Ghosts & Scholars
M.R. James

Issue 6 (September 2004)

The Ghosts & Scholars M.R. James Newsletter is published two or three times a year at irregular intervals. Click here for further information on how to buy the full hard-copy edition. Contributions are welcome - click here for Guidelines.

Editor: Rosemary Pardoe (e-mail); Assistant Editors: David Rowlands and Steve Duffy.

Copyright © 2004 Rosemary Pardoe. All rights retained by the contributors. All unassigned material by Rosemary Pardoe. Not to be reproduced without the permission of the authors/artists.


(Unlinked contents can only be read in the hard-copy edition of the Newsletter)



"The Herefordshire of 'A View from a Hill'" by Rosemary and Darroll Pardoe

"Hill-Digging and Magic" by Augustus Jessopp

"The Nature of the Beast: The Demonology of 'Canon Alberic's Scrap-book'" by Helen Grant

"Jamesian Notes & Queries" ("'Before someone take and put it right again'" by Rosemary Pardoe; "Rats to Mr Mullen" by Eric Bryan; "Queries")

"Reviews" (Otia Imperialia by Gervase of Tilbury; Medieval Ghost Stories, edited by Andrew Joynes; The Proceedings of that Night by Lynne Truss)


Artwork: Alan Hunter ("The Haunted Dolls' House"); Douglas Walters ("Lost Hearts"); Darroll Pardoe (Llanthony and Garway photographs)


As well as all the regular departments, Newsletter issue 6 features three main articles: another in the "Jamesian Traveller" series, this time dealing with the Herefordshire of MRJ's "A View from a Hill"; a scholarly look by Helen Grant at the demon in "Canon Alberic's Scrap-book"; and a reprint from "Hill-Digging and Magic" (1887) by Augustus Jessopp. The presence of Dr Jessopp's article makes this a good time to remind you that the Newsletter covers not only M.R. James himself, but also all those among his friends and associates who wrote supernatural fiction (not necessarily Jamesian) at some point in their lives. There are, as far as I've been able to ascertain, a highly appropriate thirteen names aside from MRJ on the list (or perhaps twelve if "B" should turn out to have been A.C. Benson): i.e. E.G. Swain, R.H. Malden, Christopher Woodforde, Arthur Gray, Augustus Jessopp, Shane Leslie, A.P. Baker, Hugh Walpole, "B", "D.N.J.", and the Benson brothers, A.C., E.F., and R.H. If you think I've missed someone, or want to question an inclusion, please let me know. Other authors, notably J. Sheridan Le Fanu, get coverage because of their major influence on and connection with MRJ. But not within the compass of the Newsletter is the larger category of writers "in the M.R. James Tradition" - the "James Gang" - who were not contemporaries of MRJ or, if they were, did not come into contact with him. This doesn't mean, of course, that these other members of the James Gang will never get a look-in here. They might well do so if they should come up in relation to the above-mentioned people and their writings. Thus, for instance, L.T.C. Rolt puts in an appearance in this issue's "Jamesian Traveller" article.

Long essays, shorter pieces for "Jamesian Notes & Queries", or perhaps you only have a paragraph that you want to write for "Notes & Queries" or the lettercolumn - all are welcome. If you'd like to discuss your ideas with me first, feel free to do so, although my main object (and that of my assistant editors) in any such discussion will be to point out possible overlaps with previous articles, and to help you firm up your arguments. Shoddy scholarship means automatic rejection, but not everything requires scholarship: personal opinions can be just as interesting. So long as they're well-argued, we're not going to try and talk you out of your views, even if we disagree vehemently with them!

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"The Jamesian Traveller"

The Herefordshire of
"A View from a Hill"

by Rosemary and Darroll Pardoe

In Martin Byrom's Ghosts & Scholars 19 article "A Wander Round Withybush",[1] he looked at Poyston in Pembrokeshire, the home of Dr Henry Owen who was probably the inspiration for Squire Henry Richards in "A View from a Hill". However, although Dr Owen's house may have contributed to the depiction of Squire Richards' Hall, we know that Pembrokeshire was not the chief setting for this tale, first published in the London Mercury of May 1925 (reprinted in the same year in A Warning to the Curious). M.R. James himself makes this quite clear in his Preface to the Collected Ghost Stories (1931), where he says "Herefordshire was the imagined scene of 'A View from a Hill'".

The story contains one of MRJ's most vivid evocations of landscape, and as such, it seems likely that it was set in an area well known to MRJ, and much loved by him. The best candidate in Herefordshire must be the countryside around the Woodlands farm, near Kilpeck (roughly six miles south-west of Hereford), which was visited by MRJ more than once in most years between 1906 and 1929, while it was occupied by Gwendolen McBryde and her daughter, MRJ's ward, Jane (in 1929 the McBrydes moved a couple of miles to Dippersmoor Manor, and the visits continued).[2] According to Gwendolen, MRJ considered Woodlands, which is about a mile-and-a-half south-east of Kilpeck, to be "in perfect surroundings".[3] But does this area fit the description in the story, and is there a hill nearby, crowned by a "small clump of old Scotch firs", with the same magnificent view? Standing on this hill, Mr Fanshawe and the Squire admired "the lovely English landscape":

"Across a broad level plain they looked upon ranges of great hills, whose uplands - some green, some furred with woods - caught the light of a sun, westering but not yet low. And all the plain was fertile, though the river which traversed it was nowhere seen. There were copses, green wheat, hedges, and pasture-land..."

Compare this with Gwendolen's description of a feature near Woodlands and Dippersmoor:

"The woods here are carpeted with bluebells, but the best place for them is up above my farm on Coles Tump or the thirteen trees: it is only a few fields distant, but the easiest way to reach it is by motoring round two miles. It was a favourite spot of M.R.J.'s... From the Tump you get a view of the Golden Valley and the Black Mountains and the nearby Saddlebow and Garway Hills... the coloured fields in the valley make as beautiful a sight as anything one may have seen in other lands."[4]

Coles (or Cole's) Tump is about a mile south-west of Woodlands, across woods and grassland. It is still topped by a clump of trees, though there are now far fewer than the "thirteen" of MRJ's time (when we passed it, the top of the Tump was covered in atmospheric mist, and frustratingly we were unable to see even those which remain, but a modern photograph of them is on the Net). If this is the hill in the story, what of the "traces of war-ditches and the like" that the Squire pointed out on the walk to it? Perhaps MRJ was thinking of the "pillow mounds", several of which the Ordnance Survey Explorer map marks on the ground around the Tump (pillow mounds are earthworks generally thought to be medieval artificial rabbit warrens). Although no remnants of Roman occupancy have been found here, in "Baxter's Roman Villa" MRJ may be referencing the discovery in the eighteenth century of a Roman mosaic pavement at Walterstone, eight miles to the west.[5]

There is a photograph of Coles Tump, contemporary with "A View from a Hill", in The Old Straight Track, Alfred Watkins' seminal book on ley-lines, published later in the same year as MRJ's tale.[6] Watkins mentions the Tump several times and specifies that the trees atop it were, at that time, half Scotch firs and half beeches (he counted seven of each), "and the clump is to be seen for many miles".[7] The Scotch fir was considered by Watkins to be "the typical tree of the ancient track",[8] and he also believed that "Cole" was one of the three chief names associated with places on the old tracks. Coles Tump, he said, was "with its exceptional position, certainly an initial point" (i.e. the starting point for the laying out of leys).[9]

The Old Straight Track could not have been read by MRJ before he wrote "A View from a Hill", but there is a possibility that he might have read Watkins' earlier work on the same subject: Early British Trackways (published by the Woolhope Club of Hereford in 1922). If so, there is no record of it, but whether inspired by Watkins' theories (which would surely have intrigued or at least amused him) or not, it is undeniable that MRJ appears to describe two geographical alignments, which could well be considered leys, in the course of the story.[10]

The first of these alignments, both of them from the viewpoint of the eponymous "hill", is "across that big green field, then over the wood beyond it, then over the farm on the knoll" to the ruins of Fulnaker Abbey (the sighting hill, the farm on the knoll, and the Abbey would make a three-point ley: i.e. not considered a proven ley, for which more points would be needed). The second alignment, "A good deal more to the left", goes over "a rather sudden knob of a hill with a thick wood on top of it... in a dead line with that single tree on the top of the big ridge" (the sighting hill, the "knob" which is actually the Gallows Hill, and the tree on the ridge again form a three-point ley).

