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Category Archives: P. J. Cosijn


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].



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


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


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:


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:


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:


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:


“A conspicuous specimen of Anglosaxon poetry”: A student summary of Beowulf from 1880

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,
æðeling unfrom.

[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:

                                        Edwenden cwom
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 as young schoolmaster in Katwijk, the Netherlands; Bolland as student in Jena, Germany; Bolland as professor of Philosophy at Leiden University (Bolland Archive, UB Leiden)

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!


Annotations by G. J. P. J. Bolland in Heyne’s edition of Beowulf (Bolland Archive, UB Leiden)

“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:


Pages 2-3 from G. J. P. J. Bolland’s ‘Early English Literature’ (Bolland Archive, UB Leiden)

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):


Pages 10-11 of G. J. P. J. Bolland’s A short chronological list of English literature (Bolland Archive, UB Leiden)

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:

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: The Man Who Taught the World Old English

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) (source)

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:


Letter by Henry Sweet to P. J. Cosijn (3 april 1880) © Leiden University Library

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):

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:


Excerpt from Bolland’s letter to Cosijn (10 October 1879) © Leiden University Library

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:


Corresponding passages in the 1874 and 1888 editions of Sweet’s History of English Sounds. All other errors pointed out by Bolland also no longer occur in the 1888 edition.

Perhaps, Sweet had read Bolland’s letter after all?


G. J. P. J. Bolland and Henry Sweet. If they had met, they could have discussed their matching moustaches!

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]


Benjamin Thorpe: The Man Who Translated Almost All Old English Texts

Not much is known about Benjamin Thorpe (1782-1870), yet he was one of the first scholars to publish voluminous editions and translations of Old English texts. This blog provides an overview of Thorpe’s works on Anglo-Saxon texts and also reveals how his reputation was almost ruined because of faulty reprints of his Beowulf edition.

Benjamin Thorpe: A demanding stepfather and a humble translator

Little is known about the background and youth of Benjamin Thorpe; his entry in the Oxford Dictionary of National Biography notes that he “is of obscure origins” (Seccombe 2014).  In 1826, at the age of forty-four, Thorpe studied early English antiquities at the University of Copenhagen, under the guidance of one of the most prominent philologists of his day: Rasmus Rask (1787-1832). A good working knowledge of ancient tongues and literature was not the only thing Thorpe picked up in Copenhagen: he also married Mary Anne Otté and adopted her daughter Elise. A eulogy written on the latter’s death in 1904 reveals that Benjamin Thorpe had been a demanding stepfather who eventually drove his stepdaughter to flee to Boston, USA:


Eulogy for Elise C. Otté by Edmund Grosse in Athenaeum, 02 Jan. 1904 (source)

Apparently aided by his talented stepdaughter,  Thorpe started to earn his living as a translator of, mostly, Anglo-Saxon texts – according to Niles (2015), he may be regarded as “the first professional Anglo-Saxonist”, since his income mainly consisted of the stipends he received for his books.

A glance at Thorpe’s activities as an editor and translator (a full overview is provided below) shows an admirable range: from poems to law texts, psalms, chronicles and homilies. Thorpe also strikes as a humble man. His humility, as well as his intended purpose for most of his books,  are made clear in the preface to his Analecta Anglo-Saxonica (1834), a student anthology of Old English texts:

Like the generality of first attempts, [this work] is, I am too well aware, extremely defective both in plan and execution, and has large demands to make upon the indulgences of its readers; but I shall not regret having sent it forth to the world, if, by its publication, the study of the old vernacular tongue of England, so much neglected at home, and so successfully cultivated by foreign philologists, shall be promoted in the land where it once flourished. (Thorpe 1834, A2)

He was also humble enough to indicate when a text had proven too difficult for him to translate. Of the Old English Riming Poem, for instance, he remarked: “My endeavours to give a version of the “Riming Poem” have failed.” (Thorpe 1842, ix). The Exeter Book Riddles also caused him trouble:

