrammatiker. He too came from humble beginnings but had the good fortune to have his talents recognised by a wealthy patron. He also attended the Gymnasium, but where Cosijn skipped a year, Sievers’ schooling was more complete and, with further help, he was able to enter the University of Leipzig in 1867 to study classical and German philology (Pope, 1998:177). Thus, his training was entirely formal. His time as a student at Leipzig also brought him into contact with Wilhelm Braune (1850-1926) and Hermann Paul (1846-1921). This was fortuitous as it linked Sievers with the Junggrammatiker group and allowed him to become contributor and twice editor-in-chief of the Beiträge zur Geschichte der deutschen Sprache (Pope, 1998:179).

A Harsh Critic: Cosijn’s Style of Peer Reviewing


Herman Paul, Wilhelm Braune and Richard Paul Wülcker

In addition to Braune and Paul, Sievers was also a colleague of Richard Paul Wülcker (also spelled Wülker; 1845-1910), another German Anglo-Saxonist and co-founder of the journal Anglia in 1877. And it is here that we find a curious incident regarding Cosijn, Wülcker and Braune, which is discussed in a short series of letters between Cosijn and Sievers between 27 June 1894 and 30 June 1894. What follows is a prime example of how scholarly disputes could be either managed or mismanaged and is a testament to the different characters of both Cosijn and Sievers.

Cosijn and Sievers had enjoyed a long relationship of correspondence since the mid 1870’s (according to the records in the Leiden University Library) but in June of 1894, Cosijn writes to Sievers with something of a chip on his shoulder regarding Sievers’ colleague Wülcker. He begins by explaining that he had recently written a criticism of Wülcker’s latest volume of Grein’s Bibliothek der angelsächsischen Poesie. Cosijn found the volume unoriginal and had hoped for something more critical. Needless to say, Cosijn’s review pulls no punches and he is entirely unapologetic about this. According to Symons, this was par for the course with Cosijn and he had ruffled many a scholarly feather during his career. In Cosijn’s opinion:

… der text ist ur-schlecht, ur-dumm, und noch etwas mit ur, wenn es nur elend bedeutet.

[… the text is very bad, very stupid, and something else with ‘very’ if it means just miserable.]

He goes on to say that Wülcker is ‘smug’ and ‘stupid’ and that he cannot believe that such an ‘idiot’ is still allowed to walk the halls of Leipzig University! Strong words indeed! But what brought this all on? The answer may be found in Cosijn’s difficulty in getting a certain work published.

A Case of Mistaken Theft

Of Cosijn’s publications, his Altwestsächsische Grammatik is the only major work of grammar on a Germanic language that he was able to get published; it was released in 1883. A little before this (1881-1882), Sievers had also published an Anglo-Saxon Grammar (Angelsächsische Grammatik). It seems that Cosijn was heavily influenced by this work, because ten years later, when he attempted to publish a shorter, reworked edition of his previous work (his Kurzgefasste altwestsächsische grammatik or Concise Old West-Saxon Grammar) he ran into a little trouble.


Letter from Cosijn to Sievers, dated 27 June, 1894 (Leipzig Universitt Library, NL-203-4-1-109/1)

In the same letter as his negative comments about Wülcker, Cosijn reveals that he has been accused of plagiarism by Wilhelm Braune, who has taken official action by enlisting the publisher Niemeyer to back up the claim. Not only this, but Cosijn believes that as a result of his not being part of the Wülcker ‘clique’, which includes Braune and Sievers, his work has now also been branded as ‘contraband’ by the acclaimed academic teacher Karl Luick (1865-1935; an Austrian philologist, also a fan of Sievers). However, what begins as an affronted outburst on Cosijn’s part is in fact a plea to Sievers to not believe the allegations and to continue being his friend and collaborator. He ends the letter with a heartfelt request for Sievers’ benevolence and to confirm his own visit to Sievers in the following month.

What will the Neighbouring Scholarly Circle Say?

One can only speculate as to Cosijn’s anticipation of Sievers’ reply. Sievers was prone to mood swings, bouts of hypochondria and the occasional nervous breakdown (Pope, 1998:180). As a long-time friend and collaborator, Cosijn would have known this as Sievers had previously mentioned personal matters in his letters, albeit not in great detail. But they had met in person at previous functions and on scholarly visits.

In this case, however, it seems Sievers’ mood was good and his response shows the hallmarks of a level-headed scholar who bears no ill will towards his colleagues. He responds within a day to Cosijn’s letter with a long letter and an extra note on the 28th and 29th of June assuring Cosijn that Wülcker is not to blame for the accusation at all. It turns out that Sievers had promised Niemeyer a revised edition of his own Angelsächsische Grammatik. As Cosijn had not informed Sievers of his plan to publish his Concise West-Saxon Grammar, Sievers had not been able to inform Niemeyer of this, even though he had been giving Cosijn advice on this very same publication in prior correspondence (a full edition of this correspondence will be published in 2018). Thus, Braune and Niemeyer incorrectly assumed that Cosijn was trying to steal Sievers’ thunder.


Sievers explains his surprise at Cosijn’s publication and the reason for Braune’s and Niemeyer’s accusations (Leiden University Library, Special Collections, LTK 1762: g Sievers 10).

Cosijn writes back to Sievers on 30 June 1894 thanking him for the explanations and expressing his happiness at the upcoming visit to see Sievers the following month. Thus, it seems that all ended well, thanks to the swift delivery of letters between Leiden, Leipzig and back.

Cosijn’s friendship to Sievers, despite their steady frequent correspondence, is never mentioned in the better-known obituaries of either Sievers or Cosijn. In fact, the latter’s contributions to the field of Old Germanic Philology in general and Anglo-Saxon Studies in particular remains somewhat obscure. It is my fervent hope that the forthcoming editions of Cosijn’s correspondence with such great names as Henry Sweet and Eduard Sievers will re-establish him in his rightful place as an important, if underappreciated historical Germanicist.

This guest blog by my student-assistant Jodie Mann 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”; click here for more information: https://dutchanglosaxonist.com/research-and-publications/cosijn/scholarly-correspondence/

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Works cited:

  • Cook, A. (1901). Pieter Jacob Cosijn. In Memoriam. The Journal of Germanic Philology, 3(3), 389-392. Retrieved from http://www.jstor.org/stable/27699137. Web.
  • Pope, J.C. (1998). Eduard Sievers. Medieval Scholarship: Biographical Studies on the Formation of a Discipline, Volume 2: Literature and Philology. Ed. Damico, H. Garland Publishing. New York. 177-199. Print.
  • Symons, B. (1900). Levensbericht P.J. Cosijn. Jaarboek 1900. KNAW. Amsterdam. 3-39. Retrieved from http://www.dwc.knaw.nl/DL/levensberichten/PE00004688.pdf. Web.



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