Fitzwilliam Museum
Fitzwilliam Museum

Experience the ghosts of East Anglia

The Highways and Byways of East Anglia are home to a host of myths, legends and stories. Take the tale of Black Shuk for instance, the enormous night-black hound who is said to haunt crossroads and graveyards. The beast, whose footfalls are near silent, sometimes seen as cyclops like with a single burning eye, generally brings calamity to those who encounter him, and has done so sine since first reported in the sixteenth century at the Suffolk town of Bungay. Others on the contrary found the demon dog to be a guardian and saviour. Shuk is sometimes placed among the pack of Yelp Hounds, whom Hearne the Hunter, the folk incarnation of the Celtic God Cernunnos, lead across the sky in the wild hint on twelfth night.

This and other legends were well known to Montague Rhodes James, Monty James to his friends, whose career was one of accomplished Edwardian academic excellence in Cambridge and later Eton, where he became Provost. Born as a vicar’s son he lived early on in Suffolk and knew the country and its many stories well. Later in Cambridge James became a Don, Curator of the Fitzwilliam Museum and the expert on the manuscript holdings of Cambridge libraries, which he tirelessly catalogued. He was a noted expert on medieval architecture and had dabbled in earthier archaeology in the early twentieth century when he became involved in a Minoan excavation on Crete.

To specialists he is known for this work, but to the vast majority James is best known for his extraordinary collection of ghost stories. These he began writing to read to an intimate circle of friends at Christmas gatherings in Cambridge, eventually publishing them as a series of collections. The themes he covered were very much moulded by his particular interests, and own experiences – a visit to Sweden prompted Count Magnus, for example, or St. Bertrand de Commigness (which Andante also visits on its Pyrenees trip) gave us Canon Alberic’s Scrapbook. The detailing is precise and well-constructed, he was not above composing long Latin passages to provide authenticity, and his composition is wonderful to read. I used to set his stories when teaching undergraduates how to write archaeological essays, as James’ tales always have a logical beginning middle and an end.

Above all he used the familiar environments of academic halls, libraries, country houses and slightly stuffy intellectual heroes as the pivot of his accounts. These must come directly from his own experiences of Cambridge and East Anglia whose monuments and archaeology engaged him to a great degree, and to which he wrote a most extensive guide book. Today James’ and his tales of the uncanny and half glimpsed threatening supernatural remain a delight. If you have never read them there are numerous editions to be found and he remains in print and widely available. A recommended read in these (at the moment warm) days of isolation, best taken relaxing in the in the garden, unsuspecting, with twilight coming on.

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Experience the ghosts of East Anglia was published on 6 May 2020