Medieval Ghostbusters: The Story of M.R. James

By Irene O’Daly

On Christmas Day I was delighted to see that the prime-time offering from the BBC was a documentary on a giant of the field of manuscript scholars, M.R. James. The focus of the documentary was not James’ work as a manuscript cataloguer, however, but another aspect of his output for which is best remembered in the public imagination, that is, his ghost stories.

Stamp of M.R. James issued as part of the Royal Mail's 'Britons of Distinction' series (2012)

Stamp of M.R. James issued as part of the Royal Mail’s ‘Britons of Distinction’ series (2012)

Montague Rhodes James was born in 1862 and in many respects typified the Victorian scholar; schooling at Eton was followed by a long period as a bachelor-academic in Cambridge, after which James returned to Eton as provost, dying in 1936. In the manuscript world, James’ principal contribution was his series of catalogues of the libraries of Cambridge colleges, such as Trinity, Corpus Christi, as well as of the collection at the Fitzwilliam Museum, where he was director from 1893-1908. While I had always known that James was a prolific scholar, I had not realised that much of his work was conducted early in his career; by his early thirties, James had already published catalogues of five principal collections in Cambridge. The enterprise was aided by the fact that many of the colleges simply sent their manuscripts to James’ rooms to allow him to work more efficiently on the material, a convenience unimaginable to the modern scholar!

James’ method was captured in the title given to many of his volumes; they were ‘descriptive catalogues’. James not only recorded the contents and appearance of the volumes, but included invaluable histories of how the manuscripts had ended up in their collections, and lengthy transcriptions of interesting or unusual passages. His extensive knowledge of medieval library collections and extant booklists allowed him to assign provenance to many manuscripts, as demonstrated by the overlap between his cataloguing of the Parker Library at Corpus Christi, and his reconstruction of the holdings of The Ancient Libraries of Canterbury and Dover.

The BBC documentary, M.R. James: Ghost Writer, drew attention to James’ second career as a writer of spooky tales, a sideline seemingly developed from James’ natural talent as a raconteur. The documentary pointed out that many of James’ stories star characters who seem to be a shallow pastiche of James himself – single male academics who spend their holidays rooting around medieval ruins and among libraries. The stories often focus on books containing alchemical treatises, old maps, or ciphered inscriptions.

Cathedral of St Bertrand de Comminges. Watch the clip about James' description of the cathedral here:

Cathedral of St Bertrand de Comminges. Watch the clip about James’ description of the cathedral here:

One such story, Canon Alberic’s Scrapbook takes as its setting a cathedral in France. The protagonist, Dennistoun, deserted by his two travelling companions (‘half an hour at the church would satisfy them‘), chooses to spend a day photographing and recording details of the cathedral architecture. Not only, as highlighted in the documentary, did James provide an accurate description of the church, but upon reading the tale myself, I found an evocative account of the book found by Dennistoun, which echoed some of the more vivid entries found in his manuscript catalogues:

‘Before him lay a large folio, bound, perhaps, late in the seventeenth century [….]. There may have been a hundred and fifty leaves of paper in the book, and on almost every one of them was fastened a leaf from an illuminated manuscript. [….] Here were ten leaves from a copy of Genesis, illustrated with pictures, which could not be later than A.D. 700. Further on was a complete set of pictures from a Psalter, of English execution, of the very finest kind that the thirteenth century could produce; and perhaps, best of all, there were twenty leaves of uncial writing in Latin, which, as a few words seen here and there told him at once, must belong to some very early unknown patristic treatise.’

In another tale, The Uncommon Prayer Book, the principal character comes across a deserted chapel where the prayer books are always found open to a particular page. He notes that the page ‘is a very odd and wholly unauthorised addition’ to the Book of Common Prayer, and ‘knowing the need for particular accuracy in these matters, he devoted some ten minutes to making a line-for-line transcript of it’. The character’s attention to rooting out bibliographical details that may provide clues to solve a mystery brings to mind James’ academic rigour, as well as his interest in apocryphal biblical texts.

Worship of the Seven-Headed Beast from the Trinity Apocalypse (Trinity College, Cambridge, Ms. R.16.2)

Worship of the Seven-Headed Beast from the Trinity Apocalypse, one of the manuscripts described in detail by James (Trinity College, Cambridge, Ms. R.16.2, f. 14v). See catalogue entry here :

James’ gripping accounts of hauntings were peppered with one-liners about academic study which still ring true. One story (Two Doctors) begins ‘It is a very common thing, in my experience, to find papers shut up in old books; but one of the rarest things to come across any such that are at all interesting.’ James’ self-deprecating sense of humour is one of the most appealing features of his stories and, perhaps, explains their enduring appeal (The Collected Ghost Stories have recently [2013] been reissued in the Oxford World’s Classics series). His valuable contributions to the fields of manuscript studies and literature alike remind us that the best research always requires a touch of imagination (and perhaps a healthy respect for ghosts…).

Extracts from: M.R. James, The Collected Ghost Stories (Oxford, 2013). For further information about James see R.W. Pfaff, ‘James, Montague Rhodes: College Head, Scholar, and Author’, Oxford Dictionary of National Biography (2004)

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