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Richard Utz (Cedar Falls)

When Dinosaurs Ruled the Earth:
A Short History of German Chaucerphilologie in the Nineteenth and Early Twentieth Century

"When Dinosaurs Ruled the Earth": A Short History of German Chaucerphilologie in the Nineteenth and Early Twentieth Century
Recent continuist 'grand narratives' of the archaeology of medieval studies blame philological practices for the allegedly backward state of the field. As an account of German-speaking Chaucer Philology in the nineteenth and early twentieth century demonstrates, such narratives are in dire need of historicizing through detailed case studies. When seen against their contemporary political, historical, social, and academic backgrounds, different phases of Chaucer study become visible, and none of them corresponds to the essentializing picture of philology presented by philology's late twentieth-century discontents.

In his book, In Praise of the Variant. A Critical History of Philology, Bernard Cerquiglini has derided all of nineteenth-century philology as a "paternalist, and hygienist system of thought about the family" and its practitioners as Procrustean "dinosaurs" pathologically chasing the infamous Urtext (Cerquiglini 1999: 49).1 This concise essay attempts to survey one subspecies of these "dinosaurs", the scholars representing German-speaking Chaucer study in the nineteenth and early twentieth-century. My intention with this case study is to contribute to the process of historicizing these often-libeled forebears and extend our knowledge about the elusive term and discursive practice called "philology."

German critics' interest in Chaucer begins with what I should like to call a period of mediation. Between 1793 (when Johann Joachim von Eschenburg's first substantial biographical essay on Chaucer appeared in print) and 1848 (when the ill-fated Bourgeois revolution changed the landscape of writing and publishing in most of the German-speaking world), a small number of educated middle class school teachers, private scholars, and very few university professors attempt to present to a general readership the virtues of Chaucer's texts. Translations into German, short biographies, and general aesthetic appreciations (often adapted from English literary histories and essays) dominate information available on the English author. However, even just a short entry or translated passage on a medieval English poet may be a political signal in a period during which German liberals looked to England as the most attractive example of a progressive society in which the middle class played a coveted economic and political role. Thus, while these early German translators and critics show the beginnings of practices emulative of contemporary Classical philology, most of them use writing about medieval England as an integumental device for the propagation of political and social messages. In such texts, Chaucer is praised for bringing about the linguistic unification of the English people, for exposing the despotism and favoritism of kings, for supporting the jurisdiction of parliament over taxation, and for celebrating the role of middle class writers and scholars for political emancipation. Philology, as defined by Carl Elze, is not limited to "formal hermeneutics and textual criticism," but fiercely comparatistic and inclusive of "artistic" and exegetical components (Elze 1845: 41).2

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After 1848 writings on Chaucer undergo substantial changes: Wedged in between the reactionary policies of German princes and their governments on the one hand and fear of more radical demands for reform from among the lower middle and lower classes on the other made German Chaucer enthusiasts focus increasingly on studies considered non-political. Furthermore, first plans for making English studies acceptable as a serious university subject necessitate copying the research agendas in the established Classical and German philologies. As a consequence, manuscript study, textual criticism, investigations on grammar and versification, and the search for Classical sources and analogues take center stage, the latter more often than not to present Chaucer as a humanist completely uninterested in the religious or political strife of fourteenth-century England. What Jacob Grimm termed Wortphilologie, the philology practiced by those who, like Karl Lachmann, would "investigate subjects for the sake of words" instead of "words for the sake of subjects" (Grimm 1864: 150), slowly replaced Sachphilologie, the philology once defined by August Boeckh as "die Erkenntnis des Erkannten," i.e., the all-encompassing study of the history and knowledge of all human thought and activity (Bratuschek 1877: 11). Publications more and more express the desire for the elusive archetype, blame scribal negligence for the deplorable loss of authenticity of the surviving manuscripts, and concentrate on the phonological, morphological, and metrical features of Chaucer's Middle English. At the same time, German Anglicists begin to conceive of philology as a German science.3

