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  Montague Rhodes James (1862–1936), by Sir Gerald Kelly, 1936 Montague Rhodes James (1862–1936), by Sir Gerald Kelly, 1936
James, Montague Rhodes (1862–1936), college head, scholar, and author, was born at Goodnestone in Kent on 1 August 1862, the fourth and youngest child of Herbert James (1822–1909) and his wife of fifteen years, Mary Emily Horton (1818–1899). When Monty (as he was familiarly known) was three years old his father, a high-minded country parson, became rector of Great Livermere in Suffolk, near Bury St Edmunds; the love of East Anglia which figures prominently in James's writings was thus begun early. There was some record of achievement and prominence on both sides of the family: the Rhodes Jameses had held substantial interests in Jamaica until the abolition of slavery there in 1807, and Mary Emily's father, Admiral Joshua Sydney Horton, had been a naval hero during the Napoleonic wars.


The young Monty was sent to private school at Temple Grove in Surrey (1873–6), where his father had been a pupil and where the headmaster, O. C. Waterfield, was to be a powerful influence, and followed in his father's footsteps also in being elected a king's scholar at Eton College (1876–82). There he flourished, in a context of sympathetic masters and congenial contemporaries; at least one of the former, his tutor H. E. Luxmoore, and several of the latter, notably A. C. Benson, were to become lifelong friends. Easy mastery of the set academic subjects—with mathematics a conspicuous exception—left the precocious schoolboy time to delve into arcane corners of biblical apocrypha and, more important, to avail himself of the nearly unique opportunity offered him by perspicacious authorities to use the college (as distinct from school) library, with its splendid collection of medieval manuscripts and early printed books. The foundations both of his scholarship and of his assumption that scholarship was inseparable from friendships nurtured in select academic settings can be traced to what seem to have been extraordinarily happy years at Eton—to which, as he was candid about saying, his heart always belonged.

Election to a scholarship at King's College, Cambridge, was almost a foregone conclusion. The Cambridge foundation that James entered in 1882 was still heavily Etonian in make-up and ethos, though this was beginning to change. In the ensuing tensions he came to adopt a mediating position, which stood him in good stead when, a year after having taken his BA in 1886, he was elected to a fellowship in the college and soon found himself dean. For over two decades, until he became provost (and indeed after that, at the provost's lodge), his rooms at King's were a centre of hospitality for those—by no means all from major public schools—who found his blend of donnish affability with a profound if somewhat light-hearted erudition to their taste.

Scholarly interests and research

The erudition was bearing early fruit on all three of the branches of learning in which James was to become distinguished. The subject of research that gained him his fellowship was the Apocalypse of Peter, a second-century apocryphon long known about but not fully available until discoveries in Egypt in 1886–7. James had already constructed from patristic and other allusions an outline of what the document would contain, and his surmises were largely borne out when he was able to edit the work (in a joint publication with J. Armitage Robinson, who presented the gospel of Peter) in 1892. Editions of a number of apocryphal pieces followed, principally in two volumes entitled Apocrypha anecdota (1893, 1897). Although James was not to become a biblical scholar (extending that term to include students of pseudepigrapha) of the absolute first rank, his contributions were of great importance not only in editions of texts and in numerous articles in the recently founded Journal of Theological Studies but also in presentations of the subject in quasi-popular form, through entries in reference works such as Hastings's Dictionary of the Bible and, later in his life, in three volumes of translations. These are The Biblical Antiquities of Philo (1917), from the pseudo-Philonic Liber antiquitatum biblicarum, possibly of the second century; a summary entitled The lost apocrypha of the Old Testament: their titles and fragments collected, translated, and discussed (1920); and one of his best-known works, The Apocryphal New Testament (1924), a fat collection of all the (then) known ‘apocryphal gospels, acts, epistles, and apocalypses’ (as the subtitle read), which was standard until J. K. Elliott's collection of the same name appeared in 1993.