Of the “Riddles”I regret to say that, from the obscurity naturally to be looked for in such compositions, arising partly from inadequate knowledge of the tongue, and partly from the manifest inaccuracies of the text, my translations, or rather attempts at translation, though the best I can offer, are frequently almost, and somtimes I fear, quite as unintelligible as the originals. Though they have baffled me, yet as they will now be in the hands of the Public, a hope may reasonably be entertained, that one more competent will undertake their interpretation, and with a more favourable result. (Thorpe 1842, xi)

These two failed attempts notwithstanding, it would be hard to find a person “more competent” than Thorpe – Niles (2015) rightly notes that “no human being past or present has ever read more lines of Old English manuscript text than Benjamin Thorpe, word by word and letter by letter” (p. 229).

Editions and translations of Old English texts

Thanks to the Internet Archive, it is now possible to not only make a complete list of Thorpe’s editions and translations of Old English texts, they are all freely available. Below follows a chronological overview of his works (I have limited my selection to works touching on Anglo-Saxon England; Thorpe also translated the Elder Edda, a Latin chonicle by Florence of Winchester and historical works by J. M. Lappenberg; he also wrote multiple works about Northern mythology):

While generally overshadowed by his contemporary John Mitchell Kemble (1807-1857), Thorpe has certainly left his mark on the developing profession of Anglo-Saxon studies.In addition to his publications, Thorpe was a Fellow of the Society of Antiquaries of London and became a member of the Royal Academy of Sciences at Munich (Germany) and the Society of Netherlandish Literature in Leiden (The Netherlands).  Benjamin Thorpe died in 1870, aged eighty-eight years old.

A reputation nearly ruined by reprints?

While Thorpe’s works generally enjoy a good reputation, some nine years after his death, a Dutch student of Old English found reason to complain about Thorpe’s edition of Beowulf. This student, G. J. P. J. Bolland (1852-1922), wrote the following to the Professor of Germanic Philology in Leiden, P. Cosijn (1841-1899), on October 10, 1879: “I will show you that I have every reason to despise Thorpe’s horrible edition of Beowulf“. Bolland provided a number of errors in the first thirty lines of Thorpe’s edition of Beowulf  and scornfully remarked: “Here’s the work of a member of the Society of Netherlandish Literature at Leiden!”


Errors in Thorpe’s Beowulf edition in a letter by G.J.P.J. Bolland (Bolland Archive, UB Leiden)

The errors noted by Bolland are accurate: “eyren-þearfe” for “fyren-þearfe” (Beowulf, l. 14); “eþ” for “þe” (Beowulf, l. 15); “fæt” for “þæt” (Beowulf, l. 22); etc. In Thorpe’s defense, however, these errors are not found in his first edition, published in 1855; they are only found in the second edition of his work, published in 1875 (five years after Thorpe had died). Apart from this scornful letter of a Dutch student to his professor, the errors in the the second edition of Thorpe’s Beowulf appear to have gone unnoticed, since they are retained in the third edition of 1889:


Three editions of Thorpe’s Beowulf; errors noted by Bolland in red squares.

When it came to his Beowulf edition (for which he is generally praised), it seems Thorpe is lucky that first impressions are indeed more lasting – the errors in the posthumous reprints of his works have not affected his reputation, although at least one Dutch student despised him for it!

This is the first in a series of blogs related to my 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.

Texts referred to:

  • John D. Niles, The Idea of Anglo-Saxon England 1066-1901: Remembering, Forgetting, Deciphering, and Renewing the Past, Malden: Wiley-Blackwell, 2015.
  • Thomas Seccombe, ‘Thorpe, Benjamin (1781/2–1870)’, rev. John D. Haigh, Oxford Dictionary of National Biography, Oxford University Press, 2004 [http://www.oxforddnb.com/view/article/27375, accessed 8 April 2016]