Christopher de Hamel’s Meetings with Remarkable Manuscripts (2016)

It was the excellent idea of Christopher de Hamel to inspect ten medieval manuscripts, for the most part well known ones, and produce a beautifully illustrated book describing his encounters with them. Its chapters follow the same pattern. We accompany the author as he makes his way to a library or archive where, having undergone some wittily described formalities, he sits down and meets a manuscript, and then deals with issues it raises, some of them knotty and some of surprisingly general importance. Among other things he suggests parallels between the Gospels of Saint Augustine and Ethiopian art, tests a theory that a manuscript of Chaucer was the work of a particular scribe whose name is known, and traces the Hours of Jeanne de Navarre to Nazi Germany. The content of de Hamel’s work belies the appearance it gives of being a beautiful coffee table book, for in chapter after chapter we see him interacting with manuscripts in unpredictable but always fascinating ways that generate new insights. Moreover, his take is often refreshing. It was with a sigh of relief, as of someone had finally had the nerve to express that the king had no clothes, that I read words of his on the Book of Kells: its pages are ‘confusing and difficult to decipher. Human forms are primitive, even crude. There is too much decoration. The eye has nowhere to settle.’

Occasionally there are lapses, all the more unexpected for occurring in a work of such erudition. It was a nice idea to think of Gregory the Great having a chosen name that was a pun on the Latin ‘greges’, meaning flocks, but it doesn’t work; for a start it was not his chosen name but that which his parents had given him in infancy, and in any case the name is not Latin but Greek, with a very different meaning. Cassiodorus was not a Christian convert. I can make no sense of the assertion that Justinian’s chapel (is this the right word?) at Ravenna was built before the old dynasty had emigrated eastwards. But these are small niggles.

De Hamel writes with a self-deprecating air, something that may be easily available to a member of the establishment, one befitting the Librarian of Corpus Christi Cambridge (one of the photos in the book appears to show the pope bowing before him, as the archbishop of Canterbury looks on.) His book reminded me of his earlier study, The Book A History of the Bible. Both works are superbly presented, in which an engaging text interweaves with well reproduced illustrations. But it is the sense of a fine historical intelligence that makes both memorable.

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