My favourite Christmas present was Meetings with Remarkable Manuscripts, by Christopher de Hamel. It’s about twelve fascinating manuscripts, the oldest of which dates from the late sixth century and the most recent of which was created in the days of the printing press. There are religious works, as you’d expect, but there’s also a book of songs, the Canterbury Tales and a guide to warfare and military ventures. Many of the manuscripts have other scraps of information written on blank pages, including genealogies and property records. Later works have more refined pictures, works of art from a period when small-scale works are scarce and secular art was still rare.
But it’s Dr de Hamel’s approach that provides such a fabulous insight to the world of medieval manuscripts. As the title of the book suggests, he takes the reader with him as he visits each of the manuscripts in their current homes. These range from the Getty Museum in Los Angeles to the National Library in St Petersburg, with places across Europe and within the UK. We meet the custodians of the manuscripts and the invigilators who keep watch over their charges. Some of them are kind – step forward, the invigilator at the National Library in St Petersburg, who provided Dr de Hamel with chocolates during a warm afternoon; others are stricter – the staff at the Morgan Library in New York left me feeling battered and I wasn’t present.
The anecdotes are fun, particularly the stories about the pages of the Gospels of St Augustine wafting in the breeze and Dr de Hamel holding the Gospels while Pope Benedict XVI kissed them. What I’ve enjoyed most, though, are the accounts of the detective work to try to establish a chain of ownership and work out how on earth each manuscript ended up where it sits today. By piecing together snippets of information that have survived through the centuries, light is cast on trade and communication links between Norman England, France and other European countries, stocking of English cathedral libraries in the years after the Norman Conquest, the commissioning of manuscripts and the design process and the growing trade in books in the late Middle Ages. And there’s a fabulous story about Danish kings learning their alphabet.
This is a good, thick book, the sort that’s bursting with information and delights, one that you’ll want to go back to again and again. I can’t recommend it highly enough and I only hope that Dr de Hamel can be persuaded to write another book about even more remarkable manuscripts.