Can we identify either Fulnaker Abbey or the Gallows Hill? At first we thought that Fulnaker might be Abbey Dore, five miles north-west of Coles Tump, and described by MRJ as "surprising and delightful". But this is not far enough away from the Tump, and nor is it a ruin, part of the building having been restored and a new tower built prior to its reconsecration as a parish church in 1634.[11] Kilpeck Priory can also be ruled out for the same reason of (lack of) distance, and because there are no ancient remains apart from some earthworks (the present buildings are seventeenth century). The ruins of Fulnaker Abbey would appear to be approximately as distant as Oldbourne, "about nine miles" away, or perhaps a little further. Almost directly west from the Tump, eleven miles away as the crow flies, there is a ruin which seems to fill most of the requirements: Llanthony Priory (Monmouthshire) on the side of the Black Mountains.[12] The stunningly scenic valley around the Priory is a much haunted area, and has been used as a setting by several supernatural fiction writers. It is the valley of the title in L.T.C. Rolt's dark and sinister story "Cwm Garon", wherein Llanthony is thinly disguised as "Llangaron Abbey". In his later tale "The House of Vengeance", Rolt named it "Llanvethney Priory".[13]

Llanthony was well known to MRJ: he visited it with the McBrydes on occasion,[14] and he also examined the Priory in detail while collecting information for his volume on Abbeys (although this book was published in 1925, his research trips for it were undertaken in 1924 - i.e. just before he wrote "A View from a Hill").[15] The most significant feature of Fulnaker Abbey in the story is its central tower, no longer standing in the ruined Abbey but seen by Mr Fanshawe through Mr Baxter's 'magicked' field-glasses. MRJ, in Abbeys, describes Llanthony Priory as "a very beautiful place", with the remains of its main (circa twelfth century) church building consisting of "western towers, aisled nave, central tower and transepts, and aisleless choir" [our italics].[16] Of Llanthony's central tower only the lower part survives today (the most complete wall is fifty or sixty feet high). The ruins and setting are as magnificent now as then, particularly at the time of year when we were there (December). In the summer, the area must be filled with walkers, cyclists and other visitors (even in December, as we left, a minibus of walkers was just disembarking).

(a) Llanthony Priory.

(b) Llanthony Priory showing the remains of the central tower.

About three miles south-east of Llanthony, east of the mountains, is the village of Oldcastle, which may have been the inspiration for Oldbourne in the story. If so, Squire Richards is right to say, "if you call that a fine tower, you're easily pleased", since the mid-Victorian church at Oldcastle has no tower at all, just a small turret for its bells!

We have not been able to identify Wanstone and its "out-of-the-way" stone on a mound: there are a few interesting stones in the area and numerous mounds, but no combination of the two that we know of. Lambsfield church, with its "little glass", which Mr Fanshawe found "interesting stuff" although he couldn't read its lettering, is also difficult to pin down. There is not much interesting stained glass in this part of Herefordshire, but Lambsfield could be Wormbridge, a mile west of Kilpeck, which has in its north and south chancel windows, "all kinds of fragments. They include a series of small early C15 figures".[17] Or it might even be Abbey Dore, where MRJ recorded some "uncommon" glass in the three eastern lancet windows:

"... dated 1632. In that on the left are Matthew, Mark, Peter, and Andrew; in the centre, canopy work, two Apostles, and the Ascension; on the right, two more Apostles and the other two Evangelists. The drawing of the figures is absurdly bad, but the colour quite good."[18]

While heading back east from Llanthony towards Kilpeck, we couldn't resist a side-trip five miles south of that village to the Templar church at Garway. This "strange place", as Gwendolen put it,[19] has nothing to do with "A View from a Hill", but MRJ seems to have had a peculiar experience there in 1917, the precise nature of which is tantalisingly unclear. He wrote of it with typical spooky Jamesian humour:

"We must have offended something or somebody at Garway I think: probably we took it too much for granted, in speaking of it, that we should be able to do exactly as we pleased. Next time we shall know better. There is no doubt it is a very rum place and needs careful handling."[20]

As well as the ancient Garway church itself with its (semi-) detached thirteenth-century tower, there is also a huge dovecote on private property on the adjoining farm, built by the Knights Hospitallers, who took over the site from the Templars in the fourteenth century. Its doveholes number a worrying 666. Only the top of this building is visible from the churchyard. The foundations of a circular nave (so characteristic of Templar churches) can be seen outside the present church. It's a quiet, interesting place, but not sinister.

(c) The (semi-) detached tower of Garway church.

To return now to the location of that vision of the gibbet mound, the central image of "A View from a Hill": the clues offered by the story are unhelpful. The area indicated by Squire Richards is a "good deal more to the left" of Fulnaker, when viewed from the sighting hill, but there is no suitable candidate in the countryside to the left, i.e. the south/south-east, of Llanthony. However, there are two possibilities worth considering. There is a gallows mound in Longtown, two miles north-east of Llanthony. Indeed, this was in use within living memory of some of the locals to whom Alfred Watkins spoke: "the memory of the last gibbeting (of a wife-poisoner, and there was 'another lady in it') is still kept up, for all that summer no one on Abergavenny market would buy their butter from Longtown valley - on account of the flies!"[21] A couple of things would tend to rule this out as our most likely contender. Firstly, the Gallows Hill in "A View from a Hill" is an isolated hill in the open countryside with no buildings on it, whereas the one at Longtown is on the corner of the Castle Mound with its surviving Castle (probably the "grey, ruined tower set upon a conical mound and surrounded by a ditch" of Rolt's "Cwm Garon"[22]). Secondly, the Hill in MRJ's story is "not more" than three miles away from Squire Richards' house, "across country"; but "nearer six by road". Longtown is a full nine miles away from Woodlands as the crow flies.

We think that the true Gallows Hill, or at least MRJ's inspiration for it, may be found much closer to Woodlands but in an entirely different direction. Back at Kilpeck, which surely must be the village where Mr Baxter lived, we stopped first for a look at the famous little Norman church, with its unique medieval stone carvings. These include more than seventy decorated corbels around the outside, many depicting animals, some homely like the hare and hound combination, some more exotic and perhaps taken from the Bestiary (there is also a rare example of a sheelagh-na-gig). MRJ worshipped here most Sundays when visiting the McBrydes after they moved from Woodlands to Dippersmoor (which is only a few hundred yards south of Kilpeck) in 1929, and Gwendolen produced the illustrations for a Guide to Kilpeck Church.[23]

About half a mile north-east of Kilpeck is a small rise marked on all the maps as Gallows Knapp.[24] It is about one-and-a-half miles north-west of Woodlands in a direct line (and two miles from Coles Tump, which ties in with the "it might be only two or three miles away": the distance to the Gallows Hill when Fanshawe first saw it from the sighting hill). But to get from Gallows Knapp to Woodlands by road requires the taking of a round-about route as in the story - admittedly closer to four miles than six, but perhaps it just seems longer when pushing a bicycle!

