Dr. Alessandro Falcetta has been most kind in giving us some insight into his research and exploration of the life of James Rendel Harris, published in The Daily Discoveries of a Bible Scholar and Manuscript Hunter: A Biography of James Rendel Harris (1852–1941)
- How would you describe your book in one sentence?
This book is the first full biography ever written of one of the major New Testament and patristic scholars Britain has produced in the Victorian period, a collector of ancient manuscripts, a man who in his time played an important part in the history of the Society of Friends and of the Christian church at large, and who, among his many travels, risked his life in Eastern Turkey to bring relief to the Armenians during the Abdul Hamit massacres.
- What drew to you writing a biography of James Rendel Harris?
This piece of research was an unexpected gift. Many years ago, as I walked under the porticos of Bologna towards the office of prof. Pier Cesare Bori, I had a secret hope, that he might ask me to write my final BA dissertation in Britain, a country where I had previously had a great time. However, the only project I could think of was a biography of an Italian priest and church historian, Ernesto Buonaiuti, which meant travelling to Rome at most. Bori dismissed my proposal at once and instead he asked me if I was willing to write a biography of one James Rendel Harris; a very interesting scholar, yes, but also one whose papers, he warned me, were kept in Britain. I could not quite believe my luck and accepted the offer. Then, curiously enough, years later I found among the papers of Rendel Harris unpublished letters from Buonaiuti. Even more curious is the fact that some time ago, when I moved for personal reasons to Stavanger in Norway, I discovered there a thriving little Quaker community, whose leader was closely connected to Rendel Harris’ college. Both his grandfather and his father had in fact seen Rendel Harris and the latter had even sent home a report on one of his lectures. As if the surprises were not enough, I also found out that the wife of another character of my book, Alphonse Mingana, was buried in a local cemetery. Like me, Mingana had married a woman from Stavanger.
- How long have you been researching your book?
I began researching the book in 1994 and finished writing it in 2017. Obviously, I have not been working on it all these years, but there is no doubt that it was a very time-consuming project. I lived in Britain for a while and travelled a deal, both in Britain, in Pennsylvania, and in the Middle East, looking for sources and visiting some of the places Rendel Harris went to. I also met many interesting people, from a grand-nephew who drove Rendel Harris in a car to see antiquities in Devon to an Armenian historian whose grand-mother had survived the genocide.
- What does this biography focus on that hasn’t been explored elsewhere?
Scholars are aware that Rendel Harris was a very peculiar man full of discoveries and adventures. However, not so much about him was known. One could find some information in the beautiful biography of two friends of his, Agnes S. Lewis and Margaret D. Gibson, written by Janet Soskice some years ago, in reference works, and in a slim biography privately published by his secretary. Now, this new book contains plenty of new material about the life of Rendel Harris, some of which is sourced from private archives. It also throws new light on other people as well; in particular his wife, Helen Balkwill Harris, a Quaker missionary, relief worker and writer who deserves a biography of her own, and Alphonse Mingana, whose collection of oriental Christian and Muslim manuscripts is one of the largest in the western world.
- Which aspects of this book do you find more interesting?
Rendel Harris had an amazing life. He wrote countless books and articles on early Christianity, discovered and collected Syriac, Greek, and Armenian manuscripts, travelled repeatedly to the Middle East and together with his wife rescued thousands of Armenians from death and destitution. His life reads more like a novel than history. Moreover, since he was a man of many contacts and multifarious activities, his papers make a significant contribution to our knowledge of the scholarly and religious life of Britain in the Victorian era.
The Daily Discoveries of a Bible Scholar and Manuscript Hunter is available in hardback and epub formats from today!