The Chaucer Society, Victorian Medievalism, and the Nation-State: Englishness and Empire

My colleague Dr R. D. Perry, the NCS Postdoctoral Fellow (2017-18) at Saint Louis University, is hosting a series of podcasts on the state of the field in Chaucerian studies. The next podcast interview, with Sylvia Tomasch and me, is on the history of the New Chaucer Society and its previous avatar, the Chaucer Society. One question that Ryan asked us is particularly interesting, because it’s highly relevant to the current dialogue in our discipline about the far-right appropriation of medieval history and about race and inclusion, namely, “what is the relationship between the members of the Chaucer Society and things like colonial government? the role some of these individuals played in the creation and maintenance of Empire? what do we know about the relationship of the Chaucer Society to the wider project of nineteenth-century Nation-State ideology-formation?”

John Tenniel. “Vae Victis!” (1871). Otto Bismarck, the newly proclaimed Emperor of Germany, in the helmet of Victory, leads his troops into the French capital over the fallen body of Paris, a reference to France’s defeat in the war against Prussia (July 1870–March 1, 1871). From Punch, or the London Charivari, March 11, 1871. John Tenniel. “The Greedy Boy” (1885). The boy John Bull (England) is horrified at the greediness of the boy Otto Bismarck. A comment on post-unification Germany’s colonization of territories in the Scramble for Africa and around the world. From Punch, or the London Charivari, January 10, 1885.

The answers are more complex than they seem at first blush. The driving force behind the Chaucer Society (1868-1912) was the ebullient figure of Frederick James Furnivall, a trained barrister with strong egalitarian and democratic principles, an advocate of working-class education and – to some extent – of women’s rights, whose life’s work was dedicated to the publication of texts by chiefly, although not exclusively, premodern English authors. Furnivall had founded the Early English Text Society (EETS) in 1864 to publish editions of what were then called “Early English” texts: Old and Middle English texts, but excluding those of Chaucer, whose work, in David Matthews’ words, “by the nineteenth century, tended to circulate in quite different social and cultural forms and exchanges from those forced on other Middle English texts” (1999, 165). Furnivall then went on to found the Chaucer Society in 1868, in order, as the mission statement printed at the end of most of the Society’s publications states, “To do honour to CHAUCER, and to let the lovers and students of him see how far the best unprinted Manuscripts of his works differd [sic] from the printed texts.” As Derek Pearsall notes, “Chaucer was the poet he loved above all” (1998, 132), and for this reason Furnivall put a great deal of his energy into running the Society, arguably more than he put into any of the other societies that he established. Like the EETS, the Chaucer Society was a subscription society, funded by the annual dues paid by its roughly 60 members, although, with dues at 2 guineas a year, the Society struggled to appeal to a large or broad membership base from all classes (Spencer 2015, 602; Furnivall 1872, 373, 393).

Nationalism and imperialism are sometimes conflated, so it is important to distinguish between their political aims and ethos. The former is essentially patriotic: to be proud of one’s country and to promote its culture. The latter involves the extension of a nation’s authority through the forceful taking over of the territory of another nation and the hegemonic dominance of that other nation through both political and cultural means. In establishing the Chaucer Society to print the manuscripts of Chaucer’s texts, Furnivall saw himself as participating in a nationalist, not an imperialist or colonialist project, one driven by his “love for Chaucer” (Furnivall 1868a, 3), and one that aimed to make available to an English audience English texts by a quintessentially English author. This aim was quite distinct from that which motivated his founding of EETS, which was overtly imperialist: as an 1877 description averred, EETS was established ‘‘for the purpose of bringing the mass of Early English Literature within the reach of every student and boy in the British Empire’’ (Dinshaw 2001, 32; Biddick 1998, 93).

Although it is often said that Furnivall was not a philologist, it is important to recognize that not only did his publishing project for the Chaucer Society make possible subsequent philological work on the manuscripts of Chaucer, but also that this work was principally underwritten by a desire to connect contemporary readers to an English past, rather than to promote the study of Chaucer within the British empire. In a revealing statement made to the Polish philologist Roman Dyboski, Furnivall claims: “I never cared a bit for philology; my chief aim has been throughout to illustrate the social condition of the English people in the past” (Dyboski in Munro 1911, 43). Pearsall comments, sarcastically: “Exactly how this project was to improve the lot of the working class was something that Furnivall never investigated too closely” (1998, 126). But Furnivall’s statement, assuming that Dyboski reports it accurately, does not say that he aimed “to improve the lot of the working class.” What it does say is that he was most interested not in reinforcing British values within the Empire but rather in making available the monuments of their past to those at home.

The Chaucer Society’s aim, then, as with the EETS, was to connect English readers with the literature and language of their “forefathers,” in this case by editing and printing Chaucer’s texts (Munro 1911, xliii; Dinshaw 2012, 27). This aim was avowedly nationalist and patriotic: as Stephanie Trigg observes, “For Furnivall, it was editing and publication that could best preserve the nation’s identity” (2002, 175). In a letter that Furnivall wrote to his friend the Chaucerian scholar Henry Bradshaw in 1870, he made the surprising claim that “it’s the nation that can print its own MSS that can fight” (Trigg 2002, 176). But this is clearly fighting talk and not a program for enhancing England’s military power. The Chaucer Society’s nationalist mission thus differs significantly from that of the EETS, which was avowedly imperialist.

