Meetings With Remarkable Manuscripts, by Christopher De Hamel

61n-3ut7n1l-_sx323_bo1204203200_It’s so nice when reading overlaps a little, and reading this back-to-back with Dragon Lords provided rather a good level of continuity. The first of the twelve manuscripts that De Hamel examines is known as the Gospel Book of St Augustine (of Canterbury), which dates from about the sixth century; saints and kings mentioned in Eleanor Parker’s book also get airtime here. De Hamel is the director of the Parker Library at Corpus Christi College, Cambridge, so he knows whereof he speaks. Twelve manuscripts spanning nearly a thousand years are given the full-on examination treatment: we get the histories of the material objects, the significance of the writing and illumination within, and, last but not least, a travelogue style of narrating, where De Hamel shares what it is actually like to look at the manuscripts. As he points out, most people with the will and the travel budget can go to see the Mona Lisa, if they want to; it is far harder to physically access a manuscript in person, though they are some of the greatest cultural treasures in the world. And so he gives us the experience, insofar as he can. We learn what it’s like to walk inside the Staatsbibliothek in Berlin, or the Black Diamond building of the Royal Library in Copenhagen, or the Pierpont Library in New York. (Some of this stuff is worth the cover price for the sheer gossip value: De Hamel is always utterly professional, but his strong feelings about various buildings and their staff still come through. Copenhagen’s library seems like a lovely place to visit, full, as he describes it, of serenely long-haired students like time-frozen hippies and helpful, cheery staff; his experience with the Morgan library, by contrast, is one of polite bafflement at America’s love affair with bureaucracy, authority, and procedure.)

Not only is this book ridiculously beautiful (with lots of full-page colour illustrations, as you would hope), and outrageously informative (I know all about the difference between uncials, insular majuscule, and capitalis rustica now), it’s also far, far funnier than it has any right to be. De Hamel’s account of the day when both Pope Benedict XVI and the Archbishop of Canterbury bowed to him on live television (he was carrying an extremely old copy of the Gospels at the time) is characteristically excellent: self-deprecating, with a keen eye for the ridiculous, as when he describes various dolled-up prelates as “walking Christmas trees”. If all of this wasn’t enough, it’s full of trivia that makes you gasp: there’s a book called the Codex Amiatinus, for example, that is repeatedly referred to as being ridiculously huge, and when you finally see a photo of it, you immediately get it. (De Hamel says it weighs about 90 pounds; then, winningly, he adds that an eccentric antiquary of the Victorian era described it as “weighing about the same as a fully-grown female Great Dane”. De Hamel opts for the slightly more sensible comparison unit of a twelve-year-old boy. Either way, that is a very heavy book.) It’s not just for antiquarians, this; anyone who likes beautiful things, or old things, or books, in any way, would get a lot out of it. It’s certainly earned a spot on my best-of-2018 list.

In response to a reader request, I’m trialing breaking up these reading diary entries into individual ones on each book. It goes against my tendencies to publish posts that are so brief, but I’m sure someone will tell me if you feel you’re being shortchanged.


9 thoughts on “Meetings With Remarkable Manuscripts, by Christopher De Hamel

  1. It sounds like I don’t have context for this book. If it were taught in a specific class–like, imagine grad school–what class would it be taught in?

    Also, how is it going with separate posts?

    • It wouldn’t be taught in any class – it would be the class. De Hamel’s discipline is palaeography, which is the study of manuscripts; grad students in most humanities disciplines (classics, history, English, at least) have to have some level of familiarity with it, in order to go back to primary sources and make something of them, so palaeography is at least a module (or a class, in American-speak) for most of those higher degrees. Learning to read different hands (types of handwriting that people learned at various points in history) is really important, for example. There’s also an element of art history (some of the manuscripts De Hamel discusses have incredible illuminations; bindings can also tell you a lot about a book), plus the general world history that comes into the picture once you start trying to work out where these documents have been, who’s owned them, when they’ve changed hands and why, etc.

      Seems to be going ok, though I’m finding it a lot more stressful to write often in small doses. Mixed reviews from readers – some love the shorter stuff, some seem to prefer the round-ups. I’ll probably do a bit of both for a while.

      • Oh! What I meant when I asked about splitting up the reviews is literally take your round up and come and paste each review into a different blog post, then schedule them out for the week. You’d still write the same way, just one more step.

        I’ve never heard of palaeography before, but I did read about the history of books and media in grad school. Your comment about handwriting makes my brain jump to the contemporary debate about cursive

      • Ah, I see! That definitely presupposes that I write my roundups ahead of time; I’m rarely that organised. I used to just write most of them on a Friday night, or even a Saturday morning. (Or, sometimes, a Sunday. Eh.)

        There’s a contemporary debate about cursive? Are they stopping teaching it in schools? I wouldn’t mind if no child was ever forced through the D’Nealian system again…

      • In the United States, schools are getting rid of cursive because people use computers for everything. Schools think it’s pointless, I guess. People like me who learned the cursive alphabet wonder if there will be a communication gap. For example, many professors write comments on papers in cursive. One older woman told me she was worried that young people wouldn’t be able to enter into contracts because they wouldn’t be able to sign their names.

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