Fraenkel’s Specks of Dirt.

From Stefan Collini’s LRB review (13 July 2017, pp. 25-27) of Ark of Civilisation: Refugee Scholars and Oxford University, 1930-45, edited by Sally Crawford, Katharina Ulmschneider and Jaś Elsner (Oxford UP, 2017):

One figure who merits, and receives, special attention is Eduard Fraenkel, described as ‘one of the great classical scholars of the 20th century’. By 1934, when he was 46, Fraenkel had already held chairs at three German universities. His family were typical of the stratum of prosperous, cultivated Jews who regarded themselves as Germans. As his son recalled, ‘he enjoyed his ham and bacon, and believed in no god … It was Hitler who made him and us feel Jewish.’ Forced to stop teaching, Fraenkel left for Britain in 1934, where his scholarly reputation eased his path. Maurice Bowra organised a whip-round of sympathetic Oxford classicists to provide some immediate financial aid, and both Corpus Christi and Christ Church extended him support; A.E. Housman seems to have spurred Trinity College, Cambridge to offer him a five-year fellowship. Not that Fraenkel had arrived as the typical penniless refugee. When he brought his family over from Freiburg later in 1934, they came ‘with two railway carriages of possessions, including Fraenkel’s violin and his wife’s Bechstein grand piano’. But what made his case exceptional was that he soon walked into one of the plum jobs in British academia: in December 1934 he was elected to the Corpus Chair of Latin at Oxford, his academic admirers in Britain having paid the costs of printing numerous testimonials in his support.

Fraenkel was, according to the editors of this volume, ‘possibly viewed as the greatest “catch” for Oxford of all its refugee academics in the arts and humanities’. He also provides an interesting test-case for assessing the intellectual impact of the German-Jewish émigrés. He remained in his Oxford chair till his retirement in 1953, after which he continued to run an advanced seminar almost until his death in 1970. Hugh Lloyd-Jones’s verdict was that Fraenkel’s influence ‘created an amalgam of German Altertumswissenschaft with English classical scholarship’, but his brand of European learning may not always have been welcomed by college tutors immersed in the task of taking their first and second-year undergraduates through their time-hallowed linguistic drills. Fraenkel attempted to import the Continental tradition of the professorial seminar for advanced students. His seminar on Aeschylus’ Agamemnon ran from autumn 1936 to spring 1942, progressing, as Christopher Stray calculates in his excellent essay on Fraenkel, at a rate of just under ten lines per hour. Various figures have recorded their recollections of this remarkable institution, which Jaś Elsner, one of the editors of this collection, calls ‘the most famous seminar in the history of Oxford classics’. (A less flattering account described it as ‘a circle of rabbits addressed by a stoat’.) Fraenkel seems to have completed his mammoth commentary on the play by 1946, and it was eventually published in three volumes by OUP in 1950. Elsner speaks of it as ‘perhaps the greatest of all commentaries on a Greek play or indeed in any area of classical scholarship’. Yet even Fraenkel, one of the indisputable success stories in Oxford’s engagement with refugee scholars, did not always find adaptation easy. Stray reports that when his great commentary was being reprinted in the early 1950s, Fraenkel complained to OUP that the umlauts in the names of the classical scholars Müller and Löfstedt were missing: ‘Investigation revealed that the staff who checked the bromide films used for the reprint had thought they were specks of dirt and removed them.’

Addendum. Anne Lonsdale wrote a letter in response to the review that begins:

Stefan Collini’s essay on scholars displaced by the Second World War mentions that Eduard Fraenkel’s seminar on Aeschylus’ Agamemnon was described in one account as ‘a circle of rabbits addressed by a stoat’ (LRB, 13 July). I was one of Professor Fraenkel’s ‘rabbits’ from my first week in Oxford. Unusually for Oxford in the 1950s, Fraenkel treated young women as equals, and savaged us equally, which was refreshing at a time when lectures often started with ‘Good morning, gentlemen.’ We progressed at a rate of between ten and twenty lines in two hours. Each session was the responsibility of a single student, who would establish each word of text from a variety of manuscripts and then its meaning with the help of any and every tool known to literature, history, art and scholarship. The bit one ‘did’ was engraved on the brain for months. When I joined, Fraenkel had finished Agamemnon and was working on the Cena Trimalchionis.

