Francis James Child
(February 1, 1825 – September
11, 1896) was the first person to hold the title of Professor of
English at Harvard University. Had he done nothing else he would
today be remembered for his critical editions of the English poets;
but he also assembled, from a comparative study of manuscripts and
printed sources, what came to be known as the 305 canonical
and their numerous
variants, published in five volumes. "It was a massive and
monumental work", writes folklorist Ian Olsen,
for despite the "English" and "Scottish" in the title,
it was an international piece of research – his references alone
include thirty different language sources.
Although there have been arguments about some of the
ballads he canonised, very few omissions have come to light (the
late David Buchan suggested "The Trees They do Grow High" and its
close cousin "Young Craigston" should be "Child 306 and 307"
respectively), and the work has proved invaluable to both scholars
As fashion has swung away from "purely literary" and
"text-based" studies to more "oral/aural" and "context-based"
["performance"] research, there has arisen an unfortunate modern
tendency to belittle Child’s great achievement, usually by those
who themselves display not a tenth of his scholarship, industry,
Fortunately, of late, serious scholarly aficionados
such as Sigrid Rieuwerts and David Atkinson have ably redressed
this state of affairs.
The son of
a sailmaker, Francis James Child was born in Boston,
His family was very poor but thanks to the
city of Boston's system of free public schools he was educated at
the Boston's Grammar and English High Schools. There his brilliance
came to the attention of Epes Sargent Dixwell, the principal of the
School, who saw to it that the promising youngster was
furnished with a scholarship to attend Harvard.
He was graduated in 1846
, topping his class in all subjects and was chosen
Class Orator. In 1846 Child was appointed tutor in mathematics
at Harvard and in 1848
was transferred to a tutorship in history,
political economy, and English
. In 1848, he published a critically annotated
edition (the first of the kind to be produced in America) of
Four Old Plays: Three interludes: Thersytes,
Jack Jugler and Heywood's Pardoner and frere: and Jocasta, a
tragedy by Gascoigne and Kinwelmarsh, with an introduction and
. America had no graduate schools at this time, but a
loan from a benefactor, Jonathan I. Bowditch (to whom the book was
dedicated) enabled him to take a leave of absence from Harvard to
pursue his studies in Germany. There he studied English drama and Germanic philology at the University of
Göttingen, which conferred on him an honorary doctorate, and
University, Berlin, where he
heard lectures by the linguists Grimm and was much influenced by
, at the age of 26, Child
succeeded Edward T. Channing
as Harvard's Boylston Professor
, a position he held until Adams Sherman
Hill was appointed to the professorship in 1876.
Child, a devotee of antique roses,
photographed in his rose garden.
Roses figure in many ballads.
During the twenty-five years Child was Professor of Rhetoric at
Harvard, he undertook general editorial supervision of the
publication of a 130-volume collection of the works of the British
poets (many not previously generally available to the reading
public), which began appearing 1853. The volumes on the works of
(five volumes, Boston,
1855) and the English and Scottish Ballads
(in eight small
volumes, Boston, 1857–1858), Child edited himself. Child planned a
critical edition of the works of Chaucer
, as well, but he felt this could
not be done since only one early (and faulty) text was available.
He therefore wrote a treatise, blandly titled "Observations on the
Language of Chaucer", published in the Memoirs of the American
Academy of Arts and Sciences
(1863), intended to make such an
edition possible. Child's linguistic researches are largely
responsible for how Chaucerian grammar
pronunciation, and scansion
generally understood.According to the Cambridge History of
English and American Literature (1907–21)
"Observations on the Language of Chaucer" (1863) put
definitely out of date the random and arbitrary opinions —
favourable or unfavourable, untrue or accidentally true — which
critics had ever since the Renaissance been pronouncing upon
Chaucer’s versification, and placed the matter henceforth upon a
basis of exact knowledge. Child’s work has not had to be done over
again; it has been the point of departure for later research, and
remains the classic memoir in this field.
Child's largest undertaking, however, grew out of the original
English and Scottish Ballads
volume in his British
series. The material for this volume was mostly derived
from texts in previously published books. In compiling this work he
realized that the folio manuscript of Percy's
, from which most of these texts were drawn,
was not available for public inspection, and he set about to remedy
this situation. In the 1860s he campaigned energetically for public
support to enable the Early
English Text Society
, founded by philologist Frederick James Furnivall
obtain a copy of Percy's Folio and publish it, which they did in
1868. Child and Furnivall then went on to found the Ballad Society,
with a view to publishing other important early ballad collections,
such as that of Samuel Pepys
University of California President Daniel
Gilman offered Child a research professorship at the newly
established Johns Hopkins
University in Baltimore, which Gilman was in the process of
Hopkins was the first American university
conceived on the German research model initiated by Humboldt
and divided into departments
representing "the branches of knowlege", with elective subjects and
a graduate school dedicated to advanced studies. In order to retain
him, Harvard's president Charles
created the tile of "Professor of English"
especially for Child, freeing him from supervising oral recitations
and correcting composition papers so that he could have more time
for research. Thereafter, Child devoted himself to the comparative
study of British vernacular ballads
, using methods adopted from historical
to arrive at the
earliest attested versions.