If Gallows Knapp is the Gallows Hill of "A View from a Hill", then MRJ made it rather more distinctive than it is: a nondescript little piece of slightly raised ground on a corner between a minor road and a farm track, which would be impossible to recognise as such if one didn't known exactly where to look.[25] He also moved it around to the other side of the Woodlands from where it really is. Maybe when MRJ had Squire Richards say "left", he meant "right"!

Disappointingly, Gwendolen McBryde never acknowledged (in print, at least) that one of MRJ's tales was set in the environs of her house, although she must have known it (there is really no other part of Herefordshire that fits). She did, however, say that "some of the Ghost Stories" were written during MRJ's visits.[26] Could she have been thinking of "A View from a Hill"? Clearly the final version was produced on one of his stays at Aldeburgh in Suffolk ("with a winter wind flapping against dark windows and a rushing, tumbling sea within a hundred yards"), but what an irresistible picture is conjured up by the thought that he might have jotted down some preliminary notes for it while sitting on that "wide and solid seat" on Coles Tump.


Since many of the places mentioned in this article are on minor roads, it would be difficult if not impossible to locate and visit them all without the Ordnance Survey maps for the area. The standard Landranger 1:50,000 series is perfectly adequate, but for maximum enjoyment, the Explorer 1:25,000 series (maps 189 and OL13) is recommended. The (hopefully) logical order of sites presented in this article is not the best order in which to visit them. We went from Hereford directly to Llanthony (if we'd had more time, we might have stopped off at Hereford Cathedral, one of the three on which MRJ based Barchester in "The Stalls of Barchester Cathedral", and Southminster in "An Episode of Cathedral History").

Take the main Hereford-Abergavenny road (A465) and at Llanvihangel Crucorney come off the main road and drive through the village. The turn for Llanthony is sign-posted. Six miles up the valley, there's a sign for the Priory up a lane to the right. After a couple of hundred yards, turn right by the parish church to get to the car park, which has public toilets (and a disabled toilet). Entry to the car park and Abbey ruins is free.

After Llanthony, we returned the way we'd come, but you could continue up the valley for another five miles to the head of the Gospel Pass (past Capel-y-ffin: Rolt's "Capel Cwm Garon"). It looks from the map as though you'd get a lovely view on a nice day (which ours wasn't) and there's a car park there.

Garway next. Turn off the A465 at Pontrilas on to the B4347 Monmouth road. At Kentchurch go straight on instead of right with the B-road. It's another four miles to Garway. When you've passed the village sign, turn right by the chapel and, after a hundred yards, left onto the track to the church. There's room to park just as you turn off the road, but if it's quiet there's room for one car at the end of the track by the graveyard gates (and space to turn). If you are approaching from the east, take the B4521 west from the main Hereford-Monmouth road (A466) south of St Weonards, and, after a mile, turn right at Broad Oak for Garway.

Coles Tump is three miles down a minor road west off the A466, two miles north of St Weonards. Make sure you turn right at Orcop Hill, about half way along, rather than continuing straight on to Orcop. Parking is problematic at the road junction adjacent to the Tump, but if you can manage it, there's a footpath running north from the road a few yards east of the road junction; the footpath goes right by the Tump.

It's a rather tortuous drive from Coles Tump to Kilpeck, south, west and north along three sides of a square. Kilpeck village is much easier to approach from the other direction. It's only a mile from the A465 at St Devereux. Kilpeck church is right in the village and there's parking for several cars just by the graveyard gate. If you leave Kilpeck southwards and go straight on (signed "Village Hall") just on the outskirts, instead of turning right, the road leads past Dippersmoor (which is the large building at the end of a private driveway on your right after a quarter mile). Keep on the minor road, taking the sharp left turn, and after another mile you reach the T-junction at Gallows Knapp. The Knapp is the area immediately on the west side of the junction formed by the road and the track that leads north through a gate. At this point the ground rises from the road up a bank to the edge of the field, and the gallows presumably stood somewhere between the road and the field hedge.

Finally, Much Dewchurch is on the B4348 which runs between the A465 at Belmont (only just outside Hereford) and the A466 at Wormelow Tump. Turn off the main road at the war memorial on the west side of the village, and the church is a couple of hundred yards down the dead-end street, with plenty of parking (shared with the adjacent school).

I don't know whether we were just lucky, but none of the churches we visited (Garway, Kilpeck and Much Dewchurch) was locked. Access for the walking disabled is no problem at any of them (maximum one step) nor at Llanthony; while Kilpeck and Much Dewchurch look as though they should be at least partly accessible to wheelchairs.


[1] Martin Byrom, "A Wander Round Withybush", Ghosts & Scholars 19 (1995), pp.32-33.

[2] Gwendolen McBryde, Introduction to Letters to a Friend (Edward Arnold, 1956), p.13 ("When I lived at Woodlands in Herefordshire and M.R.J. was Provost of King's he usually came to stay at the end of term in June and after Christmas, but later when he was Provost of Eton he came after the summer half and any holiday time"). For the dates of the McBrydes' residence at Woodlands, see McBryde, Letters to a Friend, pp.30, 20. Both of the McBryde homes still exist. Dippersmoor, an impressive place, can be easily spotted from the road, but Woodlands is too tucked away to be seen.

[3] Ibid, p.20.

[4] Ibid, p.25.

[5] Nikolaus Pevsner, The Buildings of England: Herefordshire (Penguin, 1963), p.309.

[6] Alfred Watkins, The Old Straight Track: Its Mounds, Beacons, Moats, Sites and Mark Stones (1925, Abacus reprint 1994), fig. 80.

[7] Ibid, p.75.

[8] Ibid, p.61.

[9] Ibid, p.60.

[10] The possible connection between Alfred Watkins and "A View from a Hill" was first suggested by Norman Darwen in "The Strange Affair of Mr. James and Mr. Watkins", Northern Earth 95 (Autumn 2003), pp.25-26, but he did not develop the theory in detail as he was unaware of the probable location of the story.

[11] M.R. James, Abbeys (Great Western Railway, 1925), p.116.

[12] Most of the requirements! Admittedly, Llanthony is not in the line of sight of Coles Tump, being in the Vale of Ewyas, in the middle of the mountains. According to Alfred Watkins, there are leys from Llanthony to the eastern side of the mountains via sighting notches on the ridge (Watkins, The Old Straight Track, pp.52-53, 71).

[13] "Cwm Garon" was published in Rolt's Sleep No More (Constable, 1948). "The House of Vengeance" first appeared in The Taste of Fear (ed. Hugh Lamb, W.H. Allen, 1976), and was included in the expanded reprint of Sleep No More from Ash-Tree Press (1996). In both stories, the Abbey Hotel, incorporated into the ruins at Llanthony, appears. In "Cwm Garon", the place called "Capel Cwm Garon" is Capel-y-ffin, three miles up the valley from Llanthony; and the ruins of the house of "Alaric Stephenson" at Llangaron are those of Siarpal, the ill-fated home of the author and poet, Walter Savage Landor, about half a mile north-east of Llanthony Priory.

[14] Gwendolen McBryde, Letters to a Friend, p.22.

[15] Ibid, pp.129-130 (MRJ's letters of July 4 and August 18, 1924).

[16] M.R. James, Abbeys, p.134.

[17] Nikolaus Pevsner, The Buildings of England: Herefordshire, p.325.

[18] M.R. James, Abbeys, p.118. This glass is also mentioned by MRJ in "The Uncommon Prayer-book" ("... figure-subjects, of the kind that may be seen at Abbey Dore, of Lord Scudamore's work").

[19] Gwendolen McBryde, Letters to a Friend, p.71.

[20] Ibid, pp.71-72 (MRJ's letter of September 30, 1917).

[21] Alfred Watkins, The Old Straight Track, p.71.

[22] L.T.C. Rolt, Sleep No More (1996), p.45.

[23] Gwendolen McBryde, Letters to a Friend, p.22. Woodlands is in the adjoining parish of Much Dewchurch. Prior to 1929, MRJ and the McBrydes "usually walked over the fields to Church" (McBryde, p.18) at Much Dewchurch, using the still-existing footpath; a walk of a little over a mile north-east. The vicar of that parish from 1910 to 1926, Enoch Brooke Bradley, is mentioned by Gwendolen as not a great sermoniser - an opinion which MRJ shared: he would often surreptitiously read his Greek testament during Bradley's sermons (McBryde, p.18; and MRJ's letter of October 22, 1917, on p.73).

[24] "'knap' is a constantly recurring name for a sighting hill" (Alfred Watkins, The Old Straight Track, p.95).

[25] Its position is not at all clear on the standard 1:50,000 or 1:25,000 Ordnance Survey maps, but the old 6-inch maps from the 1890s (available on the Net: <>) mark its location precisely.

[26] Gwendolen McBryde, Letters to a Friend, p.14.

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The Nature of the Beast

The Demonology of "Canon Alberic's Scrap-book"

by Helen Grant

"Imagine one of the awful bird-catching spiders of South America translated into human form, and endowed with intelligence just less than human, and you will have some faint conception of the terror inspired by this appalling effigy."

The "appalling effigy" will be recognised by all familiar with M.R. James's story "Canon Alberic's Scrap-book" as the sepia drawing of a demon which subsequently appears to the hapless Dennistoun, purchaser of the picture, and is only exorcised by the burning of the drawing. The creature is one of the most vividly and distinctly described of all James's apparitions and the tale is rated as one of James's finest by many of his readers. Yet the story raises many questions which remain tantalisingly unanswered: What exactly is the creature which appears to Dennistoun? Why did Canon Alberic summon it - and why could he not then dismiss it? Why is it linked to possession of the drawing but not to the photograph of it? And why does the sacristan insist that he will take only "two hundred and fifty francs, not more" for the scrap-book, which is clearly worth much more to a collector? These are the questions I shall attempt to answer, drawing on sources which would have been available to MRJ and which will take us as far afield as mediaeval Arabia and seventeenth-century Germany.

Our starting-point must be those details which are either given in the story or can be directly inferred from it. So, what does MRJ actually tell us? We know that Canon Alberic de Mauléon holds a dialogue with someone or something on the 12th December 1694, in which he poses questions about his own future, including whether he will find something, probably treasure. On that same night, Canon Alberic sees "it" for the first time. Approximately seven years later, in the expectation of seeing "it" again, he dies in his bed of a seizure. He leaves behind him a scrap-book of manuscripts including a sepia drawing of King Solomon confronting a demon of the night and a plan of part of the cathedral of St Bertrand de Comminges. At the time of the main action of the story, this book is in the possession of the sacristan of the church, who lives in Canon Alberic's house, now much dilapidated, and who has clearly been haunted over a long period by the creature depicted in Canon Alberic's drawing. The sacristan sells the book to Dennistoun, but will accept only two hundred and fifty francs for it, in spite of its clearly being worth considerably more. The transaction instantly transfers the association with the demon to the new owner; within a short period Dennistoun finds himself aware of a growing discomfort and compulsion to sit with his back to the wall. At the moment when he removes the crucifix from around his neck to clean it, the demon appears to him. What would have happened to him next is not clear, as the two serving men rush into the room before the demon can do more than make a move towards his victim. The drawing is subsequently photographed and then burnt. The demon is apparently exorcised by the destruction of the drawing - the narrator says that the photograph is now in his own possession, but there is no suggestion that the demon haunts him. Finally, we have Dennistoun's own words on what he has seen, comprising a quotation from Ecclesiasticus and a reference to the night monsters mentioned in Isaiah.

Let us take first these two Biblical references, since they constitute the "eyewitness's" impression of the demon's provenance. What significance can we read into Dennistoun's references to the avenging spirits of Ecclesiasticus and the night monsters of Isaiah?

Ecclesiasticus, also known as the Book of Sirach, is thought to have been written originally in Hebrew, but of the Hebrew text only some recently-discovered fragments remain. We can however examine the extant Greek version and the Latin Vulgate for a better understanding of the nature of the spirits which "in their fury lay on sore strokes". The quotation comes from Ecclesiasticus 39, v.28. The Greek word used here for spirits is pneumata. The word pneuma can mean a spirit or spiritual being of some sort but can also mean a wind, air, or breath. Compare the Latin Vulgate version, "sunt spiritus qui ad vindictam creati sunt..." which uses spiritus, again meaning either a spirit or a breath. An avenging demon could be either spirit being or wind: demons in the form of deadly winds appear for example in The Testament of Solomon, a text with which MRJ was very familiar (of which more later). However, we should beware of reading too much into this: the English text quoted by Dennistoun does not have the ambivalent meaning of the Greek and Latin, and furthermore the demon in "Canon Alberic's Scrap-book" always assumes an anthropomorphic form.

The context of the Ecclesiasticus quotation is more useful: Ecclesiasticus 39 describes first the ways of the wise man, then goes on to describe those good things which were created for men, such as food, drink and fuel, and adds, "All these things shall be good to the holy, so to the sinners and the ungodly they shall be turned into evil".

The quotation describing the "spirits that are created for vengeance" follows, and leads into a longer curse upon the ungodly, which includes fire, hail, famine and death, as well as "the teeth of beasts, and scorpions, and serpents, and the sword taking revenge upon the ungodly unto destruction". And indeed Canon Alberic, who seeks the good things of life for himself, ultimately meets a bad end as a result of his unholy transaction with the demon. The godless cannot escape divine vengeance. Note that the "teeth of beasts" (bestiarum dentes in the Vulgate) which will rend the ungodly are reminiscent of MRJ's demon with its thin lower jaw, "shallow, like a beast's". An interesting footnote to the Ecclesiasticus quotation is that the book was originally (though erroneously) ascribed to the authorship of King Solomon, a detail likely to assume greater significance when we come on to the drawing of Solomon and the demon.

Dennistoun's second Biblical reference, to night monsters living in the ruins of Babylon, is more problematical. This is certainly a reference to Isaiah 34, v.14, although the ruined city is in fact Edom, not Babylon. The Revised Standard Version reads: "And wild beasts shall meet with hyaenas, the satyr shall cry to his fellow; yea, there shall the night hag alight, and find for herself a resting place". The King James version keeps the satyrs but replaces night hag with screech owl, demonstrating the difficulty of interpreting this word, which does not appear anywhere else in the whole of the Bible. The original Hebrew word used for the night monster is Lilit. It probably refers to Lilith, "she of the night", in legend the first wife of Adam, who later became a monster who dwelt in lonely places and preyed on children. She is associated with Lamia in classical tradition, whose children were killed by Hera and who subsequently became savage with grief and turned into a child-stealing monster; the Vulgate version of Isaiah 34, v.14 uses the word Lamia for the night monster.

So why, we might ask, does Dennistoun's experience with the demon call Isaiah's reference to Lilith - the night hag - to his mind? The demon which manifests itself in Comminges is a male demon - or is it? A careful reading of the story suggests that it is not necessarily male. The descriptions of the drawing of the demon, and of the creature as it appears to Dennistoun, both use the neutral word it to describe the apparition. On several occasions in the story, comparisons are drawn with female persons: Dennistoun, wondering what oppresses the sacristan so, suspects it is "a more formidable persecutor even than a termagant wife". Later at the Chapeau Rouge, when the spectral laughter is heard, Dennistoun remarks, "I wish that landlady would learn to laugh in a more cheering manner; it makes one feel as if there was someone dead in the house".

