The Hymns and Carols of Christmas

Martha Edith Rickert


Author of Ancient English Christmas Carols: 1400-1700 (London: Chatto & Windus, 1910)

Martha Edith Rickert was born July 11, 1871, in Canal Dover, Ohio. She was the eldest daughter (of four surviving to adulthood) of Francis E. and Josephine Newburgh Rickert. Most of her childhood was spent in La Grange, Illinois. She attended North Division High School in Chicago. Her sisters were Ethel, Frances Edna, and Margaret (1888-1973). She dedicated Ancient English Christmas Carols “To E.Q.R. And F.E.R., my sisters, for whose unwearied assistance in the preparation of this little volume I am deeply grateful.” She would later collaborate with her youngest sister Margaret, a noted art historian and professor.

Edith (she never went by her first name) entered Vassar College in 1887 and received her degree in 1891. After graduation, she returned to the Chicago area to help care for her younger sisters. After the death of her mother, she began her teaching career. She taught at the Lyons Township High School, of Cook County, Illinois, from 1891 to 1894, and at Hyde Park High School, Chicago, from 1894 to 1896; she began pursuing graduate studies at the University of Chicago in 1895.

In 1896 Rickert visits England and Germany for the first time; she would visit often. In 1897, she returned to Vassar, this time as an instructor in English. She would teach there until 1900. In 1899, she received her Ph.D. magna cum laude in English letters and philology from the University of Chicago; her thesis was on the romance Emaré, which would later be published in book form (1906, reprinted 1908). During this time, her younger sister Ethel was a student at Vassar. It was also in 1899 that she first met John Matthews Manly, a full professor at the University of Chicago, and the head of the English department.

In 1900, she resigned from Vassar and moved to England, supporting herself by writing fiction and newspaper articles, and performing professional research (for, among others, John Matthews Manly, with whom she maintained a casual correspondence). She returned to the United States in 1909 due to an economic crisis in England. Books and other works that she wrote during this time include:

Also during this time, Rickert published numerous magazine articles, among them:

From 1909 to 1914 she worked as an editor in New York, Boston, and Philadelphia, and continued to publish, among others:

In 1914, she began teaching part-time at the University of Chicago while working for the Commercial Club of Chicago in pursuit of a bill for vocational education for women in Illinois. Her teaching duties included a course in Chaucer, together with courses in contemporary British and American literature.

Her teaching career was interrupted in 1918. Because of Dr. Rickert's knowledge of languages, she was invited by Dr. John Matthews Manly to participate in code-breaking efforts at the War Department in Washington, D.C. They participated in projects that broke German codes and devised new codes for the Allies, working with the noted cryptologists Herbert O. Yardley and Charles Jastrow Mendelsohn.  Manly had an interest in cryptographics due to the allegation of Bacon's authorship of Shakespeare's plays.

Rickert and Manly returned to the University of Chicago in 1919 at the conclusion of World War I.  However, their interest in puzzles and cryptographs did not end in 1919. It has been recorded that 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. Interestingly, her youngest sister, Dr. Margaret Rickert, would work in German code-breaking activities during World War II.

Rickert continued to teach Chaucer and contemporary literature as an assistant in the English Department from 1919 until 1924.  And the collaboration between Manly and Rickert continued. They co-edited several books in the coming years, including:

Contemporary literature was not held in high esteem at that time.  The two literary collections were needed so that systematic collections of information about major and minor authors would be available to teachers and students alike.

Rickert and Manly also collaborated on the Good Reading series (Sacramento: California State Series):

In 1924, Rickert was appointed as an associate professor of English. Also in 1924, Manly proposed a systematic study of the complete works of Geoffrey Chaucer, with the intent to establish an authoritative text of the Canterbury Tales. Manly anticipated that the work "would necessarily require several years." He was a few years shy; for the rest of their lives, Manly and Rickert focused on teaching, and on Geoffrey Chaucer.

It was a monumental undertaking. Beginning with Rickert's trip to England in January 1925, Rickert and Manly would eventually secure photostatic copies of 83 fragments and complete manuscripts of the Tales. At a laboratory on the top floor of Wiebolt Hall, a team of graduate students analyzed the copies, looking at lettering styles, paper markings and types of ink to help establish each manuscript's origin.

For six months of each year, Rickert and Manly traveled to Britain and the Continent to study manuscripts in museums and private collections. They were looking for details that might have escaped the camera's lens, including ink changes, erasures, binding, and trimming techniques. You can view a 1932 photograph of Manley, Rickert and David Stevens (a colleague from the English Department) returning to America aboard The Europe; the photo is at a University of Chicago web site which opens in a new window). During one trip, Rickert was accompanied by her sister Margaret, who was researching illustrations of Chaucerian manuscripts; that work would later be included in the final text.

