A Review of Meetings With Remarkable Manuscripts (Part 1)

When you are a former librarian of the Parker Library at Corpus Christi Cambridge and worked at Sotheby’s, you probably know a few things about old books. What Christopher de Hamel does in his book Meetings with Remarkable Manuscripts is describe twelve of the most famous books in medieval Europe in ways that you don’t need much special training to understand. He provides the physical description of the book, the script, the decoration, the possible and known history of the book, and why any of it might matter. And he occasionally says things even scholars think, but are unlikely to say in public like calling an illustration in the Book of Kells ugly, or comparing a scribe’s flourish to a love-sick teen girl’s doodles in her notebook.

The one complaint I have from the first half of the book is that while the author acknowledges the difficulty in accessing the books each chapter is dedicated to, you have to be Christopher de Hamel on a lucky day to get to touch these particular manuscripts, even if you have the credentials and training to work with such things. The problem is that one of his goals is to convey “what pleasure you can have in looking at manuscripts” (8). While this is a laudable goal, he’s chosen 12 of the most inaccessible, famous things, and why couldn’t the same be done with something more accessible and less famous? Very few people would be able to touch the same things, and work with books with such fame attached, and it sounds like talking about the famous stuff is part of the fun.

The author’s personal voice is dominant in the book which is unusual for a scholarly discussion of a manuscript. There is real scholarship behind this book, although as the author points out, it’s all in the notes which most people don’t read (unless you’re a manuscript nerd) and thus relegated to the end of the book. He makes the decision to treat each chapter like an interview (his word) because interviews aren’t just about facts, many of which are likely known beforehand; interviews are about the surprising details in terms of presentation as well as the words, and the meaning that can be gained from them. A de Hamel says, “Listen to them, and let them speak.” (1)

The first chapter is dedicated to Cambridge, Corpus Christi College MS 286, one of the oldest known books in England (it dates to the late sixth century and was most probably in England by the seventh), and a copy of The Gospels of Saint Augustine.  One of the more noticeable features of this first chapter, and one that continues throughout the book, is that de Hamel also includes a description of the reading rooms and how he gets access to the valuable book in a collection. Before he really starts to discuss the manuscript he first discusses the owner who had put it into its current collection, Matthew Parker, the sixteenth century English bishop who lived through the reigns of Henry VIII, Mary, and Elizabeth. He then provides the history of Parker’s library, which is interesting because it used to be impossible to access because of how the college had interpreted a stipulation Parker had included about how if a volume was ever lost, the whole collection would be sent to a neighboring college. Then he describes the book in terms of general appearance, contents, collation, script, size, and decoration. In the process, he also considers connections the book has to history and to other manuscripts.

Two more features in this chapter set up the overall tone and character of the book as whole: the pictures, and the personal stories. There are a lot of colored images in this book, most of the manuscripts and features of interest. On the one hand, it makes things even easier for the everyday reader to understand, but on the other, it’s not always easy to tell which picture goes with what description. The chapter ends with the story of the book’s trip (with the author who was the librarian of the collection at the time) from Cambridge to Westminster Abbey, London for mass with the Archbishop of Canterbury and Pope Benedict XVI. de Hamel hints at this episode in the beginning of the chapter by baiting the reader a little with “At the end of this chapter I will recount how Pope Benedict XVI and the Archbishop of Canterbury both bowed down before me, on live television, in front of the high altar of Westminster Abbey.” (10) Naturally the episode has to do with the manuscript, but it’s still a good hook.

Chapter 2 considers Florence, Biblioteca Laurenziana, Cod. Amiat. 1, better known as the Codex Amiatinus. This chapter begins with some archeological history in England, and then a question: why would Bede (as in the Venerable) want 3 new Bibles made for the 2 monasteries of Wearmoth and Jarrow in England, and what might have happened to them? The answer of course, at least to the latter, comes partially in the form of the manuscript, which is “the oldest surviving entire manuscript of the Vulgate and it is still the principal witness for establishing the text of the Latin Bible.” (61). But before the book itself is introduced, there is a description of how de Hamel got to it (physically and permissorily).

This chapter in particular highlights de Hamel’s habit of not directly stating the key point about the manuscript on hand until presenting all the details about it. This is usually the reverse of how a lot of scholarship is presented; often it’s the point first, then the evidence, followed by or interspersed with the reasoning. Only after about 20 pages of images and descriptions does he finally get to the likelihood that the Codex Amiatinus may have been edited and commentated on in the margins by Bede himself. The chapter ends with some speculation about how the book may have gotten from England to Italy.

Chapter 3 presents what is probably the generally most recognizable manuscript to the general public: Dublin, Trinity College MS 58, aka The Book of Kells. The chapter opens with an illustration of the books fame and importance, noting “The Book of Kells has been reported stolen twice.” (96) The second incident occurred in 1874 and was more misunderstanding than theft; the first time the book disappeared was in 1007 and probably was actual burglary. Of all the manuscripts in the first half, this is probably the least accessible for direct study, and the description of how de Hamel got access takes a while, although how he got permission is not included. Some of the special rules include the fact that he himself is not allowed to touch the two volumes he was allowed to see (the librarian would do it for him); the other two were on display for the day. This fact (the 4 volume existence of the book) easily leads into a discussion of how the manuscript ended up in that form.

Once he begins the discussion of the contents, a lot of time is understandably spent on the decoration, the Book of Kells’ most notable feature. This is where he makes the comment, “I shall probably have my permission to visit the Republic of Ireland revoked for ever, but the picture is dreadfully ugly” (113) referring to the first full page illustration in the entire book, an image of the Virgin with her child. While the image is itself reproduced in full color, his description of it does make it sound unattractive, and after some consideration, I have to agree that this is not a very pretty Mary or Christ. de Hamel also considers KS 58’s relationship to other Gospel books of its time and place, and its use and reputation from the 1500s into the 20th century. The final observation notes that the most Irish work of art of all time was probably made in Scotland, but then again, Finnegan’s Wake was written in Paris, and no one really argues about that not being totally Irish.

