Edith Rickert

Edith Rickert

09 June 2013

Finally! I'm done with the first quarter of the final revision of my novel Daughter of Man, the first of a trilogy rooted in the legends of the Crusades (as well as some Cathar heresy and angelology - you know how these things go). And so I thought I'd celebrate by writing up some of the crusader legends I have been reading as background material. I've been delving into everything from Tasso to the lyrics of the troubadours to Walter Scott and his fellow Romantic poet, Eleanor Porden. But I thought I'd start with Edith Rickert (1871-1938), whose translations of early metrical romances were among the first sources I turned to.

Martha Edith Rickert (she never used her given name) was born on July 11, 1871, in Canal Dover, Ohio. Graduating from Vassar College in 1891, she taught high school briefly before earning a Ph.D. magna cum laude in English letters and philology from the University of Chicago. Once she had earned her degree, she moved to England determined to earn her living by her pen, publishing everything from romance novels to scholarly translations. As might befit the heroine of one of her own novels, her scholarly pursuits eventually led Rickert to be invited to participate in WWI code-breaking efforts by Dr. John Matthews Manly, whose own interest in codes was largely motivated by the allegation of Bacon's authorship of Shakespeare's plays - a claim that many still claim to be proved by the code embedded in Shakespeare's epitaph. And Edith was not the only member of her family fascinated by codes; her youngest sister, Dr. Margaret Rickert, would work in German code-breaking activities during World War II.

Rickert and Manly did succeed in breaking German codes and devising new codes for the Allies, but their interest in puzzles and cryptographs did not end in 1919. In 1926, while making the passage from New York to Liverpool, Manly and Rickert worked on breaking a code created by Don Hernan Cortes in the 16th Century. Even more suggestively, Rickert was approached (and declined) to participate in deciphering the Voynich manuscript, "the world's most mysterious manuscript." Currently part of Yale's Beinecke Rare Book Collection, the Voynich manuscript is apparently an herbal that describes plants and their possible medicinal uses. However, most of the plants are unknown to botanists and the coded script that describes them remains indecipherable, despite entire websites devoted to the task.

After the war, the Rickert/Manly collaboration continued, as the couple's fascination with Chaucer led them to spend six months of each year travelling to Britain and the Continent to study manuscripts in museums and private collections.

If there's a romance novel attached to these later exploits, it's an entirely personal one, for their collaboration eventually produced the definitive Text of the Canterbury Tales Studied on the Basis of All Known Manuscripts, which ran to eight volumes, with a chapter on illuminations by Rickert's sister. Edith died before she could see the fruits of her labor published; Manly died shortly thereafter. Nonetheless, the couple's scholarly achievement was also a glorious monument to an intellectual and sexual partnership that rivaled that of Will and Ariel Durant - despite the fact that even in the 1970s, Rickert's scholarly achievements were still being reduced to nothing more than the fact "she was sleeping with [Manly]."

As if sex could ever be the same as passion. And Rickert was certainly passionate in all her pursuits. Still, that passion was always clearly tempered by a level head. In her romance novel, The Golden Hawk, the heroine, Madeloun, at once defies society's norms for the love of the ne'er do well Trillon, and yet refuses to run off with him until he gains the means to support her by completing the kind of impossible task customarily assigned to the knights like Lancelot or Gawain: transforming a rocky mountainside into a profitable farm. Instead, Trillon discovers the remains of a buried Roman village that he sells to an antiquarian. Rickert seemed to approach both past and present with a similar blend of idealism and practicality - whether it was deciphering codes or creating a definitive textual edition of Chaucer that scholars still turn to today.

© - Erica Obey
Photos © - George Baird