Robinson Ellis and the teaching of Palaeography in Oxford

David Ganz was Professor of Palaeography at King’s College London from 1997-2010. In 2016, he was elected a Corresponding Member of the Monumenta Germaniae Historica.

This post contains a reference to attempted suicide.

In 1885 a slim volume, entitled XII Facsimiles from Latin MSS in the Bodleian Library, was published by Oxford University Press. [1] The author was listed as ‘R. Ellis, MA Reader in Latin literature.’  Robinson Ellis attained literary fame in his own lifetime as the friend of Tennyson, Swinburne and Robert Bridges; more recently he appeared in Tom Stoppard’s play about A.E. Housman, The Invention of Love crossing the stage on a child’s scooter while sucking a lollipop. His reputation has not recovered from Housman’s comment, in his edition of Manilius, that readers of Ellis’s own edition ‘were in perpetual contact with the intellect of an idiot child’.

Robinson Ellis by George Percy Jacomb-Hood

Ellis was born in 1834; he was elected a scholar at Balliol, a Fellow of Trinity, and Professor of Latin at Corpus. A measured judgement was given in an obituary by Gilbert Murray, Regius Professor of Greek (and hero of Shaw’s Major Barbara): “He was not characteristically a scientific scholar. One felt in his work no great commanding force of intellect. One felt only that he knew Latin wonderfully, understood it, and loved it; that his instinct was apt to be a safer guide than another … He always rejoiced when he discovered a good reading in a MS of late date or low reputation.’ [2] Ellis was one of the first in England to appreciate the study of manuscripts, and in 1877 he wrote to the University Commissioners proposing that Oxford teach palaeography: ‘During the last thirty years all or nearly all the principal contributions to an enlarged knowledge of Greek and Latin authors have been based on an investigation of MSS of a minute and laborious kind unknown before.’ [3]

The greatest contribution to the study of manuscripts made in England in the nineteenth century was the work of the Palaeographical Society (1873-94) which published 465 photographs of manuscripts, each with a facing transcription and commentary, designed to make it easier to compare the scripts of manuscripts scattered across Europe. [4]  It was a superb teaching tool, but it was not designed for teaching. Theodor von Sickel published the Monumenta Graphica Medii Aevi in Vienna from 1858-1882, originally with photographs pasted in. In Paris the Ecole des Chartes published their Album paleographique with 50 heliograph plates in 1887, and it was reviewed by Sickel . In Oxford lectures on Greek Palaeography were given by Ingram Bywater (1840-1914 Reader in Greek 1884-1893, later Regius Professor of Greek) [5]  and on Latin Palaeography by Ellis The only classicist who was an outstanding palaeographer, Wallace Martin Lindsay (1858-1937), lectured in 1885, before moving to the University of St Andrews. [6] In 1886 Edward Maunde Thompson (1840-1929) who had been appointed Assistant Keeper in the Department of Manuscripts in the British Museum in 1871 was allowed to lecture in the Bodleian. [7] In 1887 the first lectures, on the Palaeography of the New Testament were given by W. Sanday (1843-1920), Dean Ireland Professor of Exegesis 1882-95, and the editor of Old Latin Biblical Texts. Falconer Madan (1851-1925), sub-librarian at the Bodleian from 1880 to 1912, was appointed University Lecturer in Medieval Palaeography 1889-1913 ‘for persons studying for the Classical or Modern History Schools’. [8] Madan also collotypes of some manuscripts to his palaeography students, but these were not available commercially.

Ellis’s facsimiles were an English supplement to Emile Chatelain’s Paleographie des classiques latins published in 14 fascicles with some 200 items between 1884-1900. Chatelain published folio sized plates, which sold for 15 francs per instalment or one franc per plate, [9] and they were often printed from Chatelain’s own negatives. In 1894 he included Bodleian manuscripts of Ovid, Persius and Seneca and copies of his work were on sale in Oxford, London and Cambridge.

Ellis’s photo lithographs were published by Oxford University Press and sold to students at cost of threepence apiece, or five shillings for the volume, much cheaper than Chatelain. In 1891 a second series was published, containing 20 photographic plates and selling at six shillings. [10] It was reprinted in 1903 as Specimens of Latin Palaeography in the Bodleian Library.  In his first series Ellis had given two plates of the manuscript of the letters of Sidonius along with Catullus, Vergil, Ovid, Lucan and Statius, and the second included plates from the Culex ascribed to Vergil and the Nux, ascribed to Ovid , from Avianus’ Fables and Maximianus’s Elegies, as well as Horace, Seneca and Juvenal. But unlike the Palaeographical Society or Chatelain, Ellis provided no transcription or commentary – for that his students had to attend the classes.