Set against this is the fact that the sacristan refers to the demon throughout as him, in both English and French (otherwise he would say, "Deux fois je l'ai vue."). However, in French, virtually every word which could be applied to the demon, viz. diable, démon, esprit, vampire, monstre, is masculine. It is quite common for those whose first language uses gender cases to carry them over into English, although they are not used in English. So we cannot preclude the demon's being female on the basis of the sacristan's imperfect English.

There are, however, greater problems with attempting to identify Dennistoun's demon with Lilith. Why would Canon Alberic summon a demon whose main attribute is preying upon children? Clearly the demon in the story has the ability to foretell the future, and to advise Canon Alberic upon the success of his treasure hunt. These are not notable features of the Lilith legend, whereas they are strongly associated with some other types of demon, which I will come onto later. In addition, there is nothing in the Lilith tradition to explain the mysterious "two hundred and fifty francs, not more". Both Lilith and Lamia were monsters motivated by revenge for their own misfortunes. In all probability Dennistoun's reference to these night monsters is intended to convey vengefulness and implacability, or simply the inscrutable nature of the wreakers of divine vengeance.

Moving on to the drawing of the demon, we might ask: what is the significance of the depiction of King Solomon? The obvious influence here is The Testament of Solomon, a Greek text dating perhaps as far back as the first to third centuries AD. MRJ was not only familiar with the work but actually wrote about it (see Ghosts & Scholars 28, pp.46-57, included in the G&S on-line Archive here). The Testament of Solomon describes how King Solomon summoned a variety of demons and controlled them by means of a ring given to him by the archangel Michael. The demons performed a number of tasks for Solomon including building the temple at Jerusalem. The last section of the Testament describes how Solomon was finally persuaded to sacrifice to the pagan god Moloch in order to win a foreign wife, and thereby lost God's favour and was mocked by demons.

The Testament of Solomon is one of the earliest and most comprehensive accounts of Solomon and the demons (the Old Testament does not mention the story, describing the building of the temple by Solomon in purely human terms). However, there are widespread references to it in other sources, including the Koran, which says that devils dived into the sea and performed other tasks for Solomon.[1] It also describes djinns subject to Solomon, who built whatever he wanted, including shrines and statues.[2] The Arabian Nights also features Solomonic djinn in the stories of Aladdin and of the Fisherman and the Genie (of which more later). So there was a strong tradition of stories of Solomon and the demons for MRJ to draw upon. The question is, what is the significance of the Solomon stories in the history of Canon Alberic?

There are several possibilities: one is that the Solomon legend is simply used here as a suitably ecclesiastical allegory for what happens to Canon Alberic: both Solomon and Alberic have truck with demons, and enjoy wealth or power, but suffer a reversal of fortune at the end of their lives, ultimately becoming the plaything of demons. The other possibility is that the apparition in "Canon Alberic's Scrap-book" is intended to be an actual, possibly even a specific Solomonic demon, and this I believe to be the case. Solomonic motifs recur too often in the details of the story for this to be pure coincidence. As regards which of Solomon's demons haunts the owner of Canon Alberic's scrap-book, let us first consider what we know about the demon, and whether its attributes suggest a specific identification.

Let us begin by considering what we know of Canon Alberic's traffic with the demon. This is documented through the two sheets of paper at the end of the scrap-book; one is the sepia drawing with some writing on the back, and the other is a plan of part of the church with what appear to be magical symbols on it, and a list of questions and answers from the night upon which Canon Alberic first saw the demon. "A good specimen of the treasure-hunter's record," remarks Dennistoun. We can infer that the treasure-hunt was a successful one, since Canon Alberic's relics include a very imposing tomb and a mansion "rather larger than its neighbours", though this has fallen into disrepair at the time of Dennistoun's visit. It is clearly connected with the church itself, judging by the plan of the south aisle and cloisters, marked with planetary symbols, Hebrew words and a single cross in gold paint. If the treasure was found in the precincts of the church itself, there is a direct parallel with The Testament of Solomon, in which a demon in the form of a three-headed dragon tells King Solomon that there is a store of hidden gold at the entrance to the Temple that he has begun to build; Solomon sends his servant to dig it up, and he finds it where the demon told him it would be.[3] Other demons within the Testament also possess the power to reveal the whereabouts of treasure: the demon Ornias promises the boy who captures him with Solomon's ring that he (Ornias) will give him all the gold of the earth if he sets him free; Solomon also advises the servant who captures the Arabian wind demon that if the demon offers him gold or silver in exchange for freedom, he (the servant) must mark the places where the bullion is.[4] The association of demons with treasure hunting is not, of course, confined to The Testament of Solomon: in the Arabian Nights, for example, the magical lamp containing the djinn is found in a vast underground treasure store. There are definite Solomonic aspects to the Aladdin story: the Moor who poses as Aladdin's uncle gives him a magic ring to protect him, and the djinn or ifrit when it appears is described as being as tall as one of Solomon's djinn. It is quite congruous therefore that the demon summoned by Canon Alberic for his treasure hunt should be a Solomonic one.

And what of the treasure itself? All we know of it from MRJ's text is that Canon Alberic asked, "Shall I find it?" and received the answer "Thou shalt", and then asked, "Shall I become rich?" and received the answer "Thou wilt". The fact that Canon Alberic needs to ask whether he will become rich implies that he was not certain that finding "it" would itself enrich him. This may mean that what he sought was the means of obtaining wealth (a treasure map?), not hidden wealth itself, or it may simply mean that he does not know the extent and value of the trove he seeks. The provenance of the hidden treasure itself can only be guessed at; there is nothing in the story to say what it was or where it came from. However, what we can say is that the history of St Bertrand de Comminges lends itself to all sorts of possibilities for hidden treasure. That area of southern France has been subject to invasions and territorial conflicts dating back to the empires of the Romans, the Visigoths, and the Franks. The Knights Templar, long associated with stories of hidden treasure, particularly in relation to the Temple Mount in Jerusalem, were also present in the Pyrenees region.[5] It was in fact a former bishop of St Bertrand de Comminges, Bertrand de Got, later Pope Clement V, who together with King Philip IV of France led the terrible persecution of the Templars, the aim being to extinguish their influence and take possession of their extensive wealth. It is perhaps fanciful, but somehow appropriate, to imagine some stolen Templar treasure finding its hiding place in the former bishop's old stamping ground. Moreover the Templar connection with the temple site at Jerusalem provides another link with the story of Solomon, whose great temple was the first to stand there.

If we examine next the prophetic aspect of Canon Alberic's colloquy with the demon, there are again parallels with The Testament of Solomon. In verse 65 a spirit prophesises that King Solomon's kingdom shall eventually fall and the temple be ruined. Later the demon Ornias foretells the death of the wayward son of one of Solomon's workmen.[6] It is significant that the demons only foretell negative events, and indeed Ornias takes a delight in foretelling the death of the workman's son, laughing about the prospect of the youth being sentenced to death when he only has three days to live. The demon which tells Canon Alberic that he will die in his bed is similarly toying with him; it is true that he will die in his bed, but not peacefully - rather from a "seizure" no doubt caused by the demon itself. Also, of course, though Canon Alberic may "live an object of envy" he is so tortured by the demon that he cannot enjoy his good fortune. It is worth noting in passing that this sort of sinister ambiguity in prophecies dates back to pre-Christian times: Herodotus, for example, tells the story of a prophecy given to Croesus by the Delphic oracle which he took to mean good fortune for himself, but which actually foretold his downfall.[7] The Old Testament also warns against using mediums to consult the dead in order to divine the future,[8] depicting such practices as immoral, offensive to God and likely to end in no good. And indeed in the end even King Solomon, controller and consulter of demons, falls as prophesied.

