Spotlight: M.R. James

Dearest readers, let me introduce you to a man I’ve grown quite close to these past few months: Mr. Montague Rhodes James – the man with two last names for his first names, and a first name for his last name.

Today James is best known for his H.P. Lovecraft-admired ghost stories, which he liked to read aloud at Christmas. But, quite frankly, I don’t care about those.

You know what I do care about? His catalogues.

The man was an incredible medieval scholar who catalogued stupid amounts of manuscripts. He also dabbled in biblography, palaeography, and antiquarianism. And he was considered an authoritative biblical scholar. And apparently he was a pretty good actor. Hm. The more you know.

One of his James’ biographies says that he was “an intellectually precocious child,” who “developed an early interest in medieval manuscripts and soon preferred church libraries to children’s parties.” A little strange, but okay. I mean, as much as I love church libraries (and I do love my church libraries), there’s nothing quite as delightful as a child’s party. Especially if there are balloons. I like balloons.

After graduating from King’s College, Cambridge, James served as an assistant in classical archaeology at the Fitzwilliam Museum. He was declared Assistant Director of the Museum in 1886, and eventually became Director in 1893. While he was at the Fitzwilliam he compiled his first catalogue, A Descriptive Catalogue of the Manuscripts in the Fitzwilliam Museum, which was released in 1895. Seemingly bitten by the cataloguing bug, James went on to release a catalogue of Jesus College’s manuscripts and a catalogue of Eton College’s manuscripts that same year, and published a whole bunch more throughout his academic career. I’ll spare you the comprehensive bibliography. It truly IS comprehensive.

After publishing a couple catalogues (mainly of the Cambridge libraries), James ditched the Fitzwilliam and became the Provost of King’s College, Cambridge, in 1905. Apparently he made a good Provost because Eton College went on to yank him from King’s in 1918. They were probably so thankful for his catalogue of their manuscript collection that they couldn’t help but offer him the position. Understandable. That catalogue is pretty wonderful.

In short, Montague Rhodes James was, while probably a little eccentric, a dedicated academic and a beastly cataloguer. I have no idea how he managed to find the time to catalogue all of those manuscripts. I don’t even want to know. But if he were alive today I would send his 151-year-old self a letter telling him that I love him, and that I find his work incredibly helpful in my own research. And then I would ask him to marry me.

I’m a sucker for the eccentric ones.

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