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Meetings with Remarkable Manuscripts

Meetings with Remarkable Manuscripts
Christopher de Hamel
Allen Lane 640pp £30

The feeling of awe and excitement, akin to meeting one’s idol, will be familiar to anyone lucky enough to make medieval manuscripts their life’s work. It is Christopher de Hamel’s goal with this book to share that feeling: to take manuscripts and the life of the manuscript researcher beyond the archive.

The general conceit and the book’s working title is ‘interviews with manuscripts’; the final title is a nod to G.I. Gurdjieff’s 1963 Meetings with Remarkable Men (and the resulting canon of remarkable trees, saxophonists, animals and so on), which, much like the celebrity interviews for which this book was so nearly named, is part biography, part anecdote. Twelve manuscripts are ‘interviewed’, each of them astounding in their own way, spanning 1,000 years of medieval Europe.

These are the life stories of manuscripts, which, as manuscript scholars, we rarely read or write about. We know one aspect of their lives in intimate detail: their production, their contents, their relationships with other manuscripts, their lives after completion, but we rarely get the whole picture. Despite the vast majority of them being copies, every manuscript is unique and the product of all those aspects.

It starts decisively, with the remarkable manuscript the Gospels of St Augustine. Not necessarily the flashiest of codices, it was first-hand witness to the arrival of Christianity in England, central to the ideology of the English Reformation and is a holy relic with as much importance now as ever, kissed by Pope Benedict XVI on his visit to Britain in 2010. Many of these manuscripts have been witness to pivotal moments in our history. The Hours of Jeanne de Navarre are perhaps most interesting because of their 20th-century association with Hermann Göring. The apparently secular lyrics of the Carmina Burana, now best known through Carl Orff’s grand, Teutonic composition, are born entirely of religious knowledge and cannot work without it, but the compilation itself opens up the changing intellectual world of 12th-century Europe.

Alongside the great moments of history, these manuscripts give insights into the human and personal, not just in the minute detail of their script, decoration and pagination, but of the world in which they were made: the Carmina Burana shows us drinking taverns; the Hengwrt Chaucer shows us the life of the professional scribe; the Spinola Hours shows us the daily devotional life of an elite owner in 16th-century Netherlands.

Meetings is also part memoir, of necessity, as it is composed of de Hamel’s impressions. But this is a life with manuscripts worth knowing about: as his dust-jacket sbiography proclaims, he has probably handled and catalogued more illuminated manuscripts than any other person. It is brought alive by his asides: scathing on some archaic text, or the horror of being made to wear the ubiquitous white gloves.

While his disdain for the artist of the Book of Kells and their grasp of anatomy is not in keeping with the studied detachment of current manuscript description, it is fair. His enthusiasm for the scribe of that manuscript, in contrast to his bemused condescension for its artist, reads like a love letter – and rightly so. Under de Hamel’s expert hand the accompanying images come to life and the script’s delicacy and elegance suddenly become more beautiful than the famed decoration it accompanies.

Each chapter begins with an image of the manuscript, intended to show its size, relative to the others. This showcases the variety of manuscript shapes and forms, ranging from the Hours of Jeanne de Navarre (once mistaken for a brick) to the largest, the Codex Amiatinus. Yet despite the Amiatinus filling the page, there is no real sense of its size: almost 12 inches thick, described as the weight of a fully grown female Great Dane, it was made from the skins of 515 calves, weighing over 75 lbs and required two librarians to carry it.

This book is dedicated to teaching the reader to understand a manuscript, by exploring not just its contents but its history, the changes that have been made to it and their possible motivations. The almost algebraic code used to describe a manuscript’s construction, for example, helps to demonstrate how examining such things can tell us about a book’s life.

What is made clear is that this is by no means a dying field but one in which there is plenty still to be discovered and this book contains many new discoveries. For all the stunning images, it is the love and enthusiasm for manuscripts that leaves the strongest impression and will only encourage a new generation of researchers in the field.

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