The central period in the history of German Chaucer philology is characterized by the field's quick growth after 1871 and its gradual decline after 1918, a process paralleled by the ascent of Germany to the status of a nation state, its demise during World War I, and its economic, political, and cultural crisis in the years following the Versailles Treaty. Between 1872 (Bernhard ten Brink's appointment to the first chair of English Philology at the Reichsuniversität in the annexed city of Straßburg) and 1914, thirty-two professorships in English Philology were established and the field gained independence from its earlier attachment to Romance philology.4 Concomitant with the institutionalization of Anglistik at the German universities is the strong movement toward professionalization, i.e., philologization, a development signaled in 1889, when Julius Zupitza, a Berlin professor who refused to lecture on anything post-Gutenbergian, took over the editorship of Archiv für das Studium der Neueren Sprachen und Literaturen, a journal founded by a school teacher, Ludwig Herrig, and heretofore engaged in matters of school pedagogy as much as philology. Zupitza represents the newly professionalized university scholar whose emphasis on strict textual criticism (Textkritik) was directed against the older romantic notions of language and literature study. Nevertheless, his purely academic interest in early texts should not be misunderstood as an act of political neutrality. German Chaucerians' pleonastic insistence on the national character and supremacy of their philological practice and their hegemonic behaviour towards Anglophone Chaucer criticism leaves no doubt about philology's implicit service to the national cause. Within genres of academic writing crossing over into a non-academic readership, notably Bernhard ten Brink's History of English Literature, nationally minded voices sometimes found a more explicit way to celebrate popular beliefs of Volksseele, Volksgeist, and Volkscharakter.5 Finally, the reputation of German philological work offered those Chaucerians without empowering academic appointments (e.g., John Koch) an opportunity to delegate authority for their publications from their Germanity. Even if such school teachers carefully avoided conflict with their academic German superiors, they felt perfectly qualified to unleash biting reviews on foreign colleagues holding superior academic positions.6

Establishing English philology at the modern, heavily state-funded German university brought about a number of additional dismissive gestures directed against those practices until recently associated with the study of languages and literatures. First, the new, historically and philologically oriented curriculum made professors question the value of 'native speakers' for the teaching of contemporary competency in foreign languages and dismiss them as superficial rhetoricians. A second group which the self-fashioning philology had to 'other' in order to confirm its nascent disciplinary boundaries consisted of the non-academic writers in the feuilletons of German newspapers and magazines whose aesthetic or political rulings used to regulate literary appreciation in the early nineteenth century. Tagesschriftsteller (Journalists) were accused of dilettantism and of catering solely to contemporary tastes, very much to the detriment of a thorough, historicist perspective.

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Finally, by the time Anglistik was accepted as an independent academic subject, Latin had been relegated to the realm of the curriculum vitae page at the end of doctoral dissertations. If writing in Latin had moved to the realm of academic paratexts, the average German Anglicist felt he could not write in English, either, because competency in that language alone "does by far not yet make an English philologist; every educated Englishman would then have a more justified claim to that title" (Vietor 1888: 43). Consequently, German Chaucerians wrote in German, thereby also making virtue of necessity, since a majority among them would have been more proficient at producing intelligible prose and metrically perfect poetry in Old or Middle English than idiomatic contemporary English. Because German had become internationally accepted as the leading language in which new scientific and philological research was published, German Chaucerians had few doubts about the reception of their work by Anglophone and other international colleagues. Arthur S. Napier, who tirelessly recommended the German university system to his Anglophone colleagues during the 1880s and 1890s, posits that "at the present time a scientific study of English philology and literature is absolutely impossible without a knowledge of German" (Napier 1892: 60). Such statements encouraged German Anglicists in their already strong missionary beliefs that they could emulate their country's military expansionism in the area of research methodology. If, as late as 1930, the German physicist Erwin Schrödinger could boast that "the language of physics is German" (Meschkowski 1989: 9), the German Anglicist Karl Bülbring, who delivered his 1893 inaugural speech as Professor of English Philology at Groningen University in German without insulting his Dutch audience, would have agreed that German had become as much the international language of English philology as English itself (Bülbring 1893).

