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In Memoriam: René Derolez (1921-2005)


A Remembrance by M. C. Bodden, Marquette University

Professor René Derolez retired from the Chair of English and Old Germanic Philology at the State University of Ghent in 1987, just as the Journal of English and Germanic Philology was nearing the end of its first century of publication—a century in which philology dominated the disciplines. In looking back at the state of philology in the U.S., particularly in the mid-twentieth-century when René studied for an M.A. at Harvard (1946-1948), I can understand now why he mentioned so often and so affectionately his time at Harvard. He was just completing his Licentiate in Germanic Philology and doctorate at the State University of Ghent. Now, a grant as a Graduate Fellow of the Belgium American Educational Foundation had taken him to Harvard. It must have been one of the most intense, exhilaratingly intellectual experiences of his life, and quite possibly one of the most intimidating: philology was, surely, the hubris-outing discipline of disciplines. It was a discipline, too, that was experiencing a period of extraordinary activity and great initiatives in America. Not only at Harvard would he have been moving among the greats—those were the years of Joshua Whatmough, Charles S. Singleton (who left Hopkins to teach at Harvard 1948-1957) W. V. Quine, B. F. Skinner, and George Zipf, slighted somewhat as a linguistic maverick, whose studies of the mathematical properties of live speech would, in the 1960s, become the basis of almost all the computer data compression systems—but he would also have felt the effect of great philological enterprises everywhere in the air on the American scene. Linguistic anthropologists and American Structuralists were still hotly debating Benjamin Whorf's theories that covert grammatical categories influence consciousness. "Sociolinguistics" appears in linguistic research for the first time [1] and is emerging as a subject worthy of serious study. Departments themselves were being formed and transformed: in the fall of 1949 Roman Jakobson, the distinguished émigré Russian philologist and linguist, would bring to Harvard fourteen of his students from Columbia University, creating, with them, the core of the new Department of Slavic Languages and Literature. A year later, at the insistence of Joshua Whatmough, Harvard changed its Department of Comparative Philology to Comparative Linguistics; then, to the Department of Linguistics. Hans Kurath had just published his great atlas of American English (1949) which literally mapped the linguistic geography of mainland United States. Two years later, between 1951 and 1955, Noam Chomsky completed his doctoral dissertation entitled "Transformational Analysis," effectively challenging structural linguistics's exclusion of meaning from linguistic constituents and raising the issue of innate linguistic knowledge.

Yet René had entered a philological world not only bursting with new intellectual investigations but one also bent on closing off any claim to parity that new disciplines such as the study of "literature for the sake of literature" might aspire to. The two contrasting attitudes made for a willful and excitingly turbulent history of philology. The very journal whose century of publication coincided with René's retirement, the Journal of English and Germanic Philology, had from its inception embraced a heady breadth of scholarly interests. [2] On the other hand, The American Journal of Philology (1880) founded and edited for its first 50 years by Basil Gildersleeve, a professor of classics at Johns Hopkins University, followed a somewhat different impetus. It was Gildersleeve who coined the memorable metaphor intended to clarify philology's primacy of place, and to clarify, by contrast, the place of littérateurs. He likened the philologists to botanists; the littérateurs, he said, were like florists. "The philologists were the real men of letters, scholars who defined, classified, annotated, and conserved literary wisdom. Those who were interested in studying a poem's music or a novel's aesthetic form" [3] were the florists. This celebrated metaphor enjoyed circulation for some twenty years before René entered Harvard, and it contributed to "a rift in academe that remains with us today" (Fenza, 56). [4] But René was always cordially reckless about recognizing binaries and boundaries. His scholarship and aestheticism were embedded in each other. Riveted as he was by the hunt for the possible compositional structure of barely discernible Old English glosses, he found just as fascinating the glosses' ink preparations and the varying nature of dry point notation. Once, as we stood one spring morning on his favorite bridge in Bruges, in the middle of a rapt discussion of Memling's ability to paint narrative parallels using both sitter and landscape, he paused, catching sight of the nearby beguinage, and gave a brilliant, brief disquisition on the distinctions between the "beghini," considered heretical (largely found in Italy) and the "beguines" of Flanders, their position on the Eucharist and its link to the origins of the Feast of Corpus Christi. [5] In the very months that he was publishing articles such as "A Morphological Anomaly in Old Icelandic […]" and "Epigraphical versus Manuscript English Runes" he was also sending cards, especially at Christmas, featuring architectural scenes of Ghent which he himself had exquisitely drawn and water-colored. For René, painting, poetry and music were as organic to life's accretion of wisdom and expertise as were rigorous scholarly investigations.

