Meetings with Remarkable Manuscripts review: a splendid page-turner

Christopher de Hamel presents 12 ancient texts in engaging and good-humoured detail

Sat, Dec 24, 2016, 06:00

Meetings with Remarkable Manuscripts By Christopher de Hamel Allen Lane, £30  

Book Title:
Meetings with Remarkable Manuscripts


Christopher de Hamel

Allen Lane

Guideline Price:

What connects a very large copy of the Bible written c.AD 700 in northern England and forgotten for centuries with a poem on classical astronomy copied at the Carolingian court in the ninth century and a compendium of commentary on the Apocalypse written in Spain in the 10th century or a book of songs in Latin and in a dialect of German from a monastery in Bavaria to a manuscript copy of Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales in the National Library of Wales in Aberystwyth? Apart from the fact they were all written by hand on treated animal skin and embellished with painted scenes and ornament, they have been chosen by Christopher de Hamel for his book about “visiting important manuscripts”.

Ten of his choices are held in important libraries in Europe and two in the United States. His selection of 12 makes no claims to be representative but it does make for an engaging and altogether good-humoured book. De Hamel has been librarian of Corpus Christi College, Cambridge, since 2000. There he has responsibility for some of the most important books to survive from medieval England and his first choice is from that library.

A chapter is devoted to each book. For each, there is an equivalent bibliographical note – essay would be a better word – in which he cites his sources and provides further comment. You won’t have to read this book with numerous bookmarks or fingers deployed to help you to flick between the text and the notes.

Ornament and illustration

From the beginning, de Hamel equips the reader with the essential tools to follow his descriptions. His introduction tells you what you need to know about how manuscripts were created, how the leaves were assembled into quires, what to call the pages of manuscripts. Rulings and prickings show the manner in which pages were laid out for writing, ornament and illustrations. The bindings are an important source of information about a book’s history and the writer can be very critical about modern replacements for conservation purposes. You will learn how manuscripts (mss) are “collated” by experts using a simple code to account for the quires and leaves which is often revelatory. High-status mss were usually created by teams of scribes, painters and illuminators.

De Hamel tells us where each manuscript is housed and guides us to the specialised reading rooms where the most precious books are studied. He describes his encounters with the custodians and scholars of these remarkable treasures. A quirky, mild obsession of his is whether you must wear white gloves to handle the manuscripts, wash your hands or simply, as still in some libraries, sit down at your designated work space and handle with care. The author’s pleasure and excitement at seeing and studying something numinous such as a sixth-century gospel book or a superb 16th-century book of hours, examples of which are described in the book, seem, even after years of specialist study, to have remained fresh.

Gospel translation

His choice includes books from our immediate neighbourhood. The earliest in his selection is known as The Gospels of St Augustine and the association of this very Italianate sixth-century gospel book with the first Roman mission to Anglo-Saxon England is very plausible. It is a nearly complete copy of St Jerome’s “Vulgate” translation of the gospels. St Augustine (of Canterbury) began his missionary work in AD 597 and the Venerable Bede records that Pope Gregory later sent a gift of books for the use of the missionaries. The gospel book is in the writer’s care as it is part of the Parker Library preserved in Corpus Christi College.

The story of the Codex Amiatinus in the Laurentian Library in Florence is remarkable. It is a complete Bible and therefore an exceptionally large manuscript. It is rarely displayed. Amiatinus is also very Italian-looking and it is the oldest complete witness to the Bible text to survive anywhere. It had been preserved for centuries in Abbadia San Salvatore on Monte Amiata in Tuscany before it was sent to Florence. In the 19th century, it was discovered to have been one of a small number of complete Bible texts copied in Anglo-Saxon England, in the double-monastery of Wearmouth-Jarrow about AD 700. The project was recorded by Bede. When his abbot, Ceolfrith, decided to retire to Rome, he and his companions brought the Codex as a gift to the Pope. Ceolfrith died en route and those who were to deliver the ms never got nearer to Rome than Monte Amiata which lay on an important pilgrimage and trading route.

He writes well on the Book of Kells. He is persuaded, like many, that it was created in the Columban monastery of Iona. The Irish historical and cultural milieu in which the book was made is well understood. He celebrates the extraordinary artistry of the book. At one point he sticks his neck out when he says that the Virgin and Child painting in Kells is not a work of beauty. He’s right – there are many interesting and beautiful features on the page but the central composition is poor. God is in the details.

Secular earthiness

The 12 manuscripts chosen enable de Hamel to show how often individual manuscripts travelled widely but also how carefully grandees kept beautiful and valuable books, such as books of hours, carefully within the family. The Munich manuscript of Carmina Burana is clearly a favourite – he says it resembles a breviary in certain respects despite the secular earthiness of some of its content.

He identifies a recognised starter pack of books for the many new foundations of Anglo-Norman England. He alerts us to the hints in some manuscripts that learning and writing, once the preserve of the church, were becoming more secularised. He tells us how book production was organised in later medieval times especially by the booksellers of Paris and the talents of many lay book-painters – some named, some anonymous. Manuscripts lost or stolen and fortunately found again figure. Nazi expropriation makes its appearance and the near-miraculous survival of two manuscripts looted during the occupation of France is chronicled. This is a splendid book.

Michael Ryan MRIA is an archaeologist who writes about early medieval Irish archaeology and art. He was director and librarian of the Chester Beatty Library 1992-2010