The second main branch of James's scholarly interests, those for which he used the umbrella term ‘Christian archaeology’, began with schoolboy probings into East Anglian and other English churches, and, as expressed in publications, went hand in hand with the extension of those probings on annual (at least) trips to France and with his work at the Fitzwilliam Museum, as assistant director from 1886 and director from 1889 to 1908. A primary thrust of these investigations was iconographic, as in his solving of the puzzle of the mutilated sculptural programme of the lady chapel at Ely (1892). Wall paintings, windows, sculpture, and brasses were elucidated at such places as Canterbury, Malmesbury, Norwich, Peterborough, Bury St Edmunds, and Worcester, and at his own foundations at Eton and King's. Hagiography was another important aspect, the saints in question ranging from the obscure (Urith of Littlehampton) to the dubious (William of Norwich). This combination of interests is seen to advantage in two highly accessible works of his later years, the Great Western Railway volume Abbeys (1925) and, in the same spacious format, an East Anglian ‘perambulation’ entitled Suffolk and Norfolk (1930).

The ‘descriptive catalogues’

The results of teenage browsing into the manuscripts at Eton were jotted into notebooks, as were those from the leisurely scrutinizing of the Fitzwilliam's manuscripts which his position there made convenient. These laid the foundations for the first of the astonishing series of ‘descriptive catalogues’ of collections of manuscripts in the Cambridge colleges and in several other notable collections, both public and private. (The specifications in the titles vary, but for the most part medieval, and sometimes only medieval Latin, manuscripts are covered.) In a true annus mirabilis, there appeared in 1895, as well as many other works, catalogues of the collections not only at Eton and the Fitzwilliam but also at King's, Jesus, and Sidney Sussex. Naturally, these early efforts lack the mastery of some of the later catalogues, but collectively they represent a staggering achievement for a man not yet thirty-five. As was to be true of all his catalogues, their great strength lies in the thoroughness of description of illustration and the ready application of biblical and hagiographic knowledge; where these capacities do not come into play, and above all in some legal and scientific manuscripts, the descriptions can be markedly inadequate. The speed with which the catalogues appeared was facilitated by the willingness of most Cambridge colleges to send the majority of their manuscripts to James's rooms at King's so that he could work on them at leisure there: a practice followed also by the great collector Henry Yates Thompson, many of whose books were catalogued by James in 1898 and 1902, and later by J. Pierpont Morgan for his library in New York (1907).

The series of manuscript catalogues for the Cambridge colleges continued steadily through to 1914, both with the relatively smaller collections and with the two of disproportionate weight and importance, Trinity and Corpus Christi. The catalogue for the very large—roughly 1500 manuscripts—and highly diverse collection at Trinity appeared in four volumes between 1900 and 1905, and shows James at his most expansive in descriptions of its illuminated books, most obviously the Trinity Apocalypse (although the title specifies ‘Western manuscripts’, the post-medieval books get short shrift). The manuscripts in the Parker Library at Corpus Christi include one of the most valuable collections of Anglo-Saxon manuscripts extant, as well as books of the importance of the Bury Bible and the two-volume Matthew Paris Chronica maiora, but James's efforts were somewhat vitiated by a format that tried to reproduce where possible the descriptions of James Nasmith published in 1777: for some 238 of the 538 manuscripts, Nasmith's work, in Latin, is printed first, with James's comments as a kind of gloss. What should have been among his most splendid achievements (2 vols., 1909–12) is thus made often difficult and confusing to use. Other notable catalogues of Cambridge collections include those for Gonville and Caius (2 vols., 1907–8; with supplement 1914), the McClean collection at the Fitzwilliam Museum (1912, a collection that James had been instrumental in securing), and St John's, arguably the finest of the catalogues (1913). He also completed, largely by 1914, descriptions for catalogues of manuscripts in two notable British collections outside Cambridge, those (Latin manuscripts) at the new John Rylands Library in Manchester (though not published until 1921) and those at Lambeth Palace, most of the work on which was done during the war years, its publication being held up until 1930–32 by the dilatoriness of a putative collaborator for the modern manuscripts.