During the course of their studies, the scope grew from just the Canterbury Tales to encompass Chaucer's life and the times in which he lived. Many of these details would ultimately be included in Chaucer's World, published after Rickert's death.

Ultimately, Rickert and Manly produced The Text of The Canterbury Tales Studied on the Basis of All Known Manuscripts, which ran to eight volumes, with a chapter on illuminations by Dr. Margaret Rickert. The first volume was published in 1938; the last was published in 1940 (Chicago: University of Chicago Press). At that time, it was regarded as the definitive work of Chaucerian studies. It was hailed as Heroism in Scholarship” and “Colossal Labour on Chaucerian Text.” A critic in the (London) Times Literary Supplement (June 22, 1940) wrote:

“In these days, when events move on so vast a scale, it is well to be reminded that scholarship also has its colossal achievements. . . Assuredly the achievement of that incomparable pair of scholars, Professor John Matthews Manly and Professor Edith Rickert, deserves the epithet ‘prodigious’. . . . The great merit of this vast accomplishment does not consist merely in the fact that it makes possible a better text of the Canterbury Tales than any which has hitherto been published. It marks an epoch in the development of the art of editing a classical text from a large number of manuscripts. . . . The textual critic may say, as Dryden said of the Canterbury Tales themselves, ‘Here is God’s plenty.’”

In 1930, Rickert was promoted to a full professorship; she retired from teaching in 1935, but continued her work with Manly. In 1936, Rickert suffered a heart attack, from which she never fully recovered. She nevertheless persevered in working on the Chaucer project, sometimes from her bed, and sometimes for only a few minutes at a time. On May 20, 1938, Rickert gave Manly a paper concerning preservation of some traits of Chaucer's early drafts by the Fitzwilliam MS. The next day, she suffered a stroke; she died on May 23rd. She was cremated; her ashes were buried at Oak Woods Cemetery, Chicago. The first volume was published a few months later; Manly died a few months after the eighth volume appeared in January 1940.

After Rickert's death, Manly noted that Rickert had been working on the Chaucer materials to within a few days of her death. He wrote emphatically about the depth of her scholarship in preparation of the work, and movingly of his profound personal loss: "To all her co-workers, her passing has caused a grief too deep and too personal to be expressed. She was as sweet and fine as she was strong."

Later, Manly suggested that Clair C. Olson, who had done his doctoral research under Rickert, compile and edit her work. Professor Martin Michael Crow, who had also studied under Rickert, was invited to become the coeditor, and together they completed Rickert's work by compiling and organizing documents, photos, and reproductions of art that have major relevance to Chaucer and his times. In 1948, Columbia University Press published the volume as Chaucer's World (New York: Columbia University Press, 1948); Oxford University Press published the book as Chaucer's England. The illustrations were selected by her sister, Dr. Margaret Rickert, associate professor of art history at the University of Chicago. In 1966, Crow and Olson published Chaucer Life Records, which was based on the notes and papers collected by Rickert and Lilian Redstone, a colleague from England.

Throughout the writings about Edith Rickert is an underlying theme: she was deeply esteemed by her colleagues and her students.  Professor Fred B. Millett, a colleague from the University of Chicago, wrote "Edith Rickert possessed, to an extraordinary degree, three great gifts,— beauty, vitality, and intelligence. Any one of these gifts would have made her a striking and memorable person. The combination of these powers made her unique."

Likewise, the memorial of Professor Michael Martin Crow at the University of Texas noted:

He chose the University of Chicago for his doctoral studies, in large part as a result of an interview he had with Professor Edith Rickert. She was the less celebrated, but perhaps the more magnetic member of the [John Matthews] Manly and Rickert team. The names of those two scholars, always linked in the minds of academics, still enjoy justifiable esteem, particularly for their systematic work in locating, organizing, and presenting the primary Chaucer documents. Mike's fondness for Professor Rickert was lifelong, and he always had a picture of her, as a beautiful young woman, in his living room. Less conspicuous there was a handsome picture of Professor Manly.

Millett also noted "She was an amazingly stimulating teacher; she worked tirelessly herself, and she expected her students to work as incessantly and eagerly as she did."

Professor Rickert is remembered at the University of Chicago. One of the houses that comprise Max Palevsky Commons is “Rickert House.” The Rickert House has its own website, (unfortunately without any biographical information concerning Dr. Rickert).

A few other works by Professor Rickert:

Note: The listing of books, and the listing of magazine articles and short stories, should be considered illustrative of the depth and breadth of Dr. Rickert's work, but not an exhaustive listing. Dr. Elizabeth Scala provided an extensive bibliography of Rickert's works, noted below.