The ability to foretell the future; the ability to find hidden treasure; the relentless pursuit of vengeance against the ungodly: these aspects could belong to more than one of the demons described in The Testament of Solomon. What more do we know? What of the demon's method of attacking his victim? The demon in the story never actually succeeds in touching Dennistoun, as it is thwarted by the arrival of the two serving men, but we know that the unfortunate Canon Alberic succumbed to a "sudden seizure". In addition to this, the sacristan prays to St Bertrand (also invoked by Canon Alberic in his last despairing inscription) before a painting of the saint rescuing a man whom the devil sought to strangle. This infers that the demon's modus operandi is that of strangulation or induction of fits (or a heart attack). The demons listed in The Testament of Solomon are each associated with a different type of misfortune or indeed a different method of attacking their victims: Beelzebub inspires holy men to evil deeds and incites murder and war;[9] Atrax causes dangerous fevers;[10] Phêth causes consumption.[11] The demon which reveals the location of the gold hidden in the temple causes his victims to have fits,[12] and thus fills the bill in terms of method of attack and treasure-hunting. In addition, the demon itself says that the means of frustrating it are associated with Golgotha, where the cross was supposed to have been planted: interesting, given that the demon seen by Dennistoun appears only after Dennistoun has removed a crucifix from around his neck. However, its appearance, as a three-headed dragon, albeit with human hands, would seem to preclude its being the creature seen by Dennistoun, which was clearly man-shaped. Similarly, we may discount Rabdos, who was a learned but ungodly man before he became a demon, tells Solomon where to find an enormous precious stone, and kills by seizing his victim by the larynx - his appearance is that of an enormous dog.[13]

The demon Ornias is a more likely candidate: he is able to offer gold to the boy who captures him with Solomon's ring, and he can see the future. He also strangles his victims, apparently men born under the sign of Aquarius. He can take several forms - might the "talking voices" (plural) of the demon in the cathedral in "Canon Alberic's Scrap-book" perhaps be the voices of these different forms? They include a female one (we recall here the reference to Lilith discussed earlier in this article) and a beastly one: a lion. In The Testament of Solomon Ornias comes like a burning fire,[14] but since he is supposed to have sucked the thumb of the child, we must assume that he took on some more solid form to do this. It is also notable that Ornias has not made an outright assault on the boy; rather he has haunted the boy over a period of time, until his soul is oppressed and he becomes thinner by the day. The demon in "Canon Alberic's Scrap-book" haunts the Canon for seven years until the final "seizure" occurs; it has clearly haunted the sacristan for years too, since the old man has seen it twice but felt it "a thousand times" and he too appears oppressed; its movement towards Dennistoun is interrupted by the arrival of Pierre and Bertrand, but we may infer that it intended to torture him with terror rather than making an immediate attack on him. It allows Dennistoun to see its hand upon the table by him, and as he turns in horror it rises to its feet behind his chair, allowing him moments of heart-stopping terror. It makes a movement towards Dennistoun, but does not leave a mark upon him, although its presence is physical enough for the serving men to feel themselves thrust aside by it as it leaves the room: instead it leaves him with an oppressing terror. Is this, then, Ornias? There are other demons in the Testament whose attributes may also have influenced MRJ's depiction of the semi-bestial demon; however the demon Ornias, whose character is much more developed than that of the other demons in the Testament, is surely a major contributor.[15]

So, if the demon in "Canon Alberic's Scrap-book" is indeed inspired by The Testament of Solomon, we might draw some inferences from the Testament about why the demon appears to be associated with possession of the drawing. Why the drawing, and not the photograph, is the question. Despite their antiquarian flavour, there is no stylistic reason why M.R. James's stories cannot include some modern aspects - the demon in "Casting the Runes" literally advertises its previous victim's fate inside a tram, for example. So it is a little facile to think that the use of modern technology has simply scared the demon off! It is more likely that the sepia drawing itself has some magical significance which cannot be transferred. Here we may refer to The Testament of Solomon once more, for the control or exorcism of demons through inscribed papers. In a long section of the Testament, Solomon summons a series of thirty-six demons related to the zodiac.[16] These all have humanoid forms but the faces of animals and birds - perhaps an inspiration for the semi-bestial nature of Canon Alberic's demon. Each of them announces its name and the means by which it attacks human beings, and then the means by which it may be made to retreat. Some of them are exorcised by spoken words, but others are banished by the use of papers with specific inscriptions: Saphathoraél, for example, is frustrated by his victim's wearing around his neck a folded paper with the names of angels written on it.[17] Agchoniôn, bizarrely, is banished by writing the name Lycurgos several times, removing one letter each time.[18] It is not therefore too great a leap of imagination to have Dennistoun's demon exorcised by the burning of the drawing of it. The photograph, not part of the original magic, does not have the same ritual importance.[19]

Let us turn now to the curious detail of the "two hundred and fifty francs, not more", which the sacristan asks for the scrap-book. Unholy transactions are the normal fare of supernatural tales, but it is unusual to find a monetary price, and such a low one at that, quoted in the story. The precedent which immediately springs to mind is Robert Louis Stevenson's short story, "The Bottle Imp". Stevenson's tale describes how a young Hawaiian called Keawe buys a magic bottle containing an imp which can grant the owner's every wish. There are, however, two catches: whoever dies whilst in possession of the bottle must go straight to Hell, and the bottle can only ever be sold for a lower price than was paid for it. Otherwise it magically returns to the seller. The bottle was originally sold to Prester John for millions of dollars, but by the end of the story it is changing hands for centimes in spite of its value. The familiar theme of diabolical transactions leading to no good soon recurs: Keawe buys the bottle, but discovers that although the imp does indeed grant his wishes, there is always a price: for example, he gains the beautiful house he has always wanted by the death of some dear relatives. "The Bottle Imp" first appeared in an American paper in 1891 and was subsequently published in Stevenson's Island Nights Entertainments in 1893, probably the same year in which "Canon Alberic's Scrap-book" was written. It is possible therefore that the motif of the ever-lower price featured in Stevenson's story could have inspired the "two hundred and fifty francs, not more" of MRJ's tale. The sacristan is thus forced to sell the book for no more than that amount in order to be rid of it, having come into possession of it through a transaction of a slightly higher value (perhaps as part of the contents of Canon Alberic's house, which he now inhabits. He seems an unlikely collector).

But whether or not MRJ read Stevenson's story before he wrote "Canon Alberic's Scrap-book", there is actually a considerably older tradition of bottle imp stories with which he may also have been familiar. Grimmelshausen's Trutz Simplex, published in 1670, which recounts the adventures of Courasche (Courage), describes how the heroine buys a magic bottle from an old soldier, who tells her that it must be sold on for less than she paid for it, but neglects to tell her what will happen if she keeps it. Courasche describes the bottle imp as "something in a sealed glass bottle, which didn't look exactly like a spider but also not exactly like a scorpion".[20] The spider comparison, absent from Stevenson's story, recalls MRJ's comparison of Canon Alberic's demon with a bird-eating spider. Later, Courasche is told of the damnation which awaits the person who dies in possession of the magic bottle, by her "Bohemian mother", whom she describes as her best friend and "Sabud Salomonis", a reference to Zabud, son of Nathan, who was a royal adviser to King Solomon.[21] This may imply that the bottle imp is one of the demons imprisoned by King Solomon, a not unreasonable assumption given that other stories dating considerably further back than Trutz Simplex feature demons imprisoned by Solomon in flasks or bottles. The Testament of Solomon has the demon Kunopaston imprisoned in a phial sealed with Solomon's ring and deposited in the temple.[22] The Arabian Nights, in addition to the Aladdin story, includes the tale of the Fisherman and the Genie, in which a poor fisherman finds a yellow copper bottle sealed with lead and bearing the seal of King Solomon; when he opens it, a djinn or genie bursts forth. This is not a congenial creature in the Disney mould but an utterly terrifying monster with jagged teeth and eyes which blaze like torches. This genie is one of a group of rebel djinn who mutinied against Solomon, and was imprisoned by him in the bottle; during the first two centuries of his imprisonment he swore to enrich whoever set him free with the buried treasures of the earth (again the treasure-seeking motif recurs). With the passing of time he became so furious that he swore to kill his liberator instead. The genie shares this unreasonable and implacable pursuit of the innocent with the demon summoned by Canon Alberic, who after the Canon's death continues to terrorise those who possess the book.