He repeatedly urged that ‘the study of MSS. is indispensable for any one who aspires to do original work’. Reviewing Chatelain’s facsimile of the Paris manuscript of Catullus he praised the low price (7/6d,) and urged that it be used in schools and in teaching students.  [11]

There was clearly a crisis in Ellis’s undergraduate career, for Jowett, his tutor at Balliol, wrote to his friend Florence Nightingale:

Poor Ellis of Trinity…a very faithful friend and pupil of mine…has been for the last seven years really insane being as I think I told you in a state of divided consciousness & in the most awful suffering. During the last year he appeared better because he never spoke of his misery. But on Friday night [16 January 1869] he could endure no longer & shot himself in the forehead with a revolver: Alas Alas he is not killed & may possibly recover with the loss of one of his eyes — his mind never.

In Oxford he was the subject of academic anecdotes. He famously said, in response to an invitation to dinner, ‘It’s not so much the food I mind, it’s the company.’ When the wife of the President of Trinity produced her first child, Ellis wrote to her husband, Henry Woods: ‘My dear Woods, I must congratulate you on the recent event which took me quite by surprise. You no doubt were better informed.’

In 1975, in celebration of the thirty years of Richard Hunt’s service as Keeper of Western Manuscripts, the Bodleian published an exhibition catalogue of their chief manuscripts of Greek and Latin classical authors, The Survival of Ancient Literature, with bibliography and 26 plates. The exhibition, which included the first public display of papyri held by the Egypt Exploration Society, was unforgettable, and referenced Ellis’s plates. Ellis believed in the necessity of consulting manuscripts. In Cambridge, in 1890, his contemporary, the outstanding legal historian, F.W. Maitland made that case even more eloquently: ‘The whole aspect of the world has bene changed by the study of manuscripts. It is the fulfilment, more or less sufficient, of the University’s primary duty.’ [12]

David Ganz

[1] Available online

[2] Gilbert Murray, Professor Robinson Ellis, Classical Review 27 (1913) 286-7.

[3] A.C. Clark, Recent Developments in Textual Criticism (Oxford, 1914), p. 4.

[4] See the review by Delisle, Bibliothèque de l’École des Chartes 45 (1884), 533-49,

[5] Bywater is reported as saying ‘those who care for MSS per se are usually dull dogs’.

[6] M. B. Parkes, The Medieval Manuscripts of Keble College, Oxford (London, 1979), viii. Lindsay was a Fellow of Jesus College from 1884-1899.  He had studied palaeography with Gardthausen in Leipzig and corresponded with Traube and E.A. Lowe, who acknowledged his mastery in his introduction to Codices Latini Antiquiores Volume II. In 1896 he published An Introduction to Latin Textual Emendation. His lectures were attended by Madan and T. W. Allen.

[7] E. Craster, History of the Bodleian Library 1845-1945 (Oxford, 1952), p. 202. Maunde Thompson gave the Sandars lectures in Cambridge on Greek, Latin and English Handwriting in 1895..

[8]  F. Madan, Books in Manuscript A short Introduction to their Study and Use  (London, 1893) in the series Helps for Students of History “The Localization of Manuscripts” in H.W.C. Davis (ed.), Essays in History Presented to Reginald Lane Poole (Oxford, 1927), pp.5-29. A 71 page account of Madan’s 1890 lectures is held by the library of the University of Queensland. The syllabus for 1891 and 1897 is printed by Lane Poole: W.A.J. Archbold (ed.), ‘The Teaching of Palaeography and Diplomatic’, Essays in the Teaching of History,  (Cambridge, 1901).

[9] 1 franc was worth 5 shillings in 1885 (see J. T Klovland, Historical Exchange Rate Data 1819-2003 (Norges Bank Occasional Papers: Oslo, 2004).

[10] Available online

[11] Classical Review (1890), 214-15.

[12] F.W. Maitland, The Cambridge University Library An Address delivered on the 9th of July in the new buildings of the library to the Members of the Cponference on the Local Lectures of the University (Cambridge, 1890) p. 11-12.  (This rare publication is not in Bodley!)

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: