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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.



Anglo-Saxonist, Plagiarist and Polyglot: James Platt Jr (1861-1910)

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


Letter by James Platt Jr to Pieter Jacob Cosijn (6-12-1882) © Leiden University Library, Special Collections

“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:


List of missing words (Platt 1882-1884, 241-242)

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:



Letter by Henry Sweet to Pieter Jacob Cosijn (03-02-1883) © Leiden University Library, Special Collections

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 ([1910]), 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).


Platt, William. James Platt the Younger: A Study in the Personality of a Great Scholar. London: Simpkin Marshall, Hamilton, Kent & Co., Ltd., [1910].

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 [1910], 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 [1910], 15). It would seem, then, that Platt was certainly not any stuffy old scholar!


James Platt Jr, Tales of the Supernatural. Six Romantic Stories (London, 1894)

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 [1910], 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 [1910], 18) (Platt’s biography is included on the OED’s website [tip: scroll down!]).


James Platt Jr (1861-1910) and James Murray (1837-1915)

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 [1910], 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 [1910], 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:


Pieter Jacob Cosijn; James Platt Jr; Henry Sweet

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., [1910].