Just as the new imperial Germany rushed to colon(ial)ize territories around the world (Kamerun; Tsingtao; Togoland) and (re-) appropriate regions in Europe (Elsass-Lothringen), its philological scholars quickly moved to stake out areas in other nations' literatures. In English philology the various linguistic and historical connections with Britain made annexing the corpora of Anglo-Saxon and Middle English manuscripts a rewarding target. The processes of exploring, uncovering, transcribing, and editing heretofore unknown original sources in the British libraries happened coevally with the hoisting of the German flag on newly annexed lands. Being first in the editorial process not only inscribed the individual scholar's name onto the bodies of these texts and provided lasting fame, it also diminished the advantage British scholars had for their work through their direct and easy access to the manuscripts. As soon as such a critical edition existed, German scholars could work with it at home and use it as the secure foundation for all the other branches of philological endeavour: critical bibliography, etymology, linguistic and literary history, motif and source study, etc.7 Moreover, as the edition had been conceived according to their preferred philological practices, they controlled the methodologies, the critical terminology and, thus, the discursive acceptability of other editorial and interpretive efforts. The first colon(ial)izing and later gate-keeping character of this emphasis on Textkritik and other similarly foundational areas (chronology; authenticity; biography) can be gleaned from the fact that most German Chaucer scholars obsessively reviewed every single publication related to these topics while they withheld recognition from enthusiastic, i.e., extra-discursive (e.g., aesthetic, artistic, sociological, psychological) readings. Scholars who accepted the ruling discursive framework and investigated within its boundaries, gained credibility and acceptance and were praised with the recurring vocabulary of industriousness, thoroughness, and – above all – philological exactitude. Scholars who dared use the terms 'edition', 'critical', or 'philological' for work not adhering to the sanctioned paradigms were othered as dilettantes.8 Such open critique would happen in reviews written in caustic tone and published in the leading academic journals, sometimes in major newspapers. The acceptance of philological paradigms and organisational forms (e.g., the Seminar-structure) in Anglophone and other countries, the reputations of Altphilologie, Germanistik, and Romanistik, the priority in building up an impressive academic infrastructure (chairs, journals, book series), and an easily teachable, formalized and scientistic methodology enabled German Anglicists to enact and secure (for some time) a hegemonic relationship toward non-German scholars, many of whom even found many a good reason to agree with their overbearing German colleagues. However, as the following citation by Henry Sweet illustrates, some English scholars recognized the German philologists' colonial aspirations as an unfriendly invasion:

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When I first began, I had some hopes of myself being able to found an independent school of English philology in this country. But as time went on it became too evident that the historical study of English was being rapidly annexed by the Germans, and that English editors would have to abandon all hopes of working up their materials themselves, and resign themselves to the more humble rôle of purveyors to the swarms of young program-mongers turned out every year by the German universities, so thoroughly trained in all the mechanical details of what may be called 'parasite philology' that no English dilettante can hope to compete with them – except by Germanizing himself and losing all hope of his nationality. All this is of course inevitable – the result of our own neglect, and of the unhealthy over-production of the German universities – but it is not encouraging for those who, like myself, have had the mortification of seeing their favourite investigations forestalled one after another, while they are laboriously collecting their materials. (Sweet 1885: v-vi)

