Meetings with Remarkable Manuscripts

Christopher de Hamel

Penguin 2016
A book review by Danny Yee © 2018
Looking in chronological order at twelve notable handwritten medieval books, Meetings with Remarkable Manuscripts combines travel narrative, paleography, history, art world sleuthing, and bibliography in a chatty, personal narrative. Half of it is taken up by colour illustrations, mostly full page, showing off something of the glory of medieval manuscript illumination.

As librarian of Corpus Christi College, Cambridge, de Hamel is himself the keeper of the late sixth century Gospels of Saint Augustine, the first manuscript he looks at, and he includes an account of taking it to a joint ceremony involving the Pope and the Archbishop of Canterbury. And the most recent manuscript is the Spinola Hours, which he was responsible for selling while working at Sotheby's, for a then record price for a medieval manuscript.

He describes his visits to view manuscripts, looking at the great libraries in which they are held, with their varying security precautions and attitudes to preservation, and including fragments of broader travel narrative.

"The standard rules sent out several days in advance to people who apply to use manuscripts in the Pierpont Morgan Library include an instruction which I have not encountered elsewhere: 'Please refrain from wearing coloured fingernail polish, since it might leave marks on the rare material that you are handling.' It is an intriguing if unusual rule. Frivolous glitter and cultural consciousness go hand-in-hand in the wonderful modern Babylon which is New York. I had written to the library for permission to see their tenth-century illustrated manuscript about the end of the world as foretold in the Apocalypse. Morgan M 644 (as it is) is famous for its large and graphic scenes of tumult and ruin, and the expected judgement and destruction of civilization. As I walked up Madison Avenue, amid that relentless noise of the city, the fury of yellow taxis and the howls of police cars, the clangour of construction, the bursts of satanic steam from underground heating vents, and all the strident frenzy of commerce, I could call to mind so many apocalyptic disaster movies set among these soaring towers."

De Hamel describes the history of the manuscripts, tracing their provenance and subsequent vicissitudes. So he tracks a pandect (entire Bible) which was copied in Northumbria from an Italian original, and then made the reverse journey and ended up as the Codex Amiatinus in the monastery of San Salvatore on Monte Amiata in southern Tuscany. And the Hours of Jeanne de Navarre was exchanged as a gift between descendants of Louis the Pious, passed through the hands of various collectors, and was personally requisitioned by Hermann Göring during World War II, after which its ownership was contested by the French and German governments.

The technical details of the manuscript collations are left to footnotes, but de Hamel describes the manuscripts' physical appearance and construction, and the history of their bindings and rebindings, reordering of quires, and so forth.

"The Aratea is quite small with ninety-five leaves, nearly 9 by 8 inches, almost square in shape. It is unexpectedly heavy, but as one lifts the cover it is evident that the weight lies in the thickness of the wooden binding. The manuscript was rebound in 1989 by a Benedictine nun of Oosterhaut, Lucie Gimbrère, who did much of the work for the library in Leiden. Presumably the book had required disassembling for the photography for the facsimile published that year. ... The new binding is now a quite passable imitation of the one the Aratea might have had in the ninth century. It has yellow-brown suede-like leather over thick wooden boards cut flush with the edges of the pages. ..."

Descriptions of some of the manuscript illuminations supplement and sometimes complement the included reproductions.

"On folio 45v we reach the first of the scenes of military campaigns. On the left we see an army dressed in red marching through a mountain pass, carrying the banners of a black scorpion on a white ground. They have set up their tents in the foreground. These are obviously the enemy, since the same scorpion device is borne by the evil army of Pharaoh shown in the Visconti Hours trying to cross the Red Sea."

He does some sleuthing of his own, for example poring over an erased section of a relic list added to the Copenhagen Psalter, looking for clues to its provenance. And where there is scholarly controversy and uncertainty he attempts to weigh up the evidence, for example with the debate on whether or not the scribe who wrote the Hengwrt Chaucer can be identified as Adam Pinkhurst.

De Hamel assumes a general knowledge of medieval history, but nothing specialised. And some background is included as appropriate: on how parchment was made, the social context of manuscript creation and use, and so forth.

"By the late thirteenth century the fashion among the secular nobility was for a new type of portable devotional compendium in which selected psalms and prayers were already prearranged into an appropriate order for recitation by the laity at times of day corresponding to each of the old monastic hours from Matins to Compline. These short cycles were dedicated to specific religious themes or saints, principally the Virgin Mary, whose cult was becoming increasingly prominent in the later Middle Ages. Books of Hours were eventually made in very large numbers."
"Many of the earliest records of vernacular languages of Europe are associated with women, who were at that time generally less Latinate than men."

De Hamel also considers the reception and influence of the works.

"The settings of the Carmina Burana are now among the most widely performed pieces of all modern music. The opening notes of 'O Fortuna' are perhaps as immediately recognizable as any since Beethoven's Fifth Symphony. Listening to it now, it is clear that the music of Orff has nothing whatsoever to do with actual medieval song. The samples of original medieval notation in the manuscript itself bear no relation to the vast orchestral confections created around the words in the mid-twentieth century."

And on the Book of Kells:

"This 'most precious object of the Western world' is now a national monument of Ireland at the very highest level. It is probably the most famous and perhaps the most emotively charged medieval book of any kind. It is the iconic symbol of Irish culture."

Bibliographic notes on each of the works are provided in fifty pages of small, dense text.

Too much on any of these topics would rapidly become tedious, but de Hamel finds a good mix. Meetings With Remarkable Manuscripts is chatty and personal, but de Hamel is a comfortable and most entertaining host, who I never found annoying. The chapters are largely independent, so I recommend trying one and seeing if the style appeals.

October 2018

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%T Meetings with Remarkable Manuscripts
%A de Hamel, Christopher
%I Penguin
%D 2016
%O hardcover, notes, colour illustrations, index
%G ISBN-13 9780241003046
%P 632pp