She goes on to talk about the current role of the Council for At-Risk Academics (Cara), of which she is chair, in helping academics from Iraq, Syria and elsewhere; you can read both the Collini piece and her full letter (in pdf format) here.


  1. I should add that “a circle of rabbits addressed by a stoat” is such a good phrase the LRB used it as the title of the review.

  2. Stu Clayton says:

    “Fraenkel’s Legacy: Separating the Peeps from the Stoats”

  3. A colleague at one of my jobs was an Armenian of non-Armenia-middle-East birth, who had moved to the south of England and then Northern Ireland, converted to the Church of Ireland (= local Episcopalians), and started voting for the DUP (= the Democratic Unionist Party, founded by a close ally of Bob Jones University). He voted for Brexit, and seemed disappointed to learn from me that the English elite was always quite europhile in the way this episode describes, that Jacob Rees–Mogg is an exception to a historical tendency.

  4. the English elite was always quite europhile in the way this episode describes, that Jacob Rees–Mogg is an exception to a historical tendency.

    Hmm? There’s two (at least) English elites. The academic left-leaning intellectuals are indeed Europhile (and very welcoming to Jewish intellectuals). The land-owning gentry are philistine, ignorant of Europe rather than actually hostile, and vaguely anti-semitic/anti-foreign in general. (Think Lord Emsworth for a benign example.)

    So for example, Enoch Powell was widely distrusted by the Tory grandees not because they disagreed with his racism, but because he was too clever by half.

    The Rees-Moggs are curious. William (the father) was an intellectual and urbane. Jacob imagines himself to be gentry (but isn’t). He just tries too hard. Jumped-up I call it.

  5. David Eddyshaw says:

    “Jumped-up” doesn’t quite catch it, I think; as as Wodehousian you will appreciate (and probably already know) the wholly accurate characterisation of the man as “Roderick Spode pretending to be Gussie Fink-Nottle.”


  6. Lord Emsworth, for the non-Wodehousians among us.

  7. I see the Gussie Fink-Nottle; but Jacob isn’t as pusillanimous. (I think Jacob could manage to speak to hall full of schoolboys without needing a ‘stiffener’ or brace first.) Roderick Spode? the guy with a head like a boiled ham always blustering around trying to beat up Bertie. No I don’t see him in Jacob at all. Jacob would be notably absent from any sports field or boxing ring.

  8. I don’t remember Spode being particularly sports minded, despite the footer bags. Wasn’t he reduced simply by a well-aimed vegetable?

  9. AJP Crown says:

    I don’t see Smogg as Spode either. He and Gove make a habit of being polite in all circumstances as if it were a previously agreed tactic. Farridge is Spode. But the one who’d really like to be taken for a Wodehouse character, any character (except Spode, obviously), is Johnson. The whole “Boris” thing with the absent-minded-professor hair is an act to make him super cuddly. People who know him loathe him and call him Al.

    And why does it take 7 weeks to get a new pm? When Nixon resigned, it was all over in 24 hrs. They need to pull their socks up in Britain.

  10. David Eddyshaw says:

    I don’t see Smogg as Spode either

    Well, no: that’s because’s he’s pretending to be Gussie Fink-Nottle.

    It’s true enough that everybody loves Boris except the people who’ve met him.

  11. I’ve never met him, and I can’t stand him.

  12. Stu Clayton says:

    When Nixon resigned, it was all over in 24 hrs.

    That’s because there’s always a plan B, namely the vice-president. It seems to me that in Britain politicians come and go by the seat of their pants, there’s no continuity but in misery.

  13. David Eddyshaw says:

    @Hat: I was referring to the only 160,000 people who really matter.