Chapter 4, on Leiden, Universiteitsbibliotheek, Co. Voss. Lat. Q 79, the Leiden Aratea, is framed as an example the practices of copying as applied to antique and medieval manuscripts. The basic premise is that while now in modern times, copying with or without acknowledgement is looked down upon, medieval writers and scribes considered it a sign of quality to be directly and openly based on a recognized example or exemplar. The particular example, in the Leiden Aratea is a discussion on ancient astronomy in poetry, but is discussed more in terms of it being a nearly identical duplicate of its exemplar which would have been centuries old in the ninth century when this version was made. After reviewing the classical renaissance in England under Charlemagne and Alcuin, there is the story of how de Hamel got access to the book and the reading room in which he saw it. Apparently, the Dutch are pretty easygoing. The description of the book focuses on the script (rustic capitals) and the illustrations with some consideration of the symbolism and meaning involved.

After reviewing the transmission and translation of the original Greek into Latin, there is digression into the shape and construction of the manuscript, which leads into de Hamel’s work being interrupted by a group of curious PhD students who are interested in seeing the manuscript, and one asks how he can tell the book is actually late 9th century, not a late-Roman era original. The response that follows concentrates particularly on the relevance and meaning of a planetarium diagram towards the end of the book. Back in the reading room, de Hamel reveals how in direct sunlight he notices that many of the images in the book have deep impressions, suggesting the book in front of him may have been used as an exemplar, but he’ll come back to this. The images themselves are similar to those in a copy of the same text at a library in Boulogne, but not identical. The final discussions of this Aratea look at tracing the ownership of the manuscript from the sixteenth century onwards, and the chapter ends with a discussion of the evolution of reproduction techniques.

Chapter 5, on NY, Morgan Library and Museum M 644, a collection of interpretations of the Apocalypse by a monk named Beatus in Spain in the 8th century (this copy is ninth century), opens with the observation of a non-standard reading room rule, concerning the prohibition of finger nail polish. Then comes the author’s comparison of the manuscript’s most notable feature (images and description of the Apocalypse) with his walk through NYC to get to the library. He also considers the history of how people thought about the end times, and then begins his discussion of the building and reading room.

Before describing the manuscript itself, de Hamel describes how it got from Spain to NYC, and its connection to the notorious nineteenth-century book collector/forger/thief Count Guglielmo Bruno Icilio Timoleone Lirbi-Carrucci dalla Sommaia, Libri for short. Other famous names involved with the manuscript include M.R. James, Yates Thompson, and J.P Morgan. He describes the foliation and collation, and the contents. After discussing the use of diple to indicate Scriptural quotations, he makes the comparison between the scribe’s “use of rows of little red hearts” to “those in a love-sick teenage girl’s exercise book” (209). HE then discusses, at greater length than prior chapters, the script used, Visigothic miniscule and its connections to cursive. From here he moves into the page design and the contents.

He spends a considerable amount of time describing the images in the book, which are in a style called Mozarabic and has connections to Christian, Jewish, and Islamic traditions. He asks if it is good art, and ends up deciding that the style is appropriate for the subject and uses the comparison to Picasso’s Guernica. The final section discusses what de Hamel labels as “one of the most remarkable features of this famous manuscript” (224), namely the certain knowledge of its painter, and the likely when and why the book was made.

The sixth chapter, at the midway point of the book, presents the late 11th century Oxford, Bodleian Library MS Bodley 717. The chapter begins with a review of the role and importance of riddles in literature from the Exeter Book to The Hobbit. The connection comes from the Exeter connection, since the manuscript by Hugo Pictor was probably originally part of the same library as the Exeter Book. Content-wise the manuscript is St Jerome’s Latin commentary on the Book of Isaiah (Old Testament), but that’s not the important thing here. After reviewing how the manuscript physically got to where it currently is, de Hamel describes the old Duke Humphries reading room that he worked in as a graduate student, and lamented that it was now no longer in use as such, having been closed to scholars in 2011, and replaced by 2015 by the new Weston Library. After describing the external appearance of the manuscript, he turns immediately to discussing the painter’s self-portrait on the last page of the manuscript which is likely the codex’s most famous feature. He describes some of the other ornamentation of the book as well as some of the marginal additions and commentary, and the meanings of some of Jerome’s interpretations.

After moving on to describing some of the features of the parchment used, he reviews the unusually certain provenance of the manuscript and the general history of the time period, and how the two factors are related. The Anglo-Saxon heritage and the Norman effects are the main features of focus in this regard. De Hamel also notes the textual family this manuscript belongs too, since the Jerome commentary has multiple surviving copies, and the features that allow for such determination. This discussion includes trips to Salisbury and Durham, as both were medieval cathedral cities that had manuscript connections with Exeter. The relationship that connects Bodley 717 does not concern the text or contents, but rather the artist Hugo, whose work de Hamel points out bears strong similarities to manuscripts in the other libraries.

As he returns to Bodley 717 itself and its scribes and collation, de Hamel spends a good bit of time considering whether or not the fourth and final of the scribes who worked on the manuscript might have been Hugo himself. As he points out, a benefit of working with such old documents is the acceptability of some degree of speculation. He concludes with a more in-depth review of the self-portrait and what it might have to say about scribal practices, both in Jerome’s time and 700 years later in Hugo’s.

Stay tuned for Part 2.

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