Ancient History & Civilisation



Eduard Fraenkel was one of the most renowned classical scholars of the twentieth century: refugee to England from Nazi persecution; Corpus Professor of Latin at Oxford from 1935 to 1953; radical reinterpreter of the Roman comedy of Plautus, who showed that it was much more than second-hand pastiche of lost Greek plays; pioneer in new methods of classical teaching (notably the German-style ‘seminar’, rather than the traditional lecture or tutorial); and – to judge from the accounts of several of his women students – a serial groper. Isobel Henderson, Tutor at Somerville, used to warn her students in advance that, although they would learn a lot, they would probably be ‘pawed about a bit’. At least the Somervillians knew what to expect. According to her own memoirs, Mary Warnock, a student at Lady Margaret Hall, was not so prepared. Fraenkel picked her up from one of his famous seminars in the early 1940s and promptly arranged private after-dinner tutorials. These combined some heady and inspiring discussions of Latin and Greek with ‘kisses and increasingly constant fumblings with … (my) underclothes’. Warnock dreamt up a clever wheeze to continue with the teaching but to avoid the ‘pawing’. She invited her friend Imogen, who was over from Cambridge, to their sessions. But Fraenkel was ahead of the game. Imogen, he pointed out, needed to pay more close attention to Pindar, whereas Mary should be concentrating on early Latin and the Agamemnon. And so he managed to end up with two evenings a week of this kind of sport, one with his ‘black sheep’ and one with his ‘white’ (as he himself dubbed them, on the basis of their hair colour). Time was only called when a less compliant student from LMH shopped him to her tutor, and the tutorials were stopped. Any academic woman older than her mid forties is likely to have an ambivalent reaction to this. On the one hand, it is impossible not to feel outrage at a straightforward case of persistent sexual harassment and the abuse of (male) power. On the other hand, if we’re honest, it is also hard to repress a bit of wistful nostalgia for that academic era before about 1980 when the erotic dimension of pedagogy – which had flourished, after all, since Plato – was firmly stamped out. Warnock herself shares that ambivalence, weighing the damage done (to Fraenkel’s wife no less than to some of his ‘girls’) against the inspirational teaching which came with, and was inextricable from, the ‘pawing’. In more than one newspaper interview she has singled Fraenkel out as the best teacher she ever had. However we choose to dispense or suspend moral judgement, this story of middle-aged donnish fumblings raises important issues in the writing of biography. What gets included, what excluded from the retrospective accounts of famous lives? What principles of censorship are at work behind the authorised versions of these lives, particularly as they are transmitted in biographical dictionaries and other such works of reference? And how far does this matter? Fraenkel’s case is paradigmatic and one of the most revealing. It will come as little surprise that none of the standard English accounts of Fraenkel’s life mentions his wandering hand or what went on in his tutorials with women. The closest we get is a single sentence in Nicholas Horsfall’s account in Briggs and Calder’s Biographical Encyclopaedia of famous classicists: ‘He did enjoy, warmly, but most decorously, female beauty’. Most ‘decorously’? Either this is staggering naivety on the part of Horsfall, or it is a guarded hint to those already in the know (in other words, most of the Oxford Classics establishment). Or, more likely, it is a pre-emptive defence against anyone who should risk leaking more widely what was already common knowledge in a restricted circle. To be fair to Horsfall, his version of Fraenkel is, overall, carefully judged and one of the most illuminating. His is the only major account, for example, to give due mention to Fraenkel’s most striking physical characteristic: his withered right hand. By contrast Gordon Williams’s long memoir in the Proceedings of the British Academy, marking Fraenkel’s death in 1970, deals with the childhood illness that led to the disability but later devotes a whole paragraph to describing its subject (‘short’, ‘magnificent forehead’, ‘fine eyes’ and so on) without reference to the withered hand. It is as if a veil must be drawn post mortem over physical frailty as well as over sexual exploits.