Sweet's complaints show the frustration of some Anglophone scholars about their German colleagues' appropriation of the 'father of English poetry' and other medieval and early modern textual terrains. Others, like Frederick Furnivall, regarded the German interest in Chaucer as a welcome support against the resistance against the admission of English as a subject taught at British universities. Sweet's remarks also impart that he finds fault with the "mechanical" and "parasitic" aspects of philological study, no doubt representing views that institutionalization and philologization jeopardized scholarly individualism and openness to observations beyond the dominant paradigm. That about two thirds of all studies in Chaucerphilologie between 1871 and 1925 concerned themselves with questions of grammar, linguistics, and meter and another 10 to 15 per cent of the remaining studies with textual criticism demonstrates the narrowly positivistic orientation of its practioners.9 Literary scholars in and outside Germany reacted against this methodological reductionism which would finalize the gradual shift in philology's reputation from that of a broadly conceived and innovative scholarly practice to an overly rigid and unambitious enterprise which had unduly widened the critical distance between scholars and their texts. German-speaking scholars were reminded to present "less of merely external facts" and more "about the psychological and literary elements," spend less of their "astounding diligence" and "great gravity" with "mere trifles" (de Backer 1931: 240). In the United States, German philological methods were quickly embraced as an exciting, new hermeneutic tool. However, they were made to coexist alongside practices stressing the teaching of literature as artistic, social, and cultural phenomena. In Britain and the United States, World War I bolstered anti-hegemonic sentiments and led to critical attitudes toward philological study. Thus, the success of German philologists to construct and promote philological practices as something particularly German would – in the end – contribute to their final international demise.10

Other challenges to philology's dominant position among academic methodologies originated from the intensifying demands by German educators to allow more room for the teaching of contemporary English (Reformbewegung) and the inclusion of courses in history, politics, sociology, and national psychology (Kulturkunde), the latter especially after the First World War had revealed glaring lacunae in the knowledge Germans had about Britain. This gradual shift in university curricula diminished the role of Early English literature courses and offered more space for the study of post-eighteenth-century topics and U.S. literature.11 After 1918, German Chaucerphilologie found itself isolated from the developments in Anglophone countries, received less attention within the academic study of English at German universities, and fell into the hands of a backward-looking generation of schoolteachers who were fighting distasteful duels about philological aporias (e.g., the priority of the G and F versions of the Prologue to the Legend of Good Women).12 Finally, the same differentiation among academic disciplines that had helped bring about English philology in the 1870s resulted in a secession of linguistic study from literary studies in the 1920s and 1930s.

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As this concise survey indicates, nineteenth- and early twentieth-century Chaucerphilologie should better be termed "hegemonist," "agonistic," or "nationalistic" than "paternalistic" as practically all its claims about methodological superiority are intimately connected with nation-founding and the formation of national identity via cultural annexation of what was considered Germanic textual territory to begin with. Moreover, defining philology as "paternalistic" and "hygienist" unduly limits its field of agency to a small area of its actual praxis. However, the sometimes violent seriousness, the painstaking exactitude, the obsessive desire for national and racial origins, and the deplorably formalized and mechanized practices of German Chaucerians deserve to be linked with the specific cultural, political, and social conditions that brought them about. They are part of a continuist mentalité which was driven by the conviction that science-like approaches to historical texts would yield secure results, continued progress, produce authentication, authorship, chronology, quantifiable proof on all matters linguistic and literary. This mentalité developed into a veritable national form of life as when all German schoolteachers taught philological methods in their classes, when the schoolteachers and their university professors were members of the various philological societies, when it was considered as honorific to be Privatdozent in Philologie as a reserve officer in the Imperial army, and when the general term for review – academic or not – came to be "Rezension," derived from the "recensio," the philological comparison of manuscripts.13 On the whole, German Chaucerians, knowing, e.g., that any attempt at a stemma codicum for the dozens of manuscripts of the Pardoner's Prologue and Tale would result in a nonsensically complicated arborescence, are very moderate Lachmannians, make use of genealogical trees for pedagogical purposes and for pictorializing the evolution of literary motifs and characters as often as for manuscript filiations.14 Interestingly, these nineteenth-century philologists' scientistic tools (rhyme tests; phoneme or morpheme counts; etc.) eerily resemble the continuist dreams of late twentieth-century 'new philologists' who hold that the computer screen – via the postmodern simulation of the mouvance of medieval writing – will resolve the problems brought about by their modernist predecessors.15