There is one last detail of MRJ's story which I would like to examine, and that is the chronology of Canon Alberic's meetings with the demon. In the inscription on the back of the drawing of the demon, Canon Alberic tells us that he first saw the creature on the night of December 12th, 1694. The inscription is dated December 29th, 1701. The Canon's death occurs two nights later, on December 31st, 1701. Perhaps the story is simply set in December to provide a suitably dark and chilling backdrop to the Canon's sorcery, with his death occurring as the old year dies. Or perhaps the selection of the dates is purely random. Certainly an examination of the church calendar does not suggest that they carry any significance to the story: 12th December is the day of Our Lady of Guadalupe, 29th December the day of St Thomas Beckett, and 31st December the day of St Sylvester, a heterogeneous selection of saints. Nor do these three dates follow any pattern from the pagan calendar, missing entirely the solstice on 21st. However, if we examine the Jewish calendar, we find that December 12th, 1694, was 24th Kislev and the two dates in 1701 were 28th and 30th Kislev. The Old Testament tells us that 24th Kislev was the date upon which the foundation stone of the new temple in Jerusalem was laid,[23] Solomon's temple having been destroyed by the Babylonians. 24th Kislev is also the eve of the festival of Hanukkah, which also covers the 28th and 30th Kislev. Hanukkah celebrates the rededication of the temple in Jerusalem after desecration by foreign troops. Once again the trail leads us back to the Temple Mount, site of Solomon's temple, in legend built by the demons. Was this intentional on the part of MRJ, an attention to the most obscure detail in the story, or is it a very spooky coincidence indeed? You decide...


With thanks to Dr. David G.K.Taylor, University Lecturer in Aramaic and Syriac; Fellow of Wolfson College, Oxford, for his advice on Jewish demonology.


[1] Koran, Al-Anbiya' (21), v.82.

[2] Koran, Sheba (34), v.11-13.

[3] The Testament of Solomon, v.55. Testament references are to F.C. Conybeare's translation, in The Jewish Quarterly Review II (October 1898), pp.1-45. This was translated from the only Greek edition (1837) published before MRJ wrote "Canon Alberic's Scrap-book".

[4] Ibid, v.119.

[5] The Templars make an appearance in "Oh, Whistle, and I'll Come to You, My Lad": the apparition-summoning whistle is found at the site of a Templar preceptory.

[6] The Testament of Solomon, v.110ff.

[7] Herodotus's Histories Book One. The oracle foretells that Croesus's reign will not end until a mule sits on the Median throne. Croesus thinks this is impossible, whereas in fact when the oracle refers to a mule it means a person of mixed parentage.

[8] For example, Deuteronomy 18, v.9ff; Isaiah 8, v.19ff.

[9] The Testament of Solomon, v.27.

[10] Ibid, v.87.

[11] Ibid, v.97.

[12] Ibid, v.54.

[13] Ibid, v.47ff.

[14] Ibid, v.7.

[15] The possible identification of Canon Alberic's demon with Ornias was first made by Rosemary Pardoe in Ghosts & Scholars 15 (pp.36-37), but my conclusions were reached independently.

[16] The Testament of Solomon, v.72ff.

[17] Ibid, v.83.

[18] Ibid, v.103.

[19] This is not the only example of a demon controlled by the written word in MRJ's work. See "Casting the Runes"; though in that case the destruction of the paper renders the monster implacable.

[20] "so etwas in einem verschlossenen Gläslein, welches nicht recht einer Spinnen und auch nicht recht einem Scorpion gleich sah." (Trutz Simplex, ch.18.)

[21] 1 Kings 4, v.5.

[22] The Testament of Solomon, v.68-69.

[23] Haggai 2, v.18.

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Otia Imperialia: Recreation for an emperor by Gervase of Tilbury,
edited and translated by S.E.Banks and J.W.Binns.
Oxford Medieval Texts, OUP, 2002, xcv + [3] + 1013 pp, ISBN: 0-19-820288-1, £120.00.

Reviewed by Don Tumasonis.

In lay circles, the medieval scholar-adventurer Gervase of Tilbury is remembered today - if at all - for an unfortunate incident involving the death at the stake of a young woman of Rheims. The youthful and lusting Gervase had come upon her in a vineyard and, attempting seduction, was rebuffed. The recalcitrant girl may have been a member of a dualist cult, since those strongly emphasised the maintenance of chastity. Suspecting sectarian deviance, the amorous future clerk in orders tried arguing the fine points of theology with the luckless virgin, when his archbishop's retinue came up on them. The prelate's party picking up on the ongoing debate, the hapless maid was hustled away to be burned as a heretic. One guesses the incident forms the likely basis for a related episode in Umberto Eco's novel of medieval monastic skulduggery, The Name of the Rose. It can be said in Gervase's favour that the event seemed to weigh greatly on his conscience; evidence is that he related it as late as forty years after to his friend, Ralph of Coggeshall, from whom we have the story.

The well-travelled, well-connected Gervase went on to a varied career in politics, scholarship, church affairs, and law, marrying and eventually becoming marshal of Arles and probably a canon. His dates are uncertain, but are thought to be c.1150 to perhaps 1237. His reputation today rests almost entirely on his Otia Imperialia, written for the amusement of the erstwhile emperor Otto IV.

The Otia is an encyclopedic work in three sections. Book I, heavily drawing on Genesis, is a description of the creation of the world, Paradise, and the Expulsion from the Garden, up to the Flood. The second book is geographical and historical in character, with much in the way of genealogies and alignments of secular, ecclesiastical, and classical histories with the chronologies of the Bible. Book III deals exclusively with marvels. Thirty manuscripts of the Otia exist today; this new edition is based on a Vatican manuscript thought to have extensive marginalia in Gervase's hand; five more of the surviving copies were used in establishing the text. Amazingly, given the importance of the book, this Oxford translation is the first complete critical edition since that of Leibnitz (Hanover, 1707-1710), and equally arresting, the first rendering into English. (A. Duchesne edited an annotated French translation, published in 1992, of Book III only.)

The Otia is one of several similar medieval works; much of it is derivative, drawing heavily on the usual suspects, Pliny the Elder, Peter Comestor, Orosius, and many others. Through innovative use of textual databases recently computerised, Banks and Binns are able to point to sources with an efficiency only dreamed of just a few years ago. What makes Gervase most interesting are the materials he himself has collected, or comments on. As the editors point out on p.xlv, "These accounts are mostly based on oral testimony, sometimes confirmed by personal observation. This readiness to introduce material from local traditions and oral culture represents a significant renewal of the medieval geographical tradition".

Banks and Binns, in presenting the Latin text with facing English, have collected into appendixes revisions not appearing in all the manuscripts, but clearly intended by Gervase for the final work. Also included here is his commentary on the Lord's Prayer, recently found in Hereford. Thus, this volume is Gervase complete, as far as known surviving writings are concerned. The entire work is supported by a scholarly introduction, a biography of the author, background to the book and its manuscripts, and an analysis of the relationships between the various existing versions, together with their descriptions. The main text itself is complemented by an apparatus giving variant readings of the Latin, together with the rationale for editorial decisions regarding choices of word or spelling. Both English and Latin texts are supplemented with voluminous footnotes. Several indexes follow; of particular use is one listing classical and medieval sources by author.