The authorised version of Fraenkel’s life now uniformly concentrates on his capacity for immense hard work and superhumanly long days. ‘He was at his desk not later than 8.30 each morning’, explains Williams. ‘He worked until dinner, and, unless a guest claimed his attention, he would return to work till 10.30 or so. He then walked home to talk to Ruth (his wife).’ The kind of guests that were ‘claiming his attention’, in Warnock’s era at least, surely partly undermine the straightforward image of the workaholic professor, his eyes glued to his books. The other aspect of Fraenkel which completes the standard picture is his suicide, just a few hours after the death of Ruth. ‘Fraenkel chose not to survive her and died at his home’, as Hugh Lloyd-Jones elegantly puts it in the old (and new) DNB, or, in Horsfall’s more extravagant words, ‘We revere his suicide, for love’. It would be foolish to imagine that love for one’s wife is necessarily incompatible with ‘pawing’ one’s female students. But Fraenkel’s uxoriousness does look rather different in the light of the experiences of Warnock (who refers directly to Ruth’s unhappiness at Fraenkel’s ‘predilections’). At the very least, the authorised version of his career and character fails to do justice to what was obviously a much more complicated and interesting reality. Rather like tourist guide-books that continue to extol the peaceful little fishing village, when it has long since been bisected by a six-lane highway, these biographical accounts operate at one stage removed from the messy reality of life as lived. The least satisfactory and the most reticent of such versions of Fraenkel is published in the new three-volume Dictionary of British Classicists which draws together biographical essays by some 200 contributors on more than 700 classicists, from Edwin Abbott Abbott (sic), a nineteenth-century headmaster committed to the idea that learning Latin should be fun, to Gunther Zuntz, also a refugee from Nazi Germany, who taught for many years at the University of Manchester. The main qualifications for inclusion (apart from working in Britain, not necessarily being British by birth) is to have been active in classical learning or teaching by about AD 1500 and to have been dead by 2000; the ancient historian Nicholas Hammond and W. S. Barrett, editor of Euripides’Hippolytos, both somehow scrape under the wire, although neither died until 2001. The essay on Fraenkel austerely refrains from mentioning almost any aspect of his ‘private’ life. There is not a single reference to Ruth, let alone to the suicide (which has been a crucial element in his posthumous reputation) or to the hands, withered or wandering. At the same time, it rarely succeeds in being anything but unnuanced hagiography. Fraenkel’s deeply unsatisfactory book on the rhythm of Latin prose (which even Gordon Williams was happy to call ‘a disaster’) is here praised as a ‘systematic treatment of this difficult and controversial subject’.

Fraenkel’s famous seminars are lauded, while he himself is hailed as ‘a distinguished and influential teacher’. Up to a point this is undoubtedly true, as Warnock and many other students still testify. But inevitably there was another side. Lloyd-Jones candidly admits that ‘as a teacher he had certain defects. He was not quick on the up-take, and could seldom elicit suggestions from his hearers; he tended to extremes of praise or blame, and many of his pupils found him frightening’. Or, as Williams reports, one ‘victim’ once described his seminars as ‘a circle of rabbits addressed by a stoat’. They were, in other words, as much an exercise in professorial power and domination as the radical pedagogical innovation that they are here taken to be. Inevitably, with over 200 contributors, the quality of the other entries in the Dictionary varies enormously. Some of the weaker ones are little more than paraphrases of the entry for their subject in the old DNB, down to very closely borrowed phrases. (Unsurprisingly several entries are the work of those who also wrote the essay in the new DNB, and there the overlap is even more substantial.) But there are faults of many other kinds. Objectivity has not been helped by commissioning, in at least three cases, children to write piously about their fathers (Classics does tend to run in families). And occasionally North American contributors demonstrate a less than sure touch with British institutions (in the essay on R. A. Neil, Cambridge classicist and orientalist and one-time boyfriend of Jane Ellen Harrison, the Scottish ecclesiastical term ‘quoad sacra’ is garbled into ‘quondam sacra’). In general, the accounts tend to be franker and more open about human frailty when the subjects are long dead. We read, for example, of Richard Porson’s (1759–1808) fondness for the bottle, but not of G. E. L. Owen’s (Cambridge philosopher, 1922–1982).

