Modern Scholars
Biographies & Bibliographies

Benjamin Thorpe
Anglo-Saxon Scholar
1782— July 19, 1870
First English Translator of the Complete Poetic Edda
Assisted by Elise C. Otté
Dictionary of National Biography, 1885-1900
Volume 56 by Thomas Seccombe

THORPE, BENJAMIN (1782–1870), Anglo-Saxon scholar, was born in 1782, and having decided to study early English antiquities, then much neglected in Great Britain, set out about 1826 to Copenhagen. He was attracted thither chiefly by the fame of the great philologist, Rasmus Christian Rask, who had recently returned from the East and been appointed professor of literary history at the Danish University. In 1830 he brought out at Copenhagen an English version of Rask's ‘Anglo-Saxon Grammar’ (a second edition of this appeared at London in 1865), and in the same year he returned to England.

In 1832 he published at London ‘Cædmon's Metrical Paraphrase of Parts of the Holy Scriptures in Anglo-Saxon; with an English Translation, Notes, and a Verbal Index.’ This was one of the best Anglo-Saxon texts yet issued, and it was highly commended by Milman and others (Latin Christianity, bk. iv. ch. iv.; cf. Gent. Mag. 1833 i. 329, 1834 ii. 484, 1855 i. 611). It was followed in 1834 by the ‘Anglo-Saxon Version of the Story of Apollonius of Tyre, upon which is founded the play of “Pericles,” from a MS., with a Translation and Glossary,’ and by an important text-book, which was promptly adopted by the Rawlinsonian professor of Anglo-Saxon at Oxford (Robert Meadows White [q. v.]), ‘Analecta Anglo-Saxonica: a selection in prose and verse from Anglo-Saxon authors of various ages, with a Glossary’ (Oxford, 1834, 8vo, 1846 and 1868). The ‘Analecta’ was praised with discrimination by the best authority of the day, John Mitchell Kemble [q. v.], and up to 1876, when Sweet's ‘Anglo-Saxon Reader’ appeared, though beginning to be antiquated, it remained, with Vernon's ‘Anglo-Saxon Guide,’ the chief book in use.  

In 1835 appeared ‘Libri Psalmorum Versio antiqua Latina; cum Paraphrasi Anglo-Saxonica … nunc primum e cod. MS. in Bibl. Regia Parisiensi adservato’ (Oxford, 8vo), and then, after an interval of five years, Thorpe's well-known ‘Ancient Laws and Institutes of England, comprising the Laws enacted under the Anglo-Saxon Kings from Ethelbert to Canut, with an English Translation’ (London, 1840, fol., or 2 vols. 8vo), forming two volumes of ‘supreme value to the student of early English history’ (Adams, Man. of Hist. Lit. p. 474; cf. Quarterly Rev. lxxiv. 281). Two more volumes were published by Thorpe in 1842, ‘The Holy Gospels in Anglo-Saxon’ (based upon ‘Cod. Bibl. Pub. Cant.’ li. 2, 11, collated with ‘Cod. C. C. C. Cambr.,’ s. 4, 140) and ‘Codex Exoniensis, a Collection of Anglo-Saxon Poetry, with English Translation and Notes’ (London, 8vo). Next came, for the Ælfric Society, ‘The Homilies of the Anglo-Saxon Church,’ with an English version, published in ten parts between 1843 and 1846. In re- cognition of the importance of all this unremunerative work, Thorpe was granted a civil list pension of 160l. in 1835, and on 17 June 1841 this was increased to 200l. per annum (Colles, Lit. and Pension List, p. 15).  

