Skeat, W. W.

Walter William Skeat (1835-1912), philologist and medievalist

W. W. Skeat in his study. Photo reproduced by permission of Cambridge University Library

W. W. Skeat was born in London in 1835 and educated at Sir Roger Cholmeley’s School, Highgate, and Christ’s College, Cambridge (1854-8), where he read theology and mathematics. He was elected a fellow of his college in 1860 and became ordained in the same year, but was obliged to give up his fellowship when he married shortly thereafter (at that time fellows of Oxford and Cambridge were still officially celibate). In 1862 Skeat moved to a curacy in East Dereham, Norfolk, but two years later illness brought his career in the church to an end, and he returned from his second curacy in Godalming to live in Cambridge again, supported by his father and by a lectureship in mathematics at his old college. His lecturing job left him ample leisure for continued philological investigations. Encouraged by F. J. Furnivall, who had founded the Early English Text Society in 1864 (partly to supply printed material in Old and Middle English from which to excerpt quotations for the projected New English Dictionary), Skeat undertook the editing of many Middle and Old English texts, principally Piers Plowman (1866-86) and various works by Chaucer, the latter culminating in his seven-volume edition of Chaucer (1894–7). He also published a vast range of notes and articles on philological subjects. In 1878 he was unanimously elected first holder of the Elrington and Bosworth chair in Anglo-Saxon at Cambridge University, and was re-elected to a fellowship at Christ’s College in 1883. He was an active member of the London Philological Society and a founder member of the British Academy; he continued to live and work in Cambridge until his death.

Skeat’s Piers Plowman and Works of Chaucer both became standard editions, not to be superseded for many decades and still valuable today for their wealth of interpretative and historical annotation (see Brewer 1996). Skeat broke new ground in Piers Plowman editorial history by seeking out a far wider range of MSS than previous editors, and – developing a suggestion made by Richard Price in 1824 – identifying three, rather than merely two, separate authorial versions of this poem. Although both his analysis of textual relationships and his assumption of single authorship, by William Langland, were subsequently questioned (e.g. by Manly in 1906), Skeat’s view of the poem prevailed and is still widely accepted today. His two-volume parallel-text edition of the poem was re-issued in 1954, reprinted as recently as 1979, and was used as a model by one of the two modern scholarly editions of the poem, that of A. V. C. Schmidt (1995), who added a fourth authorial version to those identified by Skeat. Skeat’s edition of Chaucer was a less original undertaking, based on the Chaucer Society transcripts of manuscripts made by Furnivall, but was immeasurably superior to previous editions on account of its intelligent and critical consultation of these primary sources. It has formed an important basis for all subsequent editing of Chaucer’s work.

Skeat’s expertise was not confined to the 14th century: he published editions of Anglo-Saxon texts (principally the Old English Gospels and Aelfric’s Lives of Saints) and many other Middle English works, and even produced an edition of Chatterton (1871). His enduring interest in medieval texts was as much (or more) philological as literary, but he resisted the notion that philologists were insensible of or uncaring about the aesthetic and affective aspects of literature; or, as he put it, that ‘a critical examination of the language is likely to interfere with the romantic element….Why are we to be debarred from examining a poet’s work because his words are sweet and his descriptions entrancing? That is only one more reason for weighing every word that he uses….The philologist…has the larger view [i.e., in comparison with the literary critic], and can see the value both of the language and of the ideas’ (A Student’s Pastime, p. xiii). Skeat maintained a close relationship with the N.E.D. from its first beginnings in the late 1850s, contributing slips and advice to Furnivall and supporting its chief editor, J. A. H. Murray, with quantities of lexical information and with close friendship. The latter took the form of financial aid (a mortgage on Murray’s house in Oxford), regular correspondence (now in the Murray Papers in the Bodeian Library), and occasional composition of witty rhymes on Murray’s rate of progress (as for example “To Dr. Murray on Completing the Letter C”).

In 1873 Skeat founded the English Dialect Society, of which he was director for four years and then president; in the course of 1873 and 1874 six works were published by this society, five of them edited by Skeat, and these and other publications culminated in the English Dialect Dictionary (edited by Joseph Wright, 1896–1905 and dedicated to Skeat). Skeat’s close scholarly knowledge of an extensive range of texts, many supplied with glossaries, enabled him to produce another important book, his Etymological Dictionary (1879–82; revised and enlarged, 1910), again begun with the purpose of collecting and sifting material for use in NED.

Skeat’s huge scholarly output was remarkably accurate, and he also found the time to popularize English philology by giving lectures and preparing editions for school audiences, and to support the development of the subject as an academic discipline in Cambridge and elsewhere. He was unremittingly industrious, and moreover blessed with a sunny disposition – he described himself as rarely depressed and ‘buoyant as a cork’. The key to his productivity may have been his easy ability to resist unprofitable lines of investigation: in the preface to the first edition of his Etymological Dictionary he explains that he usually gave three hours to a difficult word – ‘During that time I made the best I could of it and then let it go.’ His formidable achievement in English medieval studies and philology marks him out as one of the great 19th-century pioneer scholars, and his work formed a solid basis for much of the academic development of these areas in the following century.1

Last updated on 9 October 2019


  1. See the ODNB entry on Skeat by Kenneth Sisam, revised by Charlotte Brewer, at [accessed 30 August 2018]; subscription required.