The best entries are those (relatively few) where the writer is closely familiar with the academic work of their subject, is well informed about their personal circumstances, either directly or through a good long stint in the archives, and understands the social, cultural and academic context in which they worked. They alone escape the tralatician ‘guidebook’ style. M. L. West’s accounts of historians of Greek music and Vivian Nutton’s essays on historians of ancient medicine stand out. So too the series of articles by Christopher Stray which nicely captures the eccentricities of generations of Classics schoolmasters. Even more eccentric than most was Edmund Morshead, teacher at Winchester in the late nineteenth century: nicknamed ‘Mush’, he had his own private idiolect (‘Mushri’) that he shared with his pupils and he taught in a classroom known predictably enough as the ‘Mushroom’. But Stray also repeatedly demonstrates these teachers’ commitment to innovation and reform in the teaching of Classics and the curriculum more generally. The died-in-the-wool Mr Chips and the dreariness of the grammar grind is more our own modern myth than (at more radical schools, at least) the eighteenth-and nineteenth-century reality. Edwin Abbott Abbott, with his zeal for making Latin a pleasure, was not the exception. When he was not jabbering away in Mushri, Mush was publicly demanding that Classics teachers did not see scientists as the enemy, and pointing out that defences of Classics as a discipline could be as bigoted as the attacks upon it. Stray’s essays work partly because they are amusing, without aggressively laughing at their subjects. So too, one of the most engaging entries in all three volumes: Malcolm Schofield’s essay on Harry Sandbach (1903–1991), a Cambridge classicist best known for his work on Stoic philosophy and on Greek comedy. Schofield gently parodies the genre in which he is writing and so manages to tell us more about his subject than all those straight-faced accounts. Typical is the end of the article, a couple of deceptively simple sentences: ‘Sandbach was a small, kindly man, incapable of a rash or wounding remark; not indeed prone to volunteer conversation at all, although delighted to participate on a minimalist basis once it was initiated. Otherwise one could enjoy a silence with him.’ If only we could have had something as revealing as that for Fraenkel. In dictionaries of this kind there are always boundary disputes (British Monarchs – Lady Jane Grey in or out?). Here I missed several very obvious candidates who had failed to find a place. No Samuel Butler (author of The Authoress of the Odyssey), nor William Gell, who wrote the first English account of Pompeii. And the new DNB throws up scores of people designated as ‘classical scholars’, ‘classical archaeologists’, ‘Latin’ or ‘Greek scholars’ who do not make it into this Dictionary. The entries on women are rather few (under forty out of more than 700), largely an accurate indication of male dominance of the subject – but not entirely. Given a choice, I would have included Elizabeth Rawson, a major figure in Roman history who died in 1988, rather than Queen Elizabeth I. Rawson was presumably excluded by the rule that subjects should have ‘been born by about 1920’ – but it is an unhelpful omission. Equally unhelpful is the omission (for the same reason, I imagine) of Colin Macleod, pupil of Fraenkel and one of the most influential classical critics of the twentieth century, who committed suicide in 1981, and of the historian Martin Frederiksen, killed in a road accident in 1980. There is, however, as the mention of Elizabeth I hints, a bigger problem here about the definition of the whole project. Leaving aside the question of just how hubristic an undertaking a Dictionary of British Classicists is (or is it just the kind of thing disciplines do when they feel that they are in terminal decline?), it does make some sense for the period from the mid-nineteenth century on – when Classics first became a professional subject and an identifiable interest group. It was at this point that the term ‘classicist’ (or ‘classic’) was first used with anything like its modern professional meaning. Before then, when the teaching of Latin and, to a lesser extent Greek, dominated the school curriculum, it makes little sense to designate any elite male as a ‘classicist’ – or conversely you might argue that they all have a claim to be so called. So, predictably, the Dictionary has cherry-picked, including alongside Elizabeth I, Ben Jonson, Samuel Johnson, Johns Evelyn, Milton and Stuart Mill, and so on. But almost nothing is to be gained from seeing these next to the more recent professionals. There is, nevertheless, something to be gained from taking the opportunity that the Dictionary now offers to think about what, if anything, the professional classicists represented here share, and how this reflects on Classics as a discipline. The most striking aspect, for anyone reading from cover to cover, is the powerful and complicated relationship between British and German Classics. This is partly a consequence of the influx of refugees during the 1930s: the literary critics Fraenkel and Charles Brink, the historians Felix Jacoby and Stefan Weinstock, the archaeologist Paul Jacobsthal and many more. In fact the prominence of these refugees is nicely illustrated by one of the most genial anecdotes in the Dictionary. It concerns the internment camps where many of the refugees ended up (if only briefly). These were divided by nationality. In the Italian camp were just three professors (Arnaldo Momigliano, Lorenzo Minio-Paluello and Piero Sraffa) and a large number of waiters and chefs. The German camp was full of academics, many of them classicists. The English commander suggested to the three Italian professors that they might feel more at home in the German camp. The others were for moving, but Momigliano (according to Oswyn Murray) dissuaded them. ‘It was better’, he argued, ‘to be three Italian professors in a camp full of waiters and chefs, than three Italian waiters in a camp full of German professors.’ But it is not only a question of the physical presence of German scholars. From the early nineteenth century on, scholar after scholar is praised here by their biographer for being an important link in the chain that brought the distinctive traditions of German scholarship to these shores: Connop Thirlwall (1797–1875), for example, who ‘helped to introduce the erudite German Altertumswissenschaft in Britain’; W. M. Lindsay (1858–1937), who carried the torch of German linguistic analysis, after two semesters studying at Leipzig; or Mrs Arthur Strong (1860–1943), who did the same for art-historical study, having studied in Munich with Adolf Furtwängler. No one, by contrast, is acclaimed for having introduced French or Italian traditions of scholarship to this country (although in different ways they are no less distinguished). A few are damned for not taking German scholarship seriously enough.

It is hard, however, to take this strong emphasis on repeated waves of influence from Berlin and Munich entirely literally. Some there certainly were. Yet if German intellectual imports had really been on the scale that these biographical essays together suggest, then Fraenkel would have found himself in a home from home when he arrived in Oxford in 1934. In fact, he did not – neither socially nor intellectually (as the controversy sparked by his election to the chair of Latin in 1935 makes entirely clear). Modern hagiographies may gloss over this, as over so much else. But part of the problem must have been, as the Dictionary inadvertently hints, an awkward clash between the ‘myth’ of German scholarship in the British imagination (plus its role as a symbolic badge of academic rigour) and the real thing in the shape of a bona fide German professor, with his new-fangled ideas about seminars. Any new biography of Fraenkel should certainly aim to expose, and engage with, some of the aspects that lie just beneath the surface of the image of the workaholic professor. It should also aim to set him and his refugee peers (many of whom, whatever we like to think, found acceptance here difficult) against the background of the complicated, heavily loaded, British fantasies about German classical scholarship.

Review of Robert B. Todd (ed.), Dictionary of British Classicists (Continuum, 2004)

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