Meetings with Remarkable Manuscripts: Twelve Journeys into the Medieval World
Christopher De Hamel
Hardback: The Penguin Press, 2017.
Buy Now: [ Amazon ]
Reviewed by Jonathan Homrighausen
*** WATCH brief clips of the author
discussing some of these manuscripts!
Every book tells a story. At first glance this is obvious: books hold words that can fashion imagined worlds in the minds of its readers. But add another dimension: the stories told by every individual physical book. If there is an “ex libris” in the front, whose was it? Were its owners significant? If it is dirty and ragged, what trials did it endure?
In Meetings with Remarkable Manuscripts, De Hamel tells the stories of twelve medieval manuscripts, both the famous and the less-known. The books De Hamel meets have long, idiosyncratic histories: each of them is a medieval manuscript, written by hand, hence one of a kind. De Hamel is a world authority on medieval manuscripts: the book jacket boasts that working at Sotheby’s, he became the world’s most prolific cataloger of medieval manuscripts. This book condenses his decades spent among thousands of manuscripts into a mere 572 pages getting to know twelve very different manuscripts. With the mind of a scholar, the eye of a curator, and the writing of a storyteller, De Hamel opens the door to what might seem a dull and dusty chamber, revealing it instead to be a busy ballroom of stories, artwork, and books and words that quietly nudge history in different directions.
The book begins with the sixth-century Gospels of Saint Augustine and concludes with the early sixteenth-century Spinola Hours. He includes the expected biblical manuscripts—such as the Book of Kells and the Copenhagen Psalter—but also includes the Leiden Aratea, a Carolingian treatise on the stars, from a time before astronomy and astrology had parted ways. In this book’s expert photography, we get to see the difference between the 75-pound Codex Amiatinus and the pocket-size Hours of Jeanne de Navarre (each chapter includes a photo of the book to scale—a helpful detail). Who said medieval manuscripts were all the same?
De Hamel intends for his book to read like “a series of celebrity interviews” (1). Each chapter includes several ingredients, as exemplified by his chapter on the Book of Kells. He tells some stories about the manuscript’s history—in this case, beginning with the two reported thefts of the Book of Kells, in 1007 and 1874, and ending with an exploration of its significance in Irish national identity. He narrates his day with the book, describing its current home and the protocols and personalities of those responsible for taking care of it. Bernard Meehan, keeper of manuscripts at Trinity College Library, who implored De Hamel not to describe where it is housed in the library lest the next edition of De Hamel’s book reports three famous thefts of Kells. By contrast, De Hamel was shocked at the cavalier curatorship of the seventh-century Codex Amiatinus.
In full stereo color, De Hamel also describes key pages from each manuscript. For the Book of Kells, the reader sees canon tables, later scribal additions such as business contracts, a full-page portrait of the virgin Mary and Jesus, and of course, the famous Chi-Rho page. Modern scribes experimenting with medieval techniques have a devilish time recreating its famously intricate illustrated letters—an “almost unimaginable technical achievement” (122) in bird feathers. Yet its text is a poor witness to the Latin Gospels (128). The virgin and child portrait, however, he surmises as “dreadfully ugly” (113). While clearly in awe at his good fortune to see Kells in the flesh (pun intended) after fifty years of poking his nose in medieval books, De Hamel is ever the appraiser as well as the salesman.
Every book tells a story, but some of them have wilder stories than others. The Gospels of Saint Augustine are not named for the famous Church Father, but for Augustine of Canterbury, who supposedly brought Roman Christianity to England in 596. The book lived at the abbey in Canterbury for a milennium until the dissolution of the monasteries under Henry VIII. While some reformers were busy burning medieval books, archbishop Matthew Parker rescued this along with 600 other manuscripts, forming the basis of the Parker Library of Corpus Christi College, Cambridge—which De Hamel now curates. Later in the book, De Hamel recounts the story of the Hours of Jeanne de Navarre, looted by Nazis from the Rothschild collection and later knapsacked by a French soldier from Hermann Göring’s estate in Berchtesgaden in 1945. Imagine the surprise when the lost manuscript finally resurfaced in the scholarly world in 1967! These sagas illustrate how De Hamel works in broader portraits of European history, medieval to modern, as every book improbably survives wars, thefts, and well-intentioned curators at times hardly separable from vandals.
Another set of stories De Hamel tells has to do with the scribes and illuminators who produced each manuscript. At the opening of the Gospels of Saint Augustine appears a full-page illumination of Ezra, the famous biblical scribe. Was this perhaps a scribe also asserting their own presence, reminding the reader that this these Gospels are the product of many, many hours of strained eyes and cramped hands? Later manuscripts, written by professional lay scribes rather than anonymous monks, divulge more about their creators. In a chapter on a c. 1400 Chaucer manuscript, the Hengwrt Chaucer, De Hamel follows the trail of a puzzle over whether a medieval scribe named Adam Pinkhurst quilled this book. His judgment is inconclusive, but even having enough evidence to hypothesize makes for a good story.
Almost every manuscript De Hamel writes about has a name. This is not the norm. While nobody knows how many medieval books exist, the vast majority of them remain unstudied. Like cats and dogs, only the beloved manuscripts ‘adopted’ by scholars receive pet names, known for their unique textual transmission, illustrious history, or artistic splendor. As De Hamel writes, “students of manuscripts tend to study them only from one great mountain top to another, ignoring the valleys and smaller hills” of unillustrated and second-rate works (537). In this book, De Hamel acts as expert sherpa guiding the reader up these twelve mountains. A modern Victor Frankenstein, his scholarly and vivid descriptions jolt these ancient books to life, animating them into the imaginations and hearts of our digital age.
For today’s Christians, De Hamel’s stories remind us that the Bible and other sacred texts are not just words in the Platonic ether. Sacred books have histories, communities, and interpretive choices in their scripts, size, and paper quality. In our screen-riddled age, perhaps we are seeing a resurgence of the desire for the beauty of the book to match the beauty of the Scripture within. This possibility has become reality in projects such as Barry Moser’s Pennyroyal Caxton Bible, Makoto Fujimura’s Four Holy Gospels, and The Saint John’s Bible. De Hamel helps us remember the predecessors in Christian history of these projects—the cloud of witnesses before us who came to the Bible as a beautiful physical presence.
Jonathan Homrighausen is earning his MA in Biblical Studies at the Graduate Theological Union in Berkeley, CA. His second book, Illuminating Justice: The Ethical Imagination of The Saint John’s Bible, is forthcoming with Liturgical Press. He is also co-author, with J. David Pleins, of Biblical Hebrew Vocabulary by Conceptual Categories: A Student’s Guide to Nouns in the Old Testament (Zondervan, 2017).