From its inception, however, the Chaucer Society also imagined itself reaching out to American lovers of Chaucer. In the Temporary Preface to the first instalment of his monumental Six-Text Edition of the Canterbury Tales (1868a), Furnivall claims that he started the Society because he was begged to do so by his American friend, Francis James Child, the distinguished Harvard scholar and ballad-collector. It’s worth quoting at length what Furnivall says about Child’s importuning:

I am bound to confess that my love for Chaucer … would not by itself have made me give up the time and trouble I can so ill afford to bestow on this task; but when an American, who had done the best bit of work on Chaucer’s words [Child’s “Observations on the Language of Chaucer,” 1863], asked, and kept on asking, for texts of our great English poet, could an Englishman keep on refusing to produce them?[1] When that American had laid aside his own work to help, heart and soul, in the great struggle for freeing his land from England’s legacy to it, the curse of slavery,[2] could one who honoured him for it, who felt strongly how mean had been the feeling of England’s upper and middle classes on the War, as contrasted with the nobleness of our suffering working-men,[3] – could one such, I say, fail to desire to sacrifice something that he might help to weave again one bond between at least the Chaucer-lovers of the Old Country and the New? No. (Furnivall 1868a, 3)

In his characteristic colloquial style (“the best bit of work on Chaucer’s words”), Furnivall presents himself – not at all candidly – as someone who lacks the time and energy to make Chaucer’s manuscripts accessible, but who acknowledges, as an Englishman, his obligation to an American scholar to “produce” the texts of England’s “great English poet.” Furnivall here rehearses the modesty topos in presenting his task as both self-sacrificial and peace-weaving – creating a bond between Chaucerians in England and America – but the homage to both Child and America is sincere.[4] Furnivall dedicated his Six-Text Edition to Child, “in admiration of himself and his nation, and in the hope that he will teach many of them to love and study Chaucer, as he has done, and does” (Furnivall 1868b), and Furnivall appointed Child as the Chaucer Society’s Honorary Secretary for America. Furnivall also invited several Americans to do editorial and scholarly work for the Chaucer Society, including George Lyman Kittredge, Karl Young, Edith Rickert (a close friend) and John M. Manly, both of whom from 1935 onwards, long after Furnivall’s death, helped to assemble materials that would form the basis for Martin Crow and Clair Olson’s Chaucer Life-Records (1966). But what is striking in the above quotation from 1868 is Furnivall’s yoking of the American abolition of slavery – and British attitudes to it – to his decision to publish Chaucer’s manuscripts, in his claim that it was because of Child’s part in the US Civil War and because of the support for the Union states by England’s noble “working-men” that he was moved to found the Chaucer Society. The ploy here is purely rhetorical – the Society does not have its roots in the US abolition of slavery – but it is nevertheless an interesting link.

While the Chaucer Society’s nationalist and pro-American aims are very clear, there is nevertheless a story to tell about the Society’s relations to empire, but one that is less straightforward than that about the EETS (Dinshaw 2001, 31-7; Biddick 1998, 92-6). This story, in which are intertwined English antagonism towards Germany over its imperialist ambitions after 1871 and Furnivall’s growing wariness of (Helen Spencer’s words) “German philological hegemony” (Spencer 2015, 616), can be traced in Furnivall’s fluctuating relationships with the German philologists with whom he worked on Chaucer Society publications (Utz 2001, 2002, 2016; Spencer 2015, 615-17).

Up to 1871, those relationships were unequivocally positive. Soon after Germany defeated France in the Franco-Prussian war (1871), Furnivall dedicated his parallel-text edition of the Minor Poems for the Chaucer Society (1871-79) to the German scholar Bernhard ten Brink in highly adulatory terms, lauding him as “One of our Kin, one of the German Nation, Great in learning and Great in War” (Munro 1911, xlix). Furnivall links Britain and Germany (“One of our Kin, one of the German Nation”) by virtue of their shared Anglo-Saxon heritage. Six years later, ten Brink in turn dedicated his History of English Literature (Geschichte der englischen Literatur, 1877) to Furnivall as “the unselfish promoter of German co-operation” (Brandl 1911, 10). Throughout the history of the Chaucer Society Furnivall commissioned a number of German scholars to work on its publications, including Axel Erdmann (1911), John Koch (1890), and Julius Zupitza (1892-3). As Richard Utz notes, Furnivall “had a deep appreciation for the meticulous scientific work his mostly German collaborators brought to his publishing ventures” (2016, 126). In recognition of these collaborations, Berlin University awarded Furnivall an honorary doctorate in 1884. And Furnivall chose as the Chaucer Society’s publisher Nikolaus Trübner, the German publisher, bookseller, and linguist, who came to live and work (and publish) in London in 1843.