Dr. Elizabeth Scala has been a primary source for this page; she has been exceptionally generous in pointing to resources and providing assistance. Dr. Scala is an Associate Professor in the Department of English, University of Texas at Austin. She is also Director of the English Honors Program and Chair of the English Department Medieval Interest Group.

Errors only are my own.


Like Alfred Burt before her, from 1976 to 2001, the late cellist and composer Lesley Hopwood Meyer of Rose Valley, PA, created a series of 26 Christmas cards based on Christmas carols, the texts for many drawn from Edith Rickert's 1910 collection Ancient English Christmas Carols (London: Chatto & Windus) – a volume that she borrowed in her annual pilgrimage to the Free Library of Philadelphia. Many of those carols were performed for friends who attended the annual Christmas parties hosted by Lesley and her husband, Richard.

Verses were drawn verbatim from poems by Jonson, Herrick, Tennyson and others, including traditional sources from as early as 1360; but by the fourth year in the series, Mrs. Meyer's songs had also become slyly autobiographical, as she began to use the centuries-old texts to record the varying fortunes of her own life. She gave double meaning to the words of Robert Herrick: "..where is the babe but lately sprung" from "The Star Song" (1981) on the arrival of her first child. After losing her daughter at 16 months, she selected a 15th Century verse to announce the arrival of her second child, a son: "Now All is Well That Ever Was Woe" (1983). Later on, the tune for "A, A, A, A, Nunc Gaudet Maria" was written during her son's early childhood as variations on "Mary Had A Little Lamb.

In 2007, a private CD was issued containing all 26 of Lesley's carols recorded by St. Luke's Chamber Singers, Jonathan Bowen, Organist and Choirmaster, at The Church of St. Luke and the Epiphany, Philadelphia. The songs were recorded during several sessions from between Nov. 14, 2001 and Nov. 15. 2007. The liner notes included this comment about the words:

Lesley was drawn into this project because the 13th Century sentiment “Kick and beat the grumblers out” appealed to her. Whether “The prunes so lovely” (15th C), “Squadrons of spirits” (16th C), or the autobiographical “A babe is born all of a may, in the salvation of us...”, there was always a bite of charmed language that set the music in motion. In some cases, the preservation of these old texts in Lesley's settings may be their salvation.

In recent years, American composer Robert A. M. Ross had the opportunity to see those Christmas carol cards, and has begun to create arrangements for many of them, including Nunc Gaudet Maria (“Now Mary Rejoices,” first line is “Mary Is A Lady Bright”) and The Time Draws Near. Both of those arrangements were performed by the Lady Chapel Singers, and are included on their second CD, “Magdalene and the Other Mary, Songs of Holy Women.” That CD is available from Church Publishing and also from Also, Mr. Ross' arrangement to Nunc Gaudet Maria has been published by Oxford University Press.

Mr. Ross's arrangements of three of Lesley Hopwood Meyer's carols were first performed by the Philadelphia group “Voces Novae et Antiquae” during their January 2004 concert From Our Home to Yours. An additional three of Lesley's carols were performed during their 2006 concert A Twelfth Night Celebration: The Shaw-Parker Legacy.

Mr. Ross is the process of creating arrangements for several other of Lesley's Christmas carol cards, and all 13 of those arrangements will be premiered at a pair of concerts Dec. 6 & 13, 2009 in Rose Valley, PA. Some of the drawings from the cards will be used for the concert program – drawings which often support the personal references and double meanings of the texts. It is hoped that a professionally-recorded CD of those programs will become available.

Some of the Christmas card carols written by Leslie Hopwood Meyer and arranged by Robert A. M. Ross include:

The verses to Fezziwig’s Ball were adapted from the text of Dickens' A Christmas Carol. Dickens begins that narrative with: “In came a fiddler with a music-book, and went up to the lofty desk, and made an orchestra of it, and tuned like fifty stomach-aches. In came Mrs. Fezziwig, one vast substantial smile....”

Three other songs currently being arranged by Mr. Ross are Proface, Robert Herrick's The Star Song and Sun of Righteousness ("All this night shrill Chanticleer") from A Handfull of Celestiall Flowers, “manuscrib'd” by Ralph Crane, 1632. Mr. Ross reported that he is creating arrangements for two more songs (TBA).

Alice Meyer Wallace has created a web page dedicated to the music of Lesley Hopwood Meyer titled “Six Short Works for Piano and Strings.” This was a recording offered to colleagues and friends to commemorate an "Evening Dedicated to Lesley Hopwood Meyer" presented by the Orchestra Society of Philadelphia On September 17, 2004 at the Main Auditorium, Drexel University, Philadelphia.


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