Papyri and the Fayum portraits are objects that easily capture the interest and imagination of the public. It is less obvious how to convince people that the documents and letters that the John Rylands Library holds in its archives are equally interesting and fascinating.
I am currently digging around in these materials for a volume that I am preparing (Graeco-Roman Egypt at Manchester. Papyri, artefacts and textiles from the Manchester University Collections) and thought that the letter exchanges between Mr. Guppy (librarian of the John Rylands Library from 1899 to his death in 1948) and papyrologists and scholars that purchased manuscripts for the Library should be a part of the exhibition as well. They reveal another side of the story of the collection that is still to be recounted.
My archive fever has revealed to me the papyri fever that was affecting papyrologists, biblical scholars, rich collectors, libraries and universities in Manchester and elsewhere at the beginning of last century.
Among the most entertaining letters are those of J. Rendel Harris (1852-1941), the famous biblical scholar, papyrologist and philologist involved in many of the most sensational discoveries of Christian manuscript of the early 20th century. In 1918 he became Curator of the Eastern Manuscripts of the John Rylands Library until 1925 when he retired to Selly Oak in Birmingham where he died in 1941. At the end of 1916 Rendel Harris embarked on a trip to India to join his friend J.H. Moulton. His ship sank in the Mediterranean and he decided to wait for Moulton in Egypt. What could you do in Egypt in those days but buy manuscripts? A report of these activities was sent to Mr Guppy, the head librarian, on the 22nd February 1917. Here is an extract from the letter:
«Now you will like to know what I am doing in the way of exploration and research; so I report in confidence there is hardly a manuscript on the market […] If books were scarce, I found plenty of papyri by going and hunting for it. I went twice to the Fayum, and once to Oxyrhynchus (Behnesa) and once to Hanasia [Ahnas, Heracleopolis]. Quite a number of Oxyrhynchus manuscripts came into my hands. I rather think there is a page of Sappho; in that case we shall have to consult Grenfell and Hunt, but don’t talk about the matter at present. I also visited Ashmunein (I forgot its Greek name, Heracleopolis? Hermupolis) and saw a box of papyri which I could not buy, I was arrested by order of the governor of the village for some four hours. I bought also from fellahin Fayum papyri, apparently from Batn Harit [Theadelphia], and captured the collection of an American doctor in the Fayum. On the whole I have secured many hundreds of pieces, in various stages of decay, quite enough to involve one in several years work, and to make a large volume in continuation of Greek papyri from the Rylands Library. That is if you elect to have them, and I do part with them. It probably lies between Rylands and Woodbrooke. They are not likely to go to Cambridge or America. As to the Zeno papyri about which I wrote you, I was offered since then by one of the dealer here. The price was higher than I thought for papyri, but I took them. After all one ought not lightly pass by papyri of the 3rd century. These will perhaps be claimed by the Museum here. They have the first call and will naturally be disposed and complete their collection. I hear of more Oxyrhynchus papyri bringing about. If I can lay hands on it, it is a moral duty to do so. Excavation is still going on in the ruins at the hands of the sebakh diggers, who have learnt now that papyrus should not be burnt. Not so the English soldiers. Some of our fellows at the front in the Fayum collected a whole barrel of papyri, and the sergeant, who came round to see the state of the camp, ordered the whole to be burnt. Don’t tell me after that cleanliness is next to godliness. The men asked one of my American friends whether the stuff was any use, and were surprised to be told that good pieces were worth a couple of guineas. There are, however, very few buyers about, in consequence of the war. Before the war the Germans were buying heavily! Now I think I have told you what is going on at my end…”
A second sinking awaited Rendel Harris. The ship on which he and Moulton were traveling home was torpedoed in proximity of Corsica in April 1917. The people on board were rescued and brought to Ajaccio, but Moulton died on the 7th April as a consequence of exposure on an open boat. On the 18th April 1917 Harris sent a very touching letter to Guppy informing him that the two men had just decided to live together back in Manchester and spend a couple of years supporting each other while working on their common projects. He then informed the librarian about the pieces they both had bought on their missions:
«As to what has become of the things I picked up in Egypt, I do not yet know whether they will go through safely. Moulton left his treasures behind, most of them, but not all – such as the Pali manuscript. Mine I think have been sent after me by Parcels Post, but whether they will ever get through I do not know. It was impossible to insure them as the rates were prohibitive, ranging from 15 to 25%. Perhaps it would have been better not to have sent them on; we must wait and see what has become of them. If they get through safely I will bring them up for your inspection at an early date.»
These papyri did not arrive in Manchester until 1919. In the meanwhile the Library made arrangements to acquire a part of the Harris collection and in fact the accession register records the payment of £450 to the scholar for ‘A collection of Greek papyri including a number of Zenon records from 3rd century BC to the 4th century CE’. Many of these texts were to be published later in the third and fourth volumes of the Catalogue (1938; 1952). Among the most famous papyri coming from that acquisition there are P. Ryl. III 458 (Deuteronomy xxii-xxviii, 2nd century BC) and the codex leaf P. Ryl. III 463, bearing a fragment of the Greek version of the Gospel of Mary (3rd cent. AD).