Sir Thomas Phillipps’s Old English grammar

The history of book collecting is studded with colorful figures. One of the most honored but also most eccentric was Sir Thomas Phillipps (1792-1872). The illegitimate son of a wealthy textile manufacturer, Phillipps spent his inheritance indulging his passion for medieval manuscripts. His obsession was so great in fact that he referred to himself as a “vellomaniac,” from the word vellum, the material on which early manuscripts were written. It has been estimated that Phillipps acquired more than 100,000 books and manuscripts, spending as much as a quarter million pounds, a colossal sum by nineteenth-century standards. As proof of just how much material he amassed, his library took more than 100 years to disperse, the last sale catalog being issued in 1977.

By the end of his life, Phillipps was not only deeply in debt but had also become estranged from most of his family. Had it not been for him, however, many important manuscripts would have been lost forever or lain undiscovered for many more years. One of his most important finds was a fragment of a grammar and glossary written by the Anglo-Saxon abbot Aelfric of Eynsham, known as Aelfric Grammaticus or Aelfric the Grammarian. The manuscript also contained a number of Old English poems which Phillipps subsequently published.

The discovery of another grammar book, now in the LSU Libraries’ Special Collections, further reveals Phillipps’s interest in this area of study. The Rudiments of Grammar for the English-Saxon Tongue, published in 1715 by the “Saxon Nymph,” Elizabeth Elstob, a pioneer in Old English studies and one of the first professional women scholars, was inscribed by Phillipps at his Worcestershire estate, Middle Hill.  The copy is of some interest for its annotations about etymology, apparently in Phillipps’s hand. He wonders, for example, whether the word geswingen, meaning “to whip,” is the source of “the schoolboy’s threat ‘I’ll give him a good swingeing.’” The connection to Elstob is also interesting on account of Phillipps’s acquisition of the manuscript collection that she and her brother William Elstob owned and studied.

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