    @AJPC: in the UK these things are decided democratically, by a representative sample of elderly xenophobes and far-right entryists. It takes time for them to (respectively) find their reading glasses and delete their old tweets. 7 weeks may be pushing it.

  14. Narmitaj says:

    @AJP Crown “They need to pull their socks up in Britain” – We can get the next monarch in the UK, when it proves necessary, in the blink of an eye. In fact, I gather from Wikipedia, in the event of a mass series of deaths we have the next 5,000 or so potential monarchs lined up in order.

    But yes, it does seem odd that Tory and indeed Labour party leadership elections can take longer than a General Election… UK general elections in 2005 and 2010 took about a month (April 5 – May 5 and April 6 – May 6 respectively), whereas this leadership election is not due to complete until mid-July. (You could argue it hasn’t actually started yet, as May is not officially resigning until 7th June and candidate nominations for the successor do not close until 10th June, but really it kicked off before this weekend.)

    However, when a party wins a general election, they move into power as the government and the new PM into No. 10 the same day – no transition period of ten weeks or so. And of course UK general elections don’t last a year or two.

  15. I don’t remember Spode being particularly sports minded,

    “A violent man, he threatens to tear Bertie’s head off and make him eat it. Spode is a large and intimidating figure, with a powerful, square face.” sez wp. Anyways that’s not describing Jacob.

    Farridge is Spode.

    Yes that’s more like it. Isn’t his handle ‘Farrago’? As in “A farrago of twisted facts … a fevered imagination” [Harold Wilson]

    The whole “Boris” thing with the absent-minded-professor hair is an act to make him super cuddly.

    I can’t stand him either. What I don’t get is how he poses as representing the common weald against the bureaucrats and managerialists. As if being incompetent is a virtue in government. Why would any ‘common wealdnik’ vote for an upper-class twit?

    Equally I can’t understand why any rust-belt crucible of resentment against Socialism-for-the-rich (and I fully understand the resentment) would vote for a carnival barker/swindler/millionaire (alleged) who’s never done an honest day’s work in his life.

  16. David Marjanović says:

    Because he sticks it to the libtards. That’s why.

    As I’ve said about Austria, it’s perfectly possible to hate groups of people without loving any.

  17. Because he sticks it to the libtards. That’s why.

    Yes; and because ignorance yields confidence, and confidence looks like power.

  18. Stu Clayton says:

    Confidence is indistinguishable from power when the con-man succeeds in brushing off all challenges. This worked fine for the “Democrats”, it works just fine for Trump and the “Republicans”. It’s the fundamental swamp strategy.

    Now that it’s clear the Dems have nothing to offer but universal love and better manners, they’re screwed. After a while it will become clear that the Reps have nothing to offer but antagonism and bluster, and it will be their turn in the barrel.

  19. AJP Crown says:

    Well, no: that’s because he’s pretending to be Gussie Fink-Nottle.

    @ David Eddyshaw, Of course you’re right. A spode in fink-nottle clothing.

  20. Bill Walderman says:

    His cousin Hermann Fränkel, who escaped to Stanford, was an equally formidable classical scholar, and Hermann’s son Hans was a distinguished scholar of Chinese at Yale.

  21. Yes, it’s hard to keep them all straight. I knew a woman who studied with Hans, which helps a bit.

  22. I was interested by “rabbits addressed by a stoat” as well, so I looked into it:

    Some seminar!

  23. Stu Clayton says:

    Serial groper (Mary Beard dixit) and classical philologist Eduard Fraenkel:

    # Über seine Schwester Lilli war Eduard Fraenkel mit seinem Namensvetter, dem Altphilologen Hermann Fränkel, verschwägert. # [The English WiPe doesn’t contain this info]

    A Namensvetter is not a cousin. It means only “someone with the same forename or surname”. Here it says only that HF was EF’s brother-in-law. EF married HF’s sister Lilli.That doesn’t prove HF and EF were not cousins, of course, but I wonder whether the Namensvetter bit has given rise to a self-propagating false claim (self-propagating in that it is repeated often enough for people to take it for granted) that they were cousins.

