Medieval Studies and the The Ghost Stories of M.R. James
Patrick J. Murphy
Pennsylvania State University Press, 2017

Medieval Studies and the Ghost Stories of M.R. James

One of the pleasures of reading M.R. James, for me, is the way that his stories inspire me to research. Literary or biblical allusions that I’m not familiar with; elements within the stories that “follow the rules of folklore” in a new and unfamiliar way: I consider delving into the underpinnings and inspirations of a James story to be as enjoyable as the “pleasing terrors” that the tales provide. So this book positively called out to me when I discovered it.

Patrick Murphy teaches medieval literature at Miami University, Ohio, and has published extensively not only on some of the same subjects that interested James, but also on James’s engagement with these subjects in his ghost stories. This book is an exploration of the links between James’s fiction and his scholarly life: his research, his interests, his likely anxieties.

A key point of Murphy’s thesis is that James lived during a transitional period of academic history, when universities were becoming increasingly professionalized and research more and more specialized. This period saw the emergence of medieval studies as a rigorous, “scientific” field of research, where professional scholars carved out relatively narrow fields of inquiry. This is in contrast to the old antiquarian model, where scholars were frequently amateurs who studied whatever caught their interest, or whatever was geographically accessible to them.

While James belonged to the class of new professional academics, he was perhaps an antiquarian at heart, with a wide, eclectic range of interests. Murphy argues that the “terrors” that James wrote about in his fiction arose in part from his anxieties around his liminal, and not entirely orthodox, position in his scholarly field.

Do I buy this? I’m not sure. But whether you believe that particular analysis or not, this book makes a lot of really fascinating connections. Every chapter describes interesting parallels between aspects of James’ fiction, his professional work, and some of his other personal enthusiams, like church architecture, and the work of Charles Dickens.

Murphy links motifs in the ghost stories to pastoral poetry, to the Old English poem “The Dream of the Rood,” to Beowulf, to medieval mystery plays and medieval riddling. Reading about these connections gave me a new appreciation of how smoothly James drew on his erudition to produce his seemingly artless little ghost stories. I also learned a lot I didn’t know before about James’s professional life, his research, and his academic publication history.

The tone and language of the text is on the academic side, a style that’s not exactly known for its clarity. The book is quite readable, but I sometimes found myself getting lost in what felt like the multivalent uses of the term medieval: phrases like “medieval temporality” or “medievalizing” influences are no doubt meaningful to other academics, but I could never pin down quite what they meant in my own mind1.

Still, even as a layperson I found the analysis engrossing and valuable. Since I found that I wanted to reread the stories that Murphy analyzed to get the most out of the discussions, I’ve put together a little informal study companion to the book, listing out which stories are covered in each chapter, along with each chapter’s points and themes. Hardcore James enthusiasts may not need the refresh, but if you are like me, you might find it helpful.

If you enjoy the tales of M.R. James as much for what’s behind them as what’s on the page, I think you will enjoy Medieval Studies and the Ghost Stories of M.R. James.


Fur Fla Fle Bis

There is one especially cool piece of scholarly detective work that I can’t resist sharing: Murphy’s case for his preferred interpretation of a much-discussed enigma in “Oh Whistle, and I’ll Come to You, My Lad.” Readers of this tale have argued for years about how to interpret one of the inscriptions on the whistle that Paxton discovers in the ruins of the Templar preceptory:

Fur fla fle bis

Murphy argues that this inscription should be read Fur, flabis, flebis: “O thief, you will blow, you will weep,” and he bases his argument on a detail overlooked by previous would-be puzzle solvers—through no fault of their own.

The inscription on the other side of Paxton’s whistle is Quis est iste que venit : “Who is this that is coming.” In the first 1904 edition of Ghost Stories of an Antiquary, the inscription on the other side of the whistle is rendered thus2, flanked by oddly shaped swastikas:

Quis est iste

In 1904, the swastika (or fylfot-cross) was simply a cultural and spiritual symbol used in various Indian religions, and among some indigenous peoples of the American Southwest. Swastikas appear in the iconography of the Round Church in Cambridge, which is probably what inspired James to use them. Subsequent editions of Ghost Stories of an Antiquary no longer use these specific unusual symbols, probably to save printing costs at first, and then later because of the association of the swastika to the Nazi party.

But Murphy argues, convincingly, that those fylfot-crosses with the little forks on the left arm are meant to be a graphical clue to how to read Fur Fla Fle Bis. He backs it up with evidence from James’s handwritten draft of the story, and points out that it’s the kind of puzzle that James would have been especially likely to have created:

It is worth remembering that as an expert in medieval manuscripts, James was very attuned to the potential significance of the spatial layout of text; indeed, a great many of his publications on the decorative programs of manuscripts and church buildings “read” his visual subjects in a narrative sequence….

Unfortunately, James’s clever visual puzzle was lost to future readers (and researchers), thanks to printers’ economies and Adolf Hitler’s cultural assimilation.

  1. Apparently, modern scholars draw a distinction between Medieval Studies, and Medievalism. The former is the rigorous study of the Middle Ages as a specific period (late 5th to late 15th centuries) in European history. The latter is the study of cultural conceptions about an ahistorical “Middle Ages.”But medievalism can also refer to those very cultural conceptions: for example the Middle Ages imagined (inaccurately) as the time of knights errant and chivalry, or as the time of sinister gothic romance. And the term also seems to refer to a state of mind, eg. the “medievalizing” influences of thus and so, or a “medieval” viewpoint. Perhaps you can see why it felt so nebulous to me.
  2. James, M.R. Ghost Stories of an Antiquary (1905, Second Impression) p.199. Source: Internet Archive

  • Informal study companion for Medieval Studies and the Ghost Stories of M.R. James
  • Featured Image: Looking up in an attitude of painful anxiety, James McBryde, illustration for “Oh Whistle and I’ll Come to You, My Lad,” Ghost Stories of an Antiquary, p. 205 (1904). Source: Internet Archive (pdf download)

2 thoughts on “Medieval Studies and the Ghost Stories of M.R. James

  1. Hello, Nina. I last visited your blog in 2014. I’m glad you’re still here.

    This is a great post. As soon as you mentioned M.R. James, I thought of the story about the whistle, and another, “Casting the Runes”. The title of the latter is very compelling but the content… not so memorable. I *DO* remember ‘Oh Whistle and I’ll Come You” and VERY vividly! I read the story 40 years ago. I was walking by myself along the boardwalk in Virginia Beach during early COVID19 days, on vacation. The sun had set, the beach was mostly deserted, and I had NOT picked up any whistles… but I glanced more than once behind me, to be certain that there were no flappy floppy figures gaining on me in the distance.

    I cleaned up the Wikipedia article on More Ghosts, read your helpful notes accompanying this book review, then re-read the Internet Archive version of the short story. Thank you for the helpful links. A question please? The small swastika-like doodads bracketing that Latin phrase, um, does the first / left side one represent a chaser with an arm upraised? And does the last / right side one represent a running figure?

    1. Hi Ellie, welcome back! I’m glad you enjoyed the post.

      “Oh Whistle, and I’ll Come to You” really is one of James’ most memorable tales, though I do like “Casting the Runes” better than you do (the movie, Curse of the Demon, a loose adaptation, was fun, too). Anyway, about your question:

      According to Murphy, the fact that the right fylfot-cross (yeah, I don’t really like calling them swastikas, either) is missing a top was just a printer’s error. In the original handwritten manuscript of the story, both fylfot-crosses had tops. But I do like your interpretation, too! I think it fits the story, quite well.

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