One of Furnivall’s German friends, the Shakespearean scholar Josef Schick, fondly remembers Furnivall declaring “England, Germany, and America must always be friends” (Schick 1911, 171). But Furnivall’s attitude towards Germany and Germans was not consistently cordial. As Helen Spencer observes, while “Furnivall was always staunchly pro-American, … his German sympathies waxed and waned in accord with his views of German foreign policy.” And as Spencer notes, “Late in life [Furnivall] lost no opportunity of telling Alois Brandl [the Austrian philologist and Shakespeare scholar] that ‘he considered the Germans as cousins only, but the Americans as brothers’” (Spencer 2015, 617).

The watershed in Anglo-German relations for Furnivall, as for many Britons at the time, was 1871, after the unification of Germany as a nation-state, when Germany’s desire to expand her empire around the globe was perceived by Britain as a threat, as John Tenniel’s Punch cartoon of 1885, above, vividly depicts. For Furnivall, this threat overlapped in complex and ambiguous ways with the threat posed by what he saw as “German philological hegemony” (Spencer 2015, 616). A striking example of this is a barbed remark he made in praise of ten Brink in 1873, in a report on recent work on Chaucer. Furnivall records that while Henry Bradshaw had, “unluckily for all English students,” neglected to publish his findings on the chronology of Chaucer’s works and on which works belonged in the Chaucer canon, ten Brink “like a true German uhlan [the German Empire’s crack Polish cavalry unit], suddenly and most unexpectedly made his appearance one morning by his ‘Chaucer: Studien zur Geschichte seiner Entwicklung und zur Chronologie seiner Schriften, erster Theil, 1870 [Chaucer: Studies in the History of His Development and on the Chronology of His Writings, Part I],’ and carried off from England the main credit of the reform or re-creation of Chaucer” (Furnivall 1872-3, 385). To Furnivall’s chagrin, though Bradshaw may have made the same discoveries as ten Brink, “to the public, the German professor was the first man to throw a real light on the distinction between genuine and spurious in Chaucer’s works, and the true order of succession in those works.” Moreover, he did this “[s]ingle-handed, … without ever having seen a Chaucer manuscript, or heard of a Chaucer Society … Alone he beat us, and beat us well, on our own ground. All honour to him for it!” (387). So the “nation that prints its own MSS” lost this particular fight to its German rival. As Susan Schibanoff observes, Furnivall’s grudging praise for ten Brink “exposes the nationalistic bent of late Victorian Chaucer studies” (Schibanoff 2006, 6). I also suggest that this “Scramble for Chaucer” is framed – especially later, in the 1880s and 1890s – by the larger context of Anglo-German hostilities in regard to empire-building. Furnivall was not alone in seeing German scholars as invading English philological territory. Richard Utz notes that the English grammarian and philologist Henry Sweet, in 1885, “speaks resignedly about abandoning all hopes to build ‘an independent school of English philology’ because the ‘historical study of English was being rapidly annexed,’ leaving only a few areas ‘uninvaded’ by German “dissertations and programs.” (Utz 2010, 162)

The Kruger telegram of 1896 further exacerbated tensions between Britain and Germany;[5] it upset Furnivall to such an extent that he sent a postcard to his German friend Brandl “breathing threats and slaughter,” though, as Brandl recounts, “[t]his feeling ebbed away in course of time” (Brandl 1911, 14).

I have begun to sketch out something of the complexity of the Chaucer Society’s relation to empire, chiefly in Furnivall’s sometimes conflicted relations with Germany and German scholars, because of what he perceived to be their philological preeminence. As far as I am aware, no-one is writing a detailed intellectual history of the Chaucer Society, but it would undoubtedly reveal a great deal more about the importance of nation and empire in its formation and development.


I would like to thank R.D. Perry and David Matthews.


[1] Child was general editor of a 130-volume collection of the works of the British poets, which began appearing in 1853; he planned to produce a critical edition of the works of Chaucer for this collection, but only had access to Thomas Wright’s edition of the Canterbury Tales (1847-51), which was based on a single, unreliable manuscript, London, British Museum, MS Harley 7334. See also Child 1863, 448-9.

[2] Child canvassed for Lincoln during the Civil War: see Burgess 2006. By the time of the American Civil War (1861-65), Britain had long since abolished slavery, and anti-slavery attitudes were deeply and widely ingrained in the British public in 1868.

[3] Great Britain’s official position during the American Civil War was neutral. Furnivall refers to one dominant view, namely that the British elite tended to support the Confederacy, whereas English public opinion generally supported the North. But British opinions and attitudes at the time differed a great deal, depending on region and class. On British attitudes towards the Civil War, see Campbell 2003.

[4] On the wider context of how Chaucer studies came “to be such a particularly American story,” and on how American subscriptions saved the Chaucer Society, which struggled to survive on British subscriptions, see Matthews 2010, esp. 6-12.

[5] A telegram sent by Germany’s Kaiser Wilhelm II to the President of the Transvaal Republic on 3 January 1896, congratulating him on repelling the Jameson Raid, in which a large number of British irregular soldiers were killed, and the rest surrendered.



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