    More on groping from the English article:

    # … the philosopher Baroness Mary Warnock, recounted being groped by Fraenkel in her memoirs.[2] Nevertheless, she later remarked that Fraenkel was the best teacher she had ever known and stresses that his status as a classical scholar is undiminished by his conduct towards women.[3] #

    I like “philosopher Baroness”. It’s not that far from philosopher-king.

  24. Stu Clayton says:

    Oops. HF married EF’s sister Lilli.

  25. AJP Crown says:

    Nobody likes to be groped in her memoirs.

  26. I was wondering if he was closely related to Abraham Halevy Fraenkel, a founder of axiomatic number theory and a famous eccentric. He probably wasn’t (AH was religious and from Munich; E was secular and from Berlin.) However, I found the horrible/absurd Naftaly Frenkel, a Soviet prisoner turned Gulag efficiency expert.

  27. Good lord, how did he manage to survive the Stalin era and live until 1960? And talk about dubious origins:

    Naftaly Frenkel’s origins are uncertain. Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn called him a “Turkish Jew born in Constantinople”. Another described him as a “Hungarian manufacturer”. Yet another claimed that Frenkel came from Odessa. Yet more said he was from Austria, or Palestine. His prisoner registration card states clearly that he was born in Haifa, then part of the Ottoman Empire. From Haifa he made his way (perhaps via Odessa, perhaps via Austria-Hungary) to the Soviet Union where he described himself as a ‘merchant’. Finnish communist Arvo Tuominen, who met Frenkel in 1933, claimed in his memoirs that Frenkel was related to the Frenckells, a prominent Finnish-Swedish family of Germanic origins (see, for instance, Erik von Frenckell) and that he spoke Swedish.

  28. John Cowan says:

    We have the next 5,000 or so potential monarchs lined up in order

    The U.S. President has only 18 designated successors, starting with the Vice President, who becomes President in the event of the death, resignation, conviction on impeachment, or permanent disability of the President. Failing the Vice President, then the Acting President will be the Speaker of the House, the President pro tempore of the Senate (the President of the Senate is the Vice President, though he rarely actually presides), both of whom are elected by their respective houses, and the 15 Cabinet heads (in order of the seniority of their departments).

    These 17 are skipped if ineligible to be President, under impeachment, or otherwise disabled or disqualified, but can bump a more junior Acting President if the disability or disqualification goes away. This provision may be unconstitutional, as may the provision to appoint members of the Legislature as Acting President, as they are not technically “officers of the United States”. Since the statute has never been invoked, these propositions have never been tested.

    If the President’s disability is only temporary, the Vice President becomes Acting President, followed by the other 17 successors as needed. So far Presidents have always declared themselves disabled (usually by general anaesthesia) and been temporarily superseded by their Vice Presidents, but there is a mechanism to declare a President temporarily or permanently unfit.

    But of course we can always elect a new President if you give us time. Wholly new monarchs are not so easily found.

  29. Good lord, how did he manage to survive the Stalin era and live until 1960? And talk about dubious origins

    I’m imagining a cold-hearted version of Ostap Bender.

  30. “Stray reports” had me down the garden path (or, perhaps, rabbit hole) for quite some time there.

  31. J.W. Brewer says:

    Do I take it that Fraenkel (and perhaps his own parents) spelled the name thusly back in Germany, having already diverged orthographically from their Fränkel cousins, if they were indeed cousins? I.e., it wasn’t just a mid-life respelling incident to relocating to a new environment where umlauts were not easily found on the typewriter? If so, would that sort of orthographic divergence among different branches of the same family be common enough to not be much evidence that they weren’t some degree of cousin?

  32. Stu Clayton says:

    I still think a misunderstanding of the word Namensvetter has set people charging down a rabbit-hole. When people are related and have the same family name, their being related is mentioned in the same breath as the family name.

    In contrast, the very use of Namensvetter w.r.t. family name pretty much implies that they are *not* related, in particular not Vetter = cousins.

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