Montague Rhodes James
© The Master and Fellows of Trinity College, Cambridge
A hundred years ago M. R. James, the great cataloguer, medieval scholar, and author, published The Western Manuscripts in the Library of Trinity College, Cambridge: a Descriptive Catalogue
. He had by this time already written catalogues of a number of smaller collections, and had developed a standard of manuscript description remarkable for its thoroughness both of conception and of detail.
James' work, the essential guide to the highly diverse manuscript collection at Trinity College, appeared in four volumes between 1900 and 1905, and shows James at his most expansive in descriptions of its early illuminated books, most obviously the Trinity Apocalypse
. It is still a vital aid to scholars and is likely to remain so. James' breadth of learning was remarkable: the manuscripts described range from the eighth to the nineteenth centuries; contain works not only in Latin but in Greek, Old English, Middle English, French, Italian, and a number of other languages; and cover subjects as diverse as technical alchemy, biblical exegesis, medieval computus, early modern European politics, and heraldry, to name just a few. Although expressing doubt about his fitness to undertake such a huge task, and working without many of the aids modern scholars take for granted, James produced an admirable survey of the collection, useful to scholars in all fields covered, and excellent when referring to manuscripts in his particular areas of expertise. His pioneering work on medieval libraries can be seen developing in the Trinity catalogue, where his knowledge of unpublished surviving catalogues and of press-marks enabled him to assign provenance to a large number of books. His catalogues are also very readable, due to his habit of printing in full many small texts that took his eye: for example, the rhythmical crusaders' hymn in B.1.1.
James' Catalogue follows the arrangement of the manuscripts in the Wren library, with a volume for each of the three bays in which manuscripts are kept. Departing from his practice at other Cambridge colleges, he described every volume he came across: a little over half of the 1500 entries in the Trinity catalogue refer to medieval books. The first volume describes the contents of bay B, essentially theological books, and was published in 1900. Volume two, describing the historical, literary, miscellaneous and outsize manuscripts found in bay R, came out in 1901. Volume three, published in 1902, describes the manuscripts of O bay. O bay was given over to the Gale collection, amassed by Thomas Gale and his son Roger, and donated to the college by the latter in 1738. In 1904 James produced the last volume, containing corrections, an Index (which he had, unusually, made himself), and seventeen plates with brief comments.
M. R. James' original prefaces can be downloaded here