Indeed, the subject of the work for which he is most renowned, runes (viz. Runica Manuscripta: The English Tradition [Bruges, 1954]), exemplifies this point. It is the perfect intersection not only of art and philology, but also archaeology, language, and ritual. René clarified the interpretation and form of certain runes and rune glosses that had long been puzzling, but the book's greater contribution is its systematic survey of the manuscripts containing runes and the environment of those manuscripts. Contrary to A. S. C. Ross's speculation that "the preparation of [Runica Manuscripta] must have caused him very much hard, rather dull work," [6] it captured René's imagination, as the "romance of philology" is always capable of doing. [7] James Simpson's remark that philology's narratives are always in danger of being "forever exiled from its subjects, inevitably wandering in the threatening yet alluring byways of error" might well have been René's dilemma had he chosen to suppress his sensibilities as a scholar or as an aesthete. Beyond the personal testimony offered above, however, the range of René's published articles is ample evidence that he did not. In the introduction to the 1987 Festschrift in his honor, its editor A.-M. Simon-Vandenbergen noted the scope and complexity of René's work: "A Festschrift should indeed reflect the celebrated scholar's own fields of study and interest. In the case of René Derolez these fields are numerous. Although he has mainly distinguished himself in historical scholarship, he has always had a keen interest in all aspects of language and in all areas in which language operates" (iii). By the end of René's life, most of academe's position on philology would catch up with his. Catherine Brown's course description of 2003 captures the contemporary state of philological studies:

Loving Philology (Romance Languages 680, Winter 2003): Philology has also been associated with a positivist resistance to more overtly philosophical or aesthetic ways of working with texts. It does not have to be so, this class will argue. [8]

One, particular, extraordinary quality of René ought to be honored in this Memoriam, namely, his generosity—his professional generosity, his collegial generosity, and his financial generosity. Despite the demands of his own position as Chair of his department, as well as his positions as associate editor of several journals for several decades (English Studies, Anglo-Saxon England, Journal of Indo-European Studies) and editor-in-chief of English Studies for nearly a decade, René was, in Simon-Vandenbergen words, "the driving force behind many important initiatives, such as—to mention a few recent ones—the setting up of the Language Centre within the University of Ghent, the research project 'Contrastive Grammar in Foreign Language Teaching'," and the organization of the International Society of Anglo-Saxonists whose first conference in 1983 he arranged to have co-hosted by both Brussels and Ghent. The magnificent inaugural launching of ISAS included a spectacular cocktail party-reception at the Palace of Academies in Brussels hosted by the British Consul. ISAS was his most cherished organization, because its ideals were his: "to provide all scholars interested in the languages, literatures, arts, history, and material culture of Anglo-Saxon England with support in their research and to facilitate an exchange of ideas and materials within and among all disciplines." (these words are found on the ISAS homepage, http://www.isas.us). It was fitting, therefore, that he was its first president.

Then there is his generosity to his colleagues. One in particular deserves notice—all the more so because the compliment did not intend to notice René, but rather R. I. Page. In a review of Page's Runes and Runic Inscriptions, [9] Elmer H. Antonsen writes, "René Derolez, the doyen of manuscript runology, is quoted (p. xi) as asking, "Where would runic studies in the British Isles stand now if it had not been for Ray [Page]?" [10] This is no ordinary generous recognition of a colleague's achievements. This is a compliment that genuinely, and nearly completely, effaces his own distinguished leadership in the field.