Cambridge life and the short stories

James's life in Cambridge, as fellow and dean of King's and (from 1893) director of the Fitzwilliam, was full and, it appears, massively enjoyable. A more or less conscious decision not to become ordained (although remaining throughout his life a faithful and publicly practising Christian) and an apparently not quite conscious decision not to marry placed at the centre of his life his scholarly work, his academic positions, his family (his father lived until 1909, and there were two brothers and a sister, to all of whom he was reasonably close), and his steadily growing number of friends.

It seems to have been in the context of joint Christmas entertainments with the latter that the first of his ghost stories were written, although it is widely said that their intended audience was the choristers of King's. In any case, a couple were printed in general magazines in the 1890s, and by 1904 James was prevailed on by the publisher Edward Arnold to bring out a collection of eight tales, entitled Ghost Stories of an Antiquary. There is no question of apprenticeship here; the first story, ‘Canon Alberic's Scrap Book’, contains the donnish tone, the massing of verisimilitudinous detail (often of a tongue-in-cheek scholarly sort), and the using of that detail to intensify the terror when it comes that are his trademarks. The popularity of the first collection led to requests for more—among fans were the prince of Wales and Theodore Roosevelt—and (seven) More Ghost Stories of an Antiquary appeared in 1911, A Thin Ghost and other Stories (five in all) in 1919, and A Warning to the Curious (six stories) in 1925. (An omnibus Collected Ghost Stories was published in 1931, including four brief pieces written after the latest collection.) Opinions vary vigorously as to favourites among these thirty or so stories, but ‘“Oh whistle, and I'll come to you, my lad”’, ‘Casting the Runes’, ‘The Tractate Middoth’, and ‘An Uncommon Prayer Book’ must certainly be regarded as among the finest in the authenticity of their settings and in the rather satisfying nature of their ghoulish conclusions. There seems to be no evidence that they also reflect conflicts and ambivalences deep inside their author.

Provost of King's and of Eton

His election in 1905 to the provostship of King's, although not uncontested and indeed not sought by James himself, was taken almost in his stride. He remained director of the Fitzwilliam until 1908 and continued his multifarious scholarly activities, but there was a great deal of college business to attend to, not all of it congenial. (A particular thorn in his side was John Maynard Keynes, elected to a fellowship in 1906.) To one of his Cambridge experience the vice-chancellorship of the university might have been expected eventually, but James assumed a two-year term in that office unusually early, in 1913; this gave him a year in the post before the First World War broke out. Responsibility for initial wartime arrangements for the university fell heavily on him, and the loss of many of his young friends added to the burden; nor was he sanguine about some of the directions in which he sensed that Cambridge was moving. So it was not surprising that when, towards the war's end, the crown offered him the provostship of Eton, he accepted that less onerous and ostensibly less visible position.

The provostship of Eton was (minimal constitutional duties as head of its corporation aside) pretty much what the holder wanted it to be. In James's case it seems to have been primarily a replication of the aspects of his Cambridge life that he had enjoyed the most: maintaining old friendships, making new ones (especially with the young), and continuing the sorts of scholarly work that most appealed to him. He managed to be amazingly present in the college without seeming to interfere with the headmaster's running of it, and inspired an enduring (and subsequently often expressed) affection among a number of the boys. Although no great feats of published scholarship are primarily the product of the years back at Eton, he maintained a steady production of useful articles, public lectures (notably the 1927 British Academy Schweich lectures, published four years later as The Apocalypse in Art), and, most typically, the ‘presentation’ of important illuminated manuscripts. A number of the latter works appeared as Roxburghe Club publications or in other equally sumptuous formats. A major unfinished project was the cataloguing of the medieval manuscripts at the university library at Cambridge; some draft descriptions, often fragmentary, are all that was accomplished, and the inadequate mid-nineteenth century catalogue still holds the field. On the other hand, the cumulative effect of James's investigations into medieval library catalogues and booklists and into the whole subject summed up by the title of his cheerful pamphlet The Wanderings and Homes of Manuscripts (1919) has flourished mightily under the efforts of such successors as N. R. Ker and R. A. B. Mynors (both Etonians).

