Grenfell Family History



Photograph of Bernard Pyne Grenfell

Prof. Bernard Pyne Grenfell

GRENFELL, BERNARD PYNE (1869-1926), papyrologist, was born at Birmingham 16 December 1869, the eldest son and only surviving son of John Granville Grenfell, F.G.S., a member of the junior branch of the Cornish and Buckinghamshire family of that name, by his wife, Alice, daughter of Henry Pyne. His father, at first (1861-1866) assistant in the department of Greek and Roman antiquities at the British Museum, and later a master successively at King Edward's School, Birmingham and Clifton College, which he left in 1889, died abroad in 1897. Both parents showed intellectual tastes and wide interests; Mrs Grenfell in later life took up the study of mythological and amuletic scarabs, on which she contributed articles to learned journals.

As a child Grenfell was delicate and required special treatment at Clifton College, of which he was a scholar; but his health improved at Queen's College, Oxford, where he obtained a scholarship in 1888. He obtained first classes in classical moderations (1890) and literae humaniores (1892),and during a fifth year at Oxford turned his attention to the study of Greek papyri, a subject which was then coming into prominence. Elected in 1893 to the Craven travelling fellowship, Grenfell went in the winter of 1893-1894 to Egypt, where he joined Professor (afterwards Sir) Flinders Petrie at Guft . (Coptos) in order to learn something of the excavator's art. Purchasing in the course of the winter a long Greek papyrus roll of the third century B.C. Petrie entrusted the task of editing it to Grenfell, who, after publishing in the Journal of Philology (vol. xxii, 1894) three seventh-century contracts from Apollonopolis Magna, began work upon it in June 1894. From November until the following April, having been elected a research fellow of his college, Grenfell was again in Egypt, and while there had the good fortune to acquire a second roll containing the remainder of Petrie's text, which consisted of fiscal regulations by Ptolemy II. In 1896 he published the whole under the title The: Revenue Laws of Ptolemy Philadelphus. Although he had the help of other scholars, the work was essentially Grenfell's own and gave convincing proof of his exceptional gifts alike as decipherer and as commentator. It was almost immediately followed by a slim volume of texts, literary, and documentary, acquired in the two previous winters, An Alexandrian Erotic Fragment and other Greek Papyri (1896); and a year later appeared a second which bore for the first time, together with Grenfell's name, that of Arthur Surridge Hunt, a junior contemporary at Queen's and a personal friend. Thus was formed a partnership destined to be fruitful in the annals of scholarship; and thenceforth, save in the temporary absence of one or the other, most of their work until Grenfell's death was done in collaboration.

During 1895 the Egypt Exploration Fund (afterwards Society) decided to embrace in its scope the Graeco-Roman period; and in the winter of 1895-1896 Grenfell and David George Hogarth [q.v.], joined in January by Hunt, were sent to the Fayum in order to examine likely sites. Excavations in various places, although not very systematic, were fruitful enough .,to justify the continuance of the experiment, and next winter Grenfell and Hunt began work at a site some distance south of the Fayum, Behneseh, the ancient Oxyrhynchus, with sensational results. Works of Christian literature, among them the 'Sayings of Jesus', many classical fragments, including a new poem -of Sappho, and important documents, ranging from before the Roman conquest to the Arab period, were discovered; and the result was the formation of the Graeco-Roman branch of the Egypt Exploration Fund in 1897.

After further excavations in the Fayum (1898-1902), some of which were undertaken for the university of California at Umm el-Baragat (Tebtunis), operations were transferred in March 1902 to El Hibeh and were continued there during the first part of the next season, after which a return was made to Behneseh. There, in successive campaigns until 1906, vast quantities of papyri were found; and publication followed with commendable promptness in the annual volumes of the Fund (The Oxyrhynchus Papyri, 17 volumes, 1898-1927), besides which the two scholars were engaged in editing The Amherst Papyri (vol. i, 1900, vol. ii, 1901) and The Tebtunis Papyri (vol. i, 1902, vol. ii, 1907). This achievement was rendered the more remarkable by the high standard of scholarship maintained. In the accuracy of their texts and the quality of their commentary, evading no difficulty but free from superfluity, Grenfell and Hunt's editions have never been surpassed, and their methods served as a model to other editors.

Honours were showered on both scholars by universities and academies, alike at home and abroad. Grenfell was elected a fellow of the British Academy in 1905, and, in 1908 was appointed to the professorship of papyrology at Oxford, a chair specially created for him. Unfortunately, signs of mental trouble had already appeared. From a break-down in 1906-1907, while in Egypt, he quickly recovered, but at more serious attack in the autumn of 1908 incapacitated him for over four years. The devoted attention of his mother was rewarded by his complete recovery and return to work, with energy and mental power unimpaired, in the spring of 1913. His professorship having meantime lapsed, Hunt was appointed to the vacant chair in 1913, but Grenfell became honorary t 'professor in 1916 and joint professor in 1919. During most of the War years (1914-1918), when Hunt was on military service, Grenfell worked single-handed at the preparation for press of Parts xii-xv 1 of the Oxyrhynchus Papyri, besides doing ]some work on vol. iii of The Tebtunis Papyri and collecting materials for a comprehensive study of the geography of Egypt. Early in 1920 he revisited Egypt in order to collate at Cairo the texts of certain papyri intended for Part xvi of the Oxyrhynchus Papyri. He returned in April, apparently in good health and spirits, but the old symptoms soon afterwards reappeared, and after a partial recovery a relapse made it necessary for him to go first to a sanatorium at St. Andrews and thence to Murray's Royal Mental Hospital, near Perth. This time he, lacked the care of his mother, who had died in 1917, and despite occasional rallies, he never really recovered. He died 18 May 1926, and was buried with his mother in Holywell cemetery, Oxford. He never married. Hunt survived his fellow scholar eight years, dying in 1934.

Grenfell was peculiarly gifted for his life's work. To excellent eyesight and a gift for the marshalling and lucid exposition of' a complex mass of evidence he united energy, enthusiasm, and a brain at once imaginative and critical. A very rapid worker, he spared no pains to correct first impressions by later revision. As a man he had a singularly attractive personality. Ardent, generous, and affectionate, he made friends easily and retained them when made; and he won the trust and affection no less than the respect of his Egyptian workmen.

[A. S. Hunt, Bernard Pyne Grenfell, 1869-1926, in Proceedings of the British Academy, vol. xii, 1926; Aegyptus, vol. viii, 1927; Gnomon, vol. ii, 1926; publications of the Egypt Exploration Society; personal knowledge.] H. I. Bell.

Text reproduced from the Dictionary of National Biography 1922 - 1930 edited by JRH Weaver (HI Bell) by permission of Oxford University Press.