In a work this complex, there are always bound to be a few typographical errors. There is an unfortunate superimposition of text elements in the table on p.lxxxv; the sequence of note numbers 78 and 79 on p.465 is reversed; "constrast" on p.799 should of course read "contrast"; the medieval Latin name for "Cologne", which one would expect to follow on p.526, seems to have gone missing. There may be a few others, but given the complexity contained in the 1200 pages representing decades of work by several parties, the nearly mistake-free result is not short of amazing.

Index inclusion of proper names appearing in the main text seems to have been somewhat arbitrary: Maximinus (p.742) and Mummolus (p.845) are left out; there may be others. Names no more significant than these are indexed without any criteria given for the choices made. Were these oversights, or was there some hidden principle at work? Similarly, in a number of instances, foreign-language editions are cited, while English translations of the same books are ignored: J.-C. Schmitt's book on medieval revenants, and the account of early pilgrim Egeria come to mind. In other cases, English translations are referred to. Again, the principle of selection seems arbitrary.

Occasionally, some specialist references and opinions appear to be dated, surpassed by more modern research: examples are those regarding the evil eye (p.714) and the wild hunt (p.337). Related to this are under-explained subjects treated in the notes: the carob is evidently referred to on pp.585 and 747 - why not say so? The same goes for not naming Atlantis on pp.323 and 325, and never once making explicit the connection between the Euxine and the Black Sea. Other examples could be named. Granted one cannot give references to every obvious detail, but when the authors tell us twice that St Nicholas is Santa Claus, or give us a speculative conjecture by the modern explorer Michel Peissel (pp.698-699), it could have been hoped that the commonly suggested identification of the Fortunate Islands with the Canaries had been included. The problem being that the Otia is so far-ranging in its subject matter - the whole world, as it were, and beyond - that a completely satisfactory and comprehensive job of annotation would have required the services of a team of historical geographers, folklorists, anthropologists, and other disciplinary specialists. An effort like that would have filled yet another book, so perhaps we should be satisfied with the relative economy practised here with regard to footnoting, trusting the editors in matters textual, linguistic, theological and historical, which make up the bulk of the book.

Where the Otia comes into its own, at least for the readers of this Newsletter, is as a compendium of marvels. These not only make up the entire Book III, they also appear in the text here and there in Books I and II. The main purpose of the work, after all, as stated by Gervase himself, was to provide amusement for the ruler by way of presenting the unusual and the marvellous. And what a collection of wonders this is! We have serpent women, magical springs, rocking stones, fabulous animals, werewolves, apparitions, lamiae, haunted forests, intelligent horses, Virgil the Magician, botanical wonders, inextinguishable lamps, lucky portals, revenants, floating meadows, haunted mountains, illusions, ghostly knights, demon colts, mermaids, dracs, magical cemeteries, and much, much more. Although a substantial part derives from familiar sources, much remains the fruit of Gervase's own direct inquiries. These are made doubly interesting by the strongly felt presence of the author as investigator (take, for example, Book III, chapter 103 - a thirty-page-long report regarding an apparition, where Gervase himself is an active player in events), and by what is often the unmediated recounting of folkloric tales and anecdotes, taking us close up to the original sources, as with the examples of Neapolitan magic and local legend.

There are some truly fascinating chapters: "Destroying Angels" (pp.713-715) is strongly reminiscent of Beowulf. The theme of supernatural beings using rings sunk in water as bait towards mortal enslavement (p.719) makes one wonder if Tolkien did not also read Gervase.


Given that four of the surviving mss copies of Otia Imperialia are located in Cambridge College libraries, it is no surprise that M.R. James came across them during his work of writing descriptions and publishing catalogues of the manuscript collections in St John's, Magdalene and Corpus Christi. His intimacy with the manuscripts is evidenced by his publication of an extract from the Otia in his Marvels of the East (1929). With the content of Gervase's work coinciding so squarely with many of MRJ's most cherished interests - medieval and Biblical texts, the supernatural, folklore, to name a few - the temptation is great to search after sources in the Otia for James's canonical fictions.

The searcher will - as with the James-edited De Nugis Curialium by Walter Map or the medieval ghost stories that James published in the English Historical Review in 1922 - come back empty-handed. A close reading of Otia Imperialia (together with its notes and appendixes) yields no single instance of any specific story or anecdote mined directly by James. It seems, and is the opinion of this reviewer, that James, however much his exposure to the enormous amount of British and Continental folklore, legend, local history and myth that passed through his view, almost never cribbed directly from those sources. It is as if having digested and mastered these materials, tapping into the deepest roots of fable and the supernatural at the heart of folk belief, he would take these atoms of primitive motifs, and construct not a sophisticated form of pastiche, but something more. The man was so erudite that he needed only the slightest shavings - like truffles - to impart a particular flavour to his stories, giving them resonance with their inspirations, without copying them. The search for individual fonts for discrete elements in his stories - a favourite parlour game - is therefore largely doomed to fail, except in the most general way.

Nonetheless, it can be said that works like the Otia and many, many others are in a sense true sources for many Jamesian fictions. They so permeated and informed MRJ's view that one need look no further when playing the game of Urquelle. In most instances, one is unlikely to come any closer than Gervase, Walter Map, and those related works we know James had seen. Their thematic transformation into the background for his tales will in the final count remain mysterious and magical.


To buy or not to buy? The usual reviewer's line taken in a case like this is that only university and other libraries can afford the book, especially in light of the cost, its not being clothbound, etc., etc. There is no doubt that Oxford has priced the book for the institutional market, thereby putting it beyond the pale for the casual, if interested reader, not to mention many professors. Or have they? The dedicated Jamesian might justify private purchase by comparing the page count of the Otia with that of his or her normal fare: the four or five small press limited editions that the money would otherwise go to. The question is, should one load up the shelves with a few more (largely unnecessary) reprint volumes from Costly Dragon Press, 'trey-cased' and signed and lettered in the author's blood, or drink from the source? The price is admittedly atrocious, but if not in a position to buy it themselves, those in a position to influence, should at least recommend this well-edited book for the library shelves. Banks and Binns, in spite of any minor shortcomings noted here, have done an excellent job, and given that it has been 300 years since the last complete critical edition, and about eight centuries after writing until this first English translation, does one really want to take the chance on waiting for the next edition? My advice is buy it, and see what was influencing the Master's mind when he gave us those immortal plots. For that matter, Gervase is no mean storyteller, either!

The Banks and Binns edition of Otia Imperialia does not index footnotes. Since all mentions of MRJ therein are found in the notes and bibliography, and assuming the interest of at least some readers of this Newsletter in the scholarly use of materials edited, written, or translated by James, those references are listed here: pp.xvii; xix; xxiii; lxvi; lxvii; lxiii; lxxiv; 492, note 8; 681, note 4; 695, note 1 to "Serpents"; 699, note 6; 702, note 3; 704, note 4; 706, note 13; 710, note 4; 711, note 7; 760, note 4; 795, note 12; 894, note 95.

Editor's Note:
There is a further connection between Gervase of Tilbury and MRJ's circle of associates. Arthur "Ingulphus" Gray (Tedious Brief Tales of Granta and Gramarye) translated the section of Gervase which tells the story of the mysterious and supernatural knight of Wandlebury Camp (near Cambridge), for an interesting article he wrote on the subject in the Proceedings of the Cambridge Antiquarian Society NS Vol.IX, 1910-1911. (I may have more to say on this in a future Newsletter.) Gray's article was one of the credited sources of inspiration for T.C. Lethbridge's imaginative rediscovery (or invention!) of the series of giant hill figures on the Gogmagog Hills at Wandlebury (see Lethbridge's Gogmagog: The Buried Gods, Routledge & Kegan Paul, 1957).

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