Montague Rhodes James and the Archaeological Uncanny

Gabriel Moshenska

Gabriel Moshenska

Welcome to the supernatural world of Montague Rhodes James (1862–1936), a distinguished medievalist, biblical scholar and antiquarian who served as Provost of King’s College, Cambridge and of Eton College. Despite his formidable intellectual and administrative achievements, he is best known today, as he was in his lifetime, as the author of some thirty examples of what John Betjeman called “the most frightening, learned and humorous ghost stories” (1979: 8). These writings, first brought together in his 1931 ‘Complete Ghost Stories’ (2007), have enjoyed lasting acclaim: they are widely regarded as the most skillfully crafted of their often undistinguished genre and have remained in print continuously.

Critical studies of Montague Rhodes James’ supernatural writings began to accumulate in the late 1970s, including Julia Briggs’ ‘Night visitors’ (1977), Peter Alexander Haining’s Montague Rhodes James book of the supernatural (1979) and the periodical ‘Ghosts & Scholars’. Sunand Tryambak Joshi and Rosemary Pardoe’s edited volume ’Warnings to the Curious’ (2007) brought together many of the most substantial contributions to the field, including works by the folklorist Jacqueline Simpson and the writer Howard Phillips Lovecraft. Studies of the ghost stories have focused on a number of themes including sexuality and gender (there is a marked dearth of female characters), morality and retribution, and the nineteenth-century scholarly traditions of European folklore and magic that Montague Rhodes James drew upon deeply and often (Simpson 1997).

Montague Rhodes James’ fascination with the past is reflected in several aspects of his ghost stories including their settings (generally historical), their protagonists (often barely-disguised self-portraits), and the titles of his early published collections: ‘Ghost Stories of an Antiquary’ (1904) and ‘More Ghost Stories of an Antiquary’ (1911). More recognisably archaeological are the ancient artefacts and monuments that function as the triggers for the generally unpleasant supernatural denouements in several of his tales. A number of studies including those by Doig (2005) and Davies (2007) have examined the roots and forms of these antiquarian themes as well as their affective functions. My aim in this article is to explore and expand upon these themes, examining the aspects of Montague Rhodes James’ ghost stories that are specifically and recognisably archaeological. In particular, I want to consider his employment of an affective form that I have previously described as the “archaeological uncanny” (Moshenska 2006). I will argue that an archaeological interpretation of Sigmund Freud’s concept of the unheimlich or uncanny — itself a common theme in studies of supernatural fiction — offers a viewpoint on Montague Rhodes James’ writings and their enduring capacity to fascinate and frighten. First, however, I will briefly survey Montague Rhodes James’ scholarly life and works, focusing in particular on his modest but notable contributions to classical and medieval archaeology.

If the path of Montague Rhodes James’ education conformed closely to family tradition his subsequent career did not, and his achievements marked him out as exceptional. Like his father, he progressed from Temple Grove preparatory school to Eton College and King’s College, Cambridge. Though his father Herbert, son of a Jamaica slave-owner and Rector of Livermere, Suffolk, hoped that his third son might follow him into the church, Montague Rhodes James demurred. While his oldest brother Sydney became Archdeacon of Dudley, Montague Rhodes James’ religious convictions — like his father’s, on the evangelical wing of the Anglican church — led him to an intense and lifelong fascination with the Apocrypha of the Old and New Testaments and the medieval art and imagery that they inspired.

The schoolboy Montague Rhodes James was popular with masters and fellow students: though disinclined to take part in sports he otherwise enjoyed his schooling, although the intellectual precocity that earned him a scholarship on entering Eton College marked him from an early age. As his friend Gurney Lubbock observed: “A boy who could, out of the pound given him as his half ’s pocket money, spend on his way back to Eton sixteen shillings for the four volumes of John Albert Fabricius on the Apocrypha was obviously not as other boys” (1939: 11). Montague Rhodes James, a lifelong bachelor, arrived at King’s College, Cambridge, in 1882 as an undergraduate and stayed for thirty-six years. He earned a fellowship in 1887, his Doctor of Letters in 1895, and in 1905 became Provost of King’s, a position he held until 1918 when he returned to Eton as Provost, where he remained contentedly until his death in 1936. From 1886–1908 he served as deputy director and, later, director of The Fitzwilliam Museum in Cambridge, and from 1913–14 as Vice-Chancellor of the University. Montague Rhodes James’ academic productivity, prodigious by any measure, appears all the more astonishing when his substantial administrative burdens are taken into account. Alongside translations and edited editions of various biblical Apocrypha he painstakingly catalogued the medieval manuscript collections of every Cambridge college, as well as numerous other private and ecclesiastical libraries (Lubbock 1939).