Finally, there is his generosity manifested especially toward struggling students and friends. I first made René's acquaintance during the 1977 combined conference of the Dictionary of Old English and the Medieval Academy held at the University of Toronto where, as a graduate student in the Centre for Medieval Studies, I was privileged and expected to help welcome the visiting scholars participating in the DOE project. The two to whom I was assigned as an occasional guide and invited to join at several dinners were Professors René Derolez and Helmut Gneuss. I developed a lifelong friendship with both. In 1979, a grant allowed me almost a half year's study of certain manuscripts in English and Continental libraries. My major means of transportation in the English towns and cities was a bicycle which I had purchased in Cambridge. For the continental portion of my research, I took only the bicycle whose side bags were loaded with books and clothes. This was a mistake. Unlike English train stations, continental train stations did not have ground-level access to baggage cars into which one could push and stow one's bike. I discovered this only after a harrowing escalator ride up to the platform in the Antwerp train station, with the loaded bicycle rising, step by step, into a linear, unstable tower above me, nearly felling me and those standing near me. I phoned René for help. He drove from Ghent, picked up the bike and me, bought a small suitcase for me (my grant's funds had not yet arrived), stored the bike in his garage, and drove me to the train. A month later, he wrote, proposing a plan for buying my bicycle for his niece. He offered over $100.00 more than I had paid for it. I was adamant about accepting only half the bike's value. When I opened the envelope which he sent to me in Bamberg, however, there was a courteous note explaining that he thought that the leather side-bags were certainly worth the full price, and thus he sent his originally proposed amount. In my heart, I think that he had learned somehow that I was eating bread and crackers for weeks because my grant funds were still delayed, and, being the soul of courtesy, he had worked out a way of nurturing both me and my scholarship.

It is not always easy to explain why the heart aches when we lose a loved friend. In the case of René Derolez the reason is more apparent: here was a scholar whose significance lies not only in his scholarly achievements but also in the magnanimity of his relationships and a compassion founded on human experience.

OEN 38.3 (Spring 2005): 4-7.



[1] First mentioned by Eugene Nida in Morphology (Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 1949): 152.

[2] Its first issue included essays ranging from "Chaucer's Classicism" and "Middle English –wz-, -wo," to "Shakespeare in the Seventeenth Century" and "The College Teaching of English."

[3] See also Basil L. Gildersleeve, Essays and Studies (Baltimore: N. Murray, 1890), 25-6, 152-3.

[4] D. W. Fenza, "Creative Writing & Its Discontents," The Writer's Chronicle March/April 2000: 56.

[5] It was this same Beguinage that René looked over as he lay in a large, sunny hospital room during his last few days (personal correspondence from Dr. Albert Derolez, 4 July 2005).

[6] Alan S. C. Ross, review in Modern Language Review 50 (1955): 516.

[7] James Simpson, commenting on Seth Lerer's book Error and the Academic Self (online at http://www. columbia.edu/cu/cup/catalog/data023112/0231123728.HTM).

[8] Catherine Brown, course description, University of Michigan, 2003. The opening lines of her course description read: "Philology is a both scholarly discipline and a practice of reading and making knowledge. In European studies, it's been associated especially with Classics, Medieval, and Early Modern studies, with the patient labor of reading, collating and editing manuscripts and early printed books, and the establishment of texts."

[9] Elmer H. Antonsen, review of Runes and Runic Inscriptions: Collected Essays on Anglo-Saxon and Viking Runes, in Journal of English and Germanic Philology 97.3 (1998): 402.

[10] Antonsen's further remark (402) that " Indeed, serious study of English runes without Raymond Ian Page, sometime librarian and professor at the University of Cambridge, is simply inconceivable, which makes this collection of essays all the more valuable and welcome" quite rightly recognizes Page's exceptional scholarship.