Final years and reputation

James's last years were crowded with honours, especially the Order of Merit, conferred in 1930, as well as honorary doctorates from Oxford and Cambridge. His extensive circle of friends and the prominence of the positions he held would have made him something of a national figure even without his fame as the author of ghost stories. If it is for the latter that he is now most widely known, his scholarly achievement continues to be fundamental in all of the major areas in which he worked. He stands, among the great figures of the British humanistic tradition, on a high peak in terms of accomplishment and on the very highest in terms of the congeniality of scholarship at its best.

James died, probably of renal failure, on 12 June 1936, while still provost of Eton, and was buried in the parish churchyard there on 15 June. Ten years earlier he had produced an autobiographically uninformative but often hilarious volume of recollections (in tandem with a similar volume by his brother Sydney) called, not surprisingly, Eton and King's. Of various memoirs which appeared after his death, the fullest was by his friend S. G. Lubbock (1939), with a classified list of James's writings compiled earlier by A. F. Scholfield, aided by James himself.

Richard W. Pfaff


R. W. Pfaff, Montague Rhodes James (1980) · L. Dennison, ed., The legacy of M. R. James [Cambridge 1995] (2001) · S. G. Lubbock, A memoir of Montague Rhodes James, with a list of his writings by A. F. Scholfield (1939) · M. R. James, Eton and King's: recollections, mostly trivial, 1875–1925 (1926) · M. Cox, M. R. James: an informal portrait (1983) · G. McBryde, ed., Montague Rhodes James: letters to a friend (1956) · Montague Rhodes James: three tributes (1936) · S. Gaselee, ‘Montague Rhodes James, 1862–1936’, PBA, 22 (1936), 418–33 · N. Barker, ‘After M. R. James’, Book Collector, 19 (1970), 7–20


BL, Egerton MS 3141 · CUL, collection of MSS; corresp., bibliographical and antiquarian memoranda, lectures, sermons, etc.; journal and bibliographic notes; lectures and addresses; lecture on Abbey Church, Bury St Edmunds · Eton · FM Cam., notebooks relating to MSS, biblical studies, architecture, classical art and archaeology, iconography, his travels, etc. · King's AC Cam., corresp. and papers |  BL, corresp. with Sir Sydney Cockerell, Add. MS 52728 · BL, letters to J. P. Gilson, Add. MSS 47686–47687 · BL, letters to Eric Millar, Add. MSS 54319–54320 · CUL, letters to H. F. Stewart · FM Cam., letters to T. H. Riches · King's AC Cam., letters to Oscar Browning · King's AC Cam., letters to Gwen McBryde · King's AC Cam., letters to Sir J. T. Sheppard · LPL, corresp. with Claude Jenkins · Norfolk RO, letters to Prince Frederick, Duleep Singh · Trinity Cam., letters to Sir Henry Babington Smith


W. Strang, chalk drawing, 1909, FM Cam.; repro. in McBryde, ed., Montague Rhodes James · M. Saumarez, oils, c.1910, Eton · photograph, 1910, repro. in Lubbock, Memoir, frontispiece · O. Edis, photograph, c.1912, NPG · W. Rothenstein, drawing, 1915, King's Cam. · G. Philpot, oils, 1918, King's Cam. · photograph, c.1925, repro. in James, Eton and King's, frontispiece · W. Stoneman, photograph, 1930, NPG · H. Coster, photographs, 1930–39, NPG · photograph, c.1932, repro. in Lubbock, Memoir, facing p. 42 · G. Kelly, oils, 1936, Eton College [see illus.] · G. Kelly, oils, c.1936, NPG

Wealth at death  

£3873 1s. 3d.: probate, 4 Aug 1936, CGPLA Eng. & Wales