In his love of antiquities and his devotion to recording and cataloguing them the young Montague Rhodes James was a very Victorian archaeologist, exploring churches and archives, and at the age of twelve writing to his father of his desire “above all things to make an Archaeological search into the antiquities of Suffolk” (Cox 1983: 15).

Throughout his life he published notes and articles on church art and architecture, stained glass and monumental brasses. As an undergraduate, he briefly considered a career in classical archaeology before the medieval world claimed him for good. Montague Rhodes James is known to have taken part in two archaeological excavations: one in Britain and one in Cyprus. The latter expedition took place in the winter of 1887–8. Aside from Montague Rhodes James the team consisted of Ernest Arthur Gardner, a Petrie protege based at the British School at Athens; and David George Hogarth, a future keeper of the Ashmolean Museum and mentor to the young Thomas Edward Lawrence. The excavators explored a number of sites on the island before focusing their attention on the Temple of Aphrodite Urania at Old Town of Paphos (Hogarth et al. 1888). After supervising the rather poorly-executed excavation of Leontari Vouno, a hilltop site south of Nicosia, Montague Rhodes James joined the rest of the party at Old Paphos where he concentrated on deciphering the inscriptions that they had unearthed (Hogarth et al. 1888; Cox 1983: 85). Montague Rhodes James had displayed an early enthusiasm for digging, writing hopefully at the age of sixteen of “making the Queen send me out to excavate”, but his biographer Pfaff suggests that “for all his enthusiasm, Montague Rhodes James’ heart was in archaeology only on a part-time and rather eccentric basis”, calling the Cyprus dig “The final, and largest, gesture Montague Rhodes James made towards pure classical scholarship” (Pfaff 1980: 79–81).

A later and largely forgotten episode in Montague Rhodes James’ archaeological career was the excavation of the chapter house at Bury St Edmunds Abbey in 1902–1903. From a manuscript source, the Douai Register, Montague Rhodes James claimed to have traced the burial places of six medieval Abbots of Bury including the famous Abbot Samson, modestly noting that “I do not know that his resting-place has ever been pointed out before” (1895: 146–47). He remarked on the potential for translating historical theory into archaeological fact: “[…] if a systematic excavation could be undertaken, as a result of the publication of this book, I should be better repaid thereby for the pains I have spent upon it than by any other means […] From the lie of the land, I am inclined to believe that much of the crypt would be discovered and that the sites of the Abbots’ tombs in the Chapter-house (including that of Abbot Sampson) might be ascertained (James 1895: 115).”

In his memoirs, Montague Rhodes James merely remarks that his hypothesis was “verified by subsequent excavations” (1926: 202). The excavations had begun in the winter of 1902, and on New Year’s Day 1903 five coffins and an additional body — the six Abbots Montague Rhodes James had predicted — were unearthed in the ruins of the chapter house. Montague Rhodes James reported the finds in The Times, and while several later reports have credited him with the management of the excavation that he in fact visited only intermittently, he recorded therein that, “The success of the excavations at Bury has been very largely due to the exertions of the Rev. Sydenham Hervey, who has supervised them and assisted in them from the first” (1903: 9). The remains of the Abbots, restored to their coffins within a month of their discovery, were reinterred in the presence of the excavation committee, with new stone coffin lids marked 1903 (Barker 1907: 58). Aside from its historical and archaeological significance the disinterment of Abbot Samson and his colleagues illustrates many of the uncanny archaeological themes that characterised Montague Rhodes James’ antiquarian ghost stories, supporting Pardoe and Nicholls’ (2001: 608) claim that, “in order to fully understand the background of antiquarian knowledge which lies behind each of M.R. James’s ghost stories, the reader needs to know what else he was working on or preoccupied with at the time”.

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