Finally, I would like to say a word about the question whether the Chaucerians in my case study deserve to be called "dinosaurs": When Bernard Cerquiglini used the term, he counted on the negative connotations attached to it and wanted to indicate that philologists were bound to disappear because of their antiquated practices. However, much unlike the "terrible lizards" (this is what the Victorian taxonomist Sir Richard Owen wanted to express when creating the neologism "dinosaur" in the 1840s) of the Mesozoic era, philological methods and their practitioners have survived New Critical, structuralist, and post-structuralist curtain calls due to the foundational importance many societies attach to the preserving, memorializing, and interpreting, in short: the archaeologizing of their historical texts. Ever since Plato and the librarian-philologists of Alexandria, Western culture has created occupational niches for specialists to fulfil these tasks.16 In the area of Chaucer study, the specific cultural conditions in Germany and Austria between 1860 and 1925 brought about an increasingly narrow subspecies of philology. This Wortphilologie, accelerated by the political and economic downfall of both countries, caused its own decline and fall, and the link between philology and Germanity provided British and American scholars an opportunity – after two World Wars -- to abandon 'philology' expressly because it was 'Made in Germany'. Then, together with the translatio imperii to the United States, the translatio studii (as described by Baugh 1951) to U.S. Chaucerians transformed Chaucer philology into Chaucer studies, an area in which philological work has been relegated to a handful of specialists in manuscript and word study and to the skeletal remains of the old philological cultural capital, e.g., the titles of several journals: Modern Philology; Studies in Philology; Philological Quarterly. And then there still exists what Jonathan Culler has irately called "the kingdom of the 'P's," the Library of Congress catalogue system, a veritable 'Jurassic park' in which the principles of Mesozoic/modernist dinosaurs still rule and where even studies in critical theory are unabashedly indexed under the area of 'philology' (Culler 1990: 49).

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Backer, Franz de (1931): "Rev. of Die Funktionen des Erzählers in Chaucers epischer Dichtung, by Henry Lüdeke (1928)", in: Revue Belge de Philologie et d'Histoire 10, 240-41.

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Bülbring, Karl D. (1893): Wege und Ziele der Englischen Philologie. Rede gehalten bei seinem Amtsantritt als Professor an der Reichsuniversität zu Groningen, am 13. Mai 1893. Groningen: J. B. Wolters.

Busch, Alexander (1977): Die Geschichte des Privatdozenten. Eine soziologische Studie zur großbetrieblichen Entwicklung der deutschen Universitäten. New York: Arno Press.

Cerquiglini, Bernard (1999): In Praise of the Variant. A Critical History of Philology, trans. Betsy Wing. Baltimore and London: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1989.

Christmann, Helmut (1983): "Romance Philology versus English Studies in the Nineteenth Century – Selected Aspects of a Vast Subject", in: Thomas Finkenstaedt and Gertrud Scholtes (Ed.) Toward a History of English Studies in Europe. Augsburg: University of Augsburg, 283–302.

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Finkenstaedt, Thomas (1983): Kleine Geschichte der Anglistik. Eine Einführung. Darmstadt: Wissenschaftliche Buchgesellschaft.

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Graff, Gerald (1987): Professing Literature: An Institutional History. Chicago, IL: The University of Chicago Press.

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Grimm, Jacob (1864):"Rede auf Lachmann", in: Kleinere Schriften, vol. I: Reden und Abhandlungen. Berlin: F. Dümmler, 145-62.

Haas, Renate (2002): "1848 and German English Studies / German Philology", in: Balz Engler and Renate Haas (Ed.) European English Studies: Contributions towards the History of a Discipline. [Leicester]: European Society for the Study of English, 293-311.

Haas, Renate (1990): V. A. Huber, S. Imanuel und die Formationsphase der deutschen Anglistik. Zur Philologisierung der Fremdsprache und der sozialen Demokratie. Frankfurt a.M.: Peter Lang.

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1 This essay is based on a conference paper presented at a section entitled 'Philology: Whence? Whither?' organized by Jonathan Evans (University of Georgia), for the 37th International Congress on Medieval Studies, Western Michigan University, in May 2002. I am indebted to Jonathan Evans, Murray McGillivray (University of Calgary), Tom Shippey (St. Louis University), and Jan Ziolkowski (Harvard University) for their presentations, comments, and responses during that conference section.

2 On this first phase of critical Chaucer reception in Germany, see Utz (2002a: 23-39) and Haas (2002; 1990; and 1989). Unless indicated, all translations from German source texts in this essay are mine.

3 On this second phase of critical Chaucer reception in Germany, see Utz (2002a: 41-60).

4 The historical process of institutionalization at German and Austrian universities has been delineated by Finkenstaedt (1983: 54-125); the separation of English from Romance philology is investigated by Christmann (1983).

5 Ten Brink leaves out no opportunity to stress Chaucer's Germanity: For example, he claims that in Chaucer's juvenilia, his "heroes" are still "too sentimental" for the "Germanic taste" and Boece unfortunately contains "not few Latinisms and Romanisms" (ten Brink 1893: 68; 82). Troilus, however, despite his courtly effeminacy, already displays some traits the "German mind" would expect in a young warrior, and it is Chaucer's consistent use of his "native language" and his growing "ethnic-patriotic" mentality which play important roles in his progression toward his becoming the poet of the Canterbury Tales (ten Brink 1893: 94;106;145). Here, finally, the "Germanic reader" can fully appreciate the poet's Englishing of his Romance source materials. What a pity that the "great poet, whose entire development tended toward an ever increasing understanding of his people," did not find time to weave the genre of the English folk-song among his tales, and was unable to write a story for the Yeoman, whose fourteenth-century counterparts still felt their connection with the "Germanic past" and still had dim recollections of the "Storm God Wodan" (ten Brink 1893: 191-92).

6 For examples of German school teachers' use of their (philological) Germanity as empowering cultural capital toward British and especially U.S. scholars, see Koch (1917: 155; 1929: 104). On John Koch's long and distinguished career as a Chaucerian, see Utz (2001a).

7 German views of the relationship between German and British scholars can be found in the autobiographical accounts by Brandl (1911; 1936), Flügel (1916), and Schröer (1925). On these and other German Anglicists's attitude towards their English-speaking colleagues, see Utz (2002a: 75-162).

8 This happens, for example, to Frederick Furnivall, from whom the title "philologist" is withheld by even his best friends among German Anglicists because he neither has formal training in Old and Middle English nor in Textkritik. On the German habit of distinguishing between German scholars and British dilettantes, see Utz (2001b).

9 See Fichte (1989: 94) who arrives at similar results in his investigation of pre-WWI German Chaucer criticism.

10 On the increasing animosity towards philology because of its perceived Germanity after toward, during, and after WWI, see Graff (1987: 98-144), Shippey (1983: 4-7), and Matthews (1999: 188-190).

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11 On these changed ramifications for the study of early English texts, see Finkenstaedt (1983: 126-61).

12 Here I am specifically referring to the duel between two school teachers and Chaucerians, Hugo Lange and Viktor Langhans, whose altercation on the priority of the two versions of the Prologue to the Legend was carried on for more than twenty years in the journals Anglia, Anglia Beiblatt, Archiv für das Studium der Neueren Sprachen und Literaturen, Deutsche Literaturzeitung, Englische Studien, and several others. Like the much more famous Nibelungenstreit, fought between German philologists from Berlin and Leipzig universities about the appropriate philological principles for editing the Nibelungenlied, the Langhans-Lange duel demonstrated to British and U.S. Chaucerians the systemic weaknesses of (German) philological approaches to Chaucer (Baugh 1951: 667). For a discussions of the Langhans-Lange duel, see Utz (2002a: 195-208; 2002b)

13 On the high social status of being a Privatdozent in one of the philologies, see Busch (1977).

14 For this specific example of such an insight, see Koch (1902: xv-xvi).

15 About this hope, see Cerquiglini (1999: 72-82). About the so-called "New Philology", a group of North American scholars in Romance literatures and languages whose members have used Cerquiglini and Zumthor (1986) to extricate Medieval studies from its links with modernist philological practices, see Bloch/Nichols (1996). For a critique of such attempts, see Stackmann (1994) and Utz (1998).

16 For an excellent survey of the genesis and transformations of philology since Plato, see Schlaffer (1990).