As early as 1834 Thorpe had commenced a translation of Lappenberg's works on old English history, but had felt the inadequacy of his own knowledge to control his author's statements. By 1842 his knowledge had been greatly enlarged and consolidated, and he commenced another version, with numerous alterations, corrections, and notes of his own. This was published in two volumes in 1845 as ‘A History of England under the Anglo-Saxon Kings,’ from the German of Dr. J. M. Lappenberg (London, 8vo). It was followed, after an interval of twelve years, by a version of the same writer's ‘History of England under the Norman Kings … from the Battle of Hastings to the Accession of the House of Plantagenet’ (Oxford, 8vo). The literary introduction to both these works is still of value, although they have been superseded in most respects by the works of Kemble, Green, Freeman, and Bishop Stubbs. Of more permanent importance was Thorpe's two-volume edition of Florence of Worcester, issued in 1848–9 as ‘Florentii Wigornensis monachi Chronicon ex Chronicis ab adventu Hengesti … usque ad annum mcxvii, cui accesserunt continuationes duæ,’ collated and edited with English notes (London, 8vo).

In 1851, after a long negotiation with Edward Lumley, Thorpe sold that publisher, for 150l., his valuable ‘Northern Mythology, comprising the principal popular Traditions and Superstitions of Scandinavia, North Germany, and the Netherlands … from original and other sources’ (London, 3 vols. 12mo), a work upon the notes and illustrations of which he had lavished the greatest care and pains. Continuing in the same vein of research, he produced in 1853 his ‘Yule Tide Stories: a collection of Scandinavian Tales and Traditions,’ which appeared in Bohn's ‘Antiquarian Library.’ For the same library he translated in 1854 ‘Pauli's Life of Alfred the Great,’ to which is appended Alfred's Anglo-Saxon version of ‘Orosius,’ with a literal translation and notes.

In 1855 appeared Thorpe's ‘Anglo-Saxon Poems of Beowulf,’ with translation, notes, glossary, and indexes. He had designed this work as early as 1830, and in the meantime had appeared Kemble's literal prose translation in 1837, and Wackerbarth's metrical version in 1849. Thorpe's text was collated with the Cottonian MS. before Kemble's; and as the scorched edges of that manuscript, already ‘as friable as touchwood,’ suffered further detriment very shortly after his collation, a particular value attaches to Thorpe's readings, which vary in many respects from those of his predecessor.

In 1861 Thorpe deserved the lasting gratitude of historical students by his ‘excellent edition’ for the Rolls Series of ‘The Anglo-Saxon Chronicle, according to the several Authorities.’ In the first volume are printed synoptically the Corpus Christi, Cambridge, the Bodleian, and the various Cottonian texts, with facsimiles and notes, while in volume two appears the translation (London, 8vo; cf. Athenæum, 1861, i. 653). Four years later, through the liberality of Joseph Mayer [q. v.] of Liverpool (after having applied in vain for financial aid to the home office, to Sir John Romilly, and to the master of the rolls), Thorpe was enabled to publish his invaluable supplement to Kemble's ‘Codex Diplomaticus ævi Saxonici,’ entitled ‘Diplomatarium Anglicum Ævi Saxonici: a Collection of English Charters (605–1066), containing Miscellaneous Charters, Wills, Guilds, Manumissions, and Aquittances, with a translation of the Anglo-Saxon’ (London, 8vo). Among the subscribers to this scholarly record of early English manners were Blaauw, Earle, Guest, Freeman, Lappenberg, Milman, and Roach Smith, to whose great archæological learning Thorpe made special acknowledgement in his preface.  

His last work, done for Trübner in 1866, was ‘Edda Sæmundar Hinns Frôða: the Edda of Sæmund the Learned, from the old Norse or Icelandic,’ with a mythological index and an index of persons and places, issued in two parts (London, 8vo).  

Thorpe, who was an F.S.A., a member of the Royal Academy of Sciences at Munich, and of the Society of Netherlandish Literature at Leyden, spent the last twenty years of his life at Chiswick, where he died, aged 88, on 19 July 1870. Of his own generation he probably did more than any man to refute Kemble's charge against English scholars of apathy in relation to Anglo-Saxon literature and philology.  

[Thorpe's Works in British Museum Library; Athenæum, 1870, ii. 117; Metcalfe's Englishman and Scandinavian, 1880, p. 18; Allibone's Dict. of English Literature; The Deeds of Beowulf, ed. Earle, 1892, xxix.; Roach Smith's Retrospections, 1883, i. 71–2 (containing two of Thorpe's letters); Britton's Autobiography, 1850, p. 8.]