Child considered that folk ballads came from a more democratic time
in the past when society was not divided into classes, and the
"true voice" of the people could therefore be heard. Although he
concentrated his collections on manuscript texts, with a view to
determining their chronology, he also gave a sedulous but
conservative hearing to popular versions still surviving. Child
carried his investigations into the ballads of languages other than
English, engaging in extensive international correspondence on the
subject with colleagues abroad, primarily with the Danish literary
historian and ethnographer Svend
, whose monumental twelve-volume compilation of Danish
ballads, Danmarks gamle Golkeviser
, vols. 1–12
(Copenhagen, 1853), was the model for Child’s resulting canonical
five-volume edition of some 305 English and Scottish ballads and
their numerous variants. He also consulted numerous others, such
as, for example, the Sicilian physician, folklorist, and
Child's final collection was published as The English and Scottish Popular Ballads
at first in ten parts (1882
) and then in five quarto
volumes and for a
long time was the authoritative treasury of their subject.
Professor Child worked and overworked to the last, dying in Boston
after completing his task – apart from a planned general
introduction and bibliography. A biographical introduction was
prefixed to the work by his son-in-law and chosen successor
George Lyman Kittredge
A commemorative article in the Harvard Magazine states:
Child’s enthusiasm and erudition shine throughout his
systematic attempt to set the British ballad tradition in context
with others, whether Danish, Serbian, or Turkish.
He made no attempt to conceal or apologize for the
sexuality, theatrical violence, and ill-concealed paganism of many
ballads, but it is characteristic of the man that in his
introduction to “Hugh of Lincoln,” an ancient work about the
purported murder of a Christian child by a Jew, he wrote, “And
these pretended child-murders, with their horrible consequences,
are only a part of the persecution which, with all moderation, may
be rubricated as the most disgraceful chapter in the history of the
Child added to the Harvard University Library one of the largest
folklore collections in existence. He served two terms as
president, in 1888 and 1889, of the American Folklore Society
was founded with the mission of collecting and preserving
African-American and Native American folklore equally that of
European derivation. George Lyman Kittredge succeeded Child as
Professor of English literature and modern languages at Harvard and
considered himself the custodian of Child's scholarly legacy.
Kittredge was president of the American Folklore Society in
For a listing of all the Child ballad types, and links to more
information on each individual type, see List of the Child
- Musical Traditions
- His Spenser, according to Professor Kittredge, “remained after
forty years the best edition of Spenser in existence” (quoted in
Cambridge History of English and American Literature,
1907–1921, Vol. XVIII).
- The Cambridge History of English and American Literature,
- See Sigrid Rieuwerts, "'The Genuine Ballads of the People': F.
J. Child and the Ballad Cause," Journal of Folklore
Research: 31: 1–3 (1994): 1-34.
- See Gerald Graff, Professing Literature: An Institutional
History (University of Chicago Press, 1987).
- Jill Terry Rudy, "Transforming Audiences for Oral Tradition:
Child, Kittredge, Thompson, and Connections of Folklore and English
Studies," College English: 66: 5 (May 2004): 532.
- Later scholars engaged directly in field research from oral
sources, and some, like music educator Cecil Sharp, who was primarily interested
in finding the tunes for the Child ballads, also collected music
- For more about Grundtvig and Child, see Sigurd Bernhard
Hustvedt, Ballad Books and Ballad Men (Cambridge: Harvard
University Press, 1930), pp. 175-204 and 205-229, as well as their
correspondence, pp. 247–300.
- Pitrè, who was the founder of the Italian Folklore Society and
became an honorary member of the American Folklore Society in
- John Burgess, "Francis James Child: Brief life of a Victorian
Enthusiast: 1825–1896" ( | Harvard Magazine, May–June 2006).
- Atkinson, David. "The English Revival Canon: Child Ballads and
the Invention of Tradition". The Journal of American
Folklore: 114: 453 (Summer, 2001): 370-80.
- Atkinson, David. The English Traditional Ballad: Theory,
Method, and Practice. Aldershot, UK and Burlington, Vt.:
- Cheeseman, Tom, and Sigrid Rieuwerts, editors. Ballads into
Books: The Legacies of Francis James Child. Selected
Papers from the 26th International Ballad Conference (SIEF Ballad
Commission), Swansea, Wales, 19-24 July 1996. Berlin (etc.):
Peter Lang Verlagsgruppe, (Second Revised Edition) 1999.
- Graff, Gerald. Professing Literature: An Institutional
History. University of Chicago Press, 1987.
- Rieuwerts, Sigrid. "'The Genuine Ballads of the People': F. J.
Child and the Ballad Cause". Journal of Folklore Research,
31: 1-3 (1994): 1-34.
- Rudy, Jill Terry. "Considering Rhetoric's Wayward Child: Ballad
Scholarship and Intradisciplinary Conflict." Journal of
Folklore Research: 35: 2 (May 1998): 85–98.
- Rudy, Jill Terry. "Transforming Audiences for Oral Tradition:
Child, Kittredge, Thompson, and Connections of Folklore and English
Studies." College English: 66: 5 (May 2004).
- | Biography of Francis James Child at The
- | Burgess, John. "Francis James Child: Brief Life of a Victorian
Enthusiast: 1825-1896". Harvard Magazine, May-June, 2006.
- Olsen, Ian. Review of Mark and Laura F. Heinman's, Corrected Second Edition of Francis James
Child's English and Scottish Popular Ballads, volume 1, in
Musical Traditions internet magazine.
- "Francis James Child" entry 43 in The Cambridge
History of English and American Literature in 18 Volumes
XVIII. Later National Literature, Part III,
XXV. Scholars, no. 43. "Francis