*Meetings with Remarkable Manuscripts*

by on November 5, 2016 at 12:13 am in Books, History, The Arts, Travel, Uncategorized | Permalink

That is the new book by Christopher de Hamel, and it is one of the very best non-fiction books this year, in fact so far it might rank #1.  It is twelve chapters, each one about an individual medieval manuscript, the best-known of those being the Book of Kells.   The integration of text and the visuals is of the highest order of quality.  Most of all, the book brings each manuscript to life, relating its creators and creation, the surrounding historical context, its subsequent preservation and fame, and how that history has embodied varying attitudes toward copying and preservation.  No less illuminating is the anthropological treatment of how each manuscript is currently guarded and displayed, the author’s travel history in getting there, and a more general “philosophical without the philosophy” introspection on what these objects are really supposed to mean to us.

This book is not in every way light reading, and it does assume some (very broad) background in medieval history, but it brings a whole topic to light, and instructs, in a way that few other works do.

Here is just one short excerpt:

My initial inquiry as to whether I might see the manuscript of the Aratea in the Universiteitsbibliotheek in Leiden was met with the reply that this would hardly be necessary, since there is a high-class published facsimile from 1989 and the complete book is in any case digitized and freely available on-line.  It was a response entirely within the theme of copying.  If you had applied to the palace librarians of Aachen in the early ninth century to see the late-antique Terence, they would almost certainly have assured you that you would be better off with their nice new copy by their scribe Hrodgarius.

Hamel worked for a long time in the book department at Sotheby’s and then in a library at Cambridge University.  He is a bit of a fuddy-duddy (he thinks the bustle of NYC is extreme, for instance), but nonetheless has produced a lovely and complete work that virtually every author should envy.  I am ordering his other books too, mostly on the history of books.

Here is a Guardian review, John Banville in the FT raves about it, and here is The Paris Review.  I believe I ordered it on Amazon.uk, all five-star reviews by the way.  Here is the U.S. Amazon listing, with access to used copies, I am not sure when the American edition comes out.


1 Dmitri Helios November 5, 2016 at 1:21 am

Good interview with de Hamel (the Norman Yoke clear in his last name) here – https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=RlDbWuj-mPE
Fans of the book will enjoy “A history of the world in 100 objects.” – https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/A_History_of_the_World_in_100_Objects

2 Ray Lopez November 5, 2016 at 1:27 am

Even more good is this document, I wonder if the de Hamel book has this camel: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Voynich_manuscript Hoax from the 15th century?

3 Dmitri Helios November 5, 2016 at 1:25 am

de Hamel on Matthew Parker, Archbishop of Canterbury from 1559 to 1575 – “Parker was a Brexit man. He has to convince all of Middle England out there that…[the Reformation] was not new but just the English way of doing things.”


4 rayward November 5, 2016 at 6:47 am

Do the manuscripts purport to be originals by the author, or are they copies of originals by scribes? The allusion to the “high-class facsimile” is instructive. Of course, in medieval times, as in ancient times, there were no copy machines. Rather, every copy was made by hand by a scribe, one letter at a time; indeed, copies usually contained no space between words, no punctuation, just letter after letter. Mistakes were common. And mistakes were compounded when a copy, with its own mistakes, was made of the copy with mistakes. Or when a scribe “corrected” a mistake, mistakenly. And on and on. Today, if a thousand people order this book from Amazon, each will receive an identical book. In medieval times, they likely would have received a thousand different copies. Cowen’s first quote from the book implies that these are all original manuscripts. That would be remarkable. And unlikely. The Guardian review refers to a “scribal error”, suggesting that these are “original” only in the sense they are original to the scribe who created it, as opposed to the author who wrote it. I’m not being critical, just attempting to clarify what’s meant by “original manuscript”. It’s like the Christian Bible. We have no “original manuscripts” (in the sense of original to the authors); indeed, we have only fragments of copies. Not true, according to my faithful friends who insist that the King James version is an “original manuscript”.

5 Martin Morgan November 5, 2016 at 11:27 am

There’s a difference between the original manuscript and the original text. The Book of Kells inside the glass case is the original manuscript produced by the Irish monks. That the text is from the Bible is for someone besides the manuscript enthusiast to worry about.

And without knowing the end of the story, I predict they let him access the manuscript. I was at Leiden earlier this year and they let me hold the Leiden Glossary (VLQ 69), ca. 800 AD, arguably the first English dictionary. Nice people there at Leiden.

6 Sam Haysom November 5, 2016 at 12:03 pm

Clearly you don’t know much about the subject because you confuse original text with original manuscript (which would be the equivalent of confusing speed and acceleration in a physics discussion). So why post this? Loneliness, frustration with life or love, bitterness? What drives someone to post this kind of uninformed drivel.

7 rayward November 5, 2016 at 12:48 pm

Our friends have confirmed that the “original manuscript” is just a copy by one or more scribes (a copy of a copy of a copy of a copy of a copy of a copy of a copy) who may or may not have copied the text correctly. So what’s the point of reading the “manuscript” if it’s not the original text? That I have exposed the charade seems to offend. I apologize.

8 karl November 5, 2016 at 8:35 pm

I do not think that word [“apologize”] does not mean what you think it means.
That written, you and your co-commenters are on different pages: you seem to see the document’s text as the primary interest, while they value the document itself as a work of art and its accurate conveyance of text as of minimal importance.
You do get the difference, don’t you? Please note that I’m taking you seriously here and assume you aren’t trolling.

9 karl November 5, 2016 at 8:36 pm

“I do not think that word [“apologize”] means what you think it means.” Fixed?

10 dearieme November 5, 2016 at 7:54 am

I’ve just looked at the WKPD entry on the Book of Kells: it makes the implausible claim that the Book is known to have been composed in Ireland, though I’ll grant that it waters the claim down slightly in a feeble attempt to sound judicious. The last historian I read on the matter said that the origin isn’t certain but that scholarly opinion inclined to the view that it was probably composed on Iona.

Does de Hamel discuss the issue?

11 dearieme November 5, 2016 at 8:00 am

P.S. “Hamel worked for a long time … in a library at Cambridge University.” I do hope you are teasing: he was Fellow Librarian of the Matthew Parker library at Corpus Christi College.

12 Anon. November 5, 2016 at 9:40 am

Hardcover: £20.40
Kindle Edition: £44.04

Model this.

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