Wednesday, February 19, 2020

Christopher de Hamel meets remarkable manuscripts

Bookish Twitter now and then has a cathartic freakout about someone or another destroying a book for some reason or another.  Living, as I do, in the age of mechanical reproduction, I am not bothered by art projects and backpacker tips.  And what proportion of published books end up in the pulper?  I sometimes enjoy thinking about that.  I say I write about “books,” but that is a metaphor.  I don’t care so much about books.

Now, the books in Christopher de Hamel’s Meetings with Remarkable Manuscripts: Twelve Journeys into the Medieval World (2016), those are something else.  Those are treasures, mostly invisible except in facsimile.  De Hamel, a leading expert in medieval manuscripts has written a book about meeting these unique books in person.  A page of The Spinola Hours (p. 541 in de Hamel), at the Getty, is to the left.  Meetings fills many pages with that sort of thing.

Twelve books in twelve chapters.  The Book of Kells in Dublin, the Carmina Burana in Munich, a “poem on ancient astronomy” (140) in Leiden, one of the two oldest copies of The Canterbury Tales in Wales.  Gospels, psalms, books of hours.  A Latin textbook on military strategy, now in St. Petersburg.  A lot of variety.

Part of the fun of this book is that each manuscript is in a different library, so Meetings is also a travel book, assuming you like to visit libraries.  Boy, I do.  On the right we see the view from the manuscripts reading room of the Royal Library in Copenhagen (295).

Different kinds of texts, different libraries, and finally different issues in book history.  De Hamel picks books that allow him to emphasize different ways to study the manuscripts.  Each book stars in multiple stories.  Who created the book – who were the scribes, the illustrators, the patrons, the binders?  Who changed the book over time?  How did the book move around?  Few of the twelve manuscripts are near where they were created.  Where did the materials come from?  Where did the text come from?

The chapter on the Chaucer manuscript is more about the search for the identity of the scribe, for example.  The one on The Hours of Jeanne de Navarre spends more time on the way the book moved.  It was Nazi loot, so the story is dramatic.

The key is that de Hamel is not just showing off the manuscripts, although he does plenty of that – a page from the 15th century Visconti Semideus military manual is to the left (496).  He shows how to think about them.  He demonstrates the kind of evidence experts look for and the kind of arguments they make.  That is fascinating.  On their own, bindings, parchment, Latin in incomprehensible script – why would I care.  But, no, this all goes somewhere.

De Hamel is a lively writer:

My private impression from having pages of the Book of Kells turned before my eyes, one after the other throughout the day, is that the picture pages interrupt the text and are hard to enjoy, despite all their fame.  I am not even sure we can regard them as beautiful.  They are spectacularly important in the history of art and their commercial value is almost beyond estimation (I write as a former employee of Sotheby’s), but they are confusing and difficult to decipher…  There is too much decoration.  The eye has nowhere to rest.  (121)

It is not just me who can’t make heads or tails of Kells, I am happy to learn.

This is a terrific book on this subject, a great way to spend some time with superb art objects that are generally only barely visible in a case, if that.  These art objects happen to be books.


  1. sounds quite intriguing... you've probably heard of the Voynich Manuscript...? just recently i read that it had been decoded again... this time for real... it would be curious to read it...

  2. Voynich would have given de Hamel another library, the Beinecke at Yale, which would be good. But I tell you, if Voynich were manuscript #13, it would be the least interesting one in this book.

    I think you will find that "for real" has turned out to be no more real than previous attempts.

  3. I've heard of this, but your comments made me order up the book from my (less aesthetically pleasing but pretty dang functional) library.

    The main Copenhagen library I can vouch is pretty cool.

  4. If I ever make it to Copenhagen I am heading straight to the Royal Library to see whatever treasures they have on display.

  5. This book - and the manuscripts - both sound amazing! Like you, I tend not to obsess over the physical objects, but sometimes I get taken by surprise by how much the materiality of a book can move me. I teared up when I came around a dark corner at the V&A this summer and discovered I was looking at a case containing a stack of original numbers of Bleak House, for instance. These are kind of the opposite of rare manuscripts, of course (cheap and widely distributed) but at the same time they made something about Bleak House suddenly so real. I dunno. Irrational, maybe.

  6. I loved this book so much. Glad you found it too.

  7. Seeing the actual Dickens serials, or say an original Middlemarch in eight volumes, tell me a lot, quickly, about how these books were originally read. I can imagine those first readers. So much fun. Useful, too. Much less irrational than shrieking about someone cutting a David Foster Wallace paperback in half.

    Jean, you have more interest in actual medieval literature than most - all but a few - readers. But I don't think that matters so much with this book. Does it? I hope not.

  8. No, I think this is a book that a lot of people can enjoy. It's so packed with good stories and beautiful images -- great for a wider audience than just people willing to read the Venerable Bede.

  9. I kind of understand the people who get upset about destroying (ordinary) books; it's silly, of course, but it's right and proper to extend a certain amount of veneration to the written/printed word, which is such a formative part of our culture. What I can't wrap my head around is the people who freak out about doing any sort of marking in books -- I don't mean lathering them with Magic Marker, which angers me too (kids, you can only do that if you promise never to dispose of the book other than destructively), but making marginal notes, corrections, and the sort of thing any sensible person does if they see the book as a thing to use rather than genuflect before. (I make my marginal notes in pencil, out of respect to the next owner.) I mean, if I see a misprint, or a blatant error of fact, I'm going to correct it. Seriously, if you're using a reference book and you find an incorrect date, you're just going to leave it there to mislead an innocent victim? Part of tikkun olam is repairing this sort of thing!

  10. The finest marginalia I have ever found in the wild, so to speak, were in an 1899 edition Selections from the Imaginary Conversations by Walter Savage Landor. Superb and instructive summaries and notes in pencil. Who, I wondered, is this William D. MacClintock who once owned this book? Oh, the founder of the University of Chicago English department.

    I should have tried to find more of his books, but that did not occur to me, until just now. The "wild" in this case was the University of Chicago Regenstein Library. The book is still there.

  11. My most infuriating experience with marginalia is my copy of De rebus gestis Alexandri Magni regis Macedonum. Liber tertius by Quintus Curtius (Philippus Giunta, Florentia, 1507). The damn thing is full of sixteenth-century marginalia which are unreadable because some thrice-cursed previous owner cut the book down to fit (presumably) in his pocket. Later this year I'm going to give it as a wedding present to the only couple I know who love books as much as I do and will appreciate it, and then they can be frustrated and curse the previous owner.

  12. Trimmed the marginalia! Terrible. Book historians weep.

  13. The lines of descent and "heredity" of manuscripts, the finite degrees of separation between any given manuscript and its original text, and the concrete historical events that occasion each such transmission, all this fascinates me. In addition, the strangeness and splendour of the art they sometimes contain can also be a delight.

    Kells can be very involving to parse, but I have found my efforts worthwhile. Have you tried "working up" to Kells with other, less dense insular manuscripts (Book of Durrow, Lindisfarne Gospels, Codex Aureus, et al)?

    Regarding the treatment of books, I am somewhat protective of my new books, my well-made books, and very old books, but books like Penguin classics I treat like the supernumerary text-receptacles they are.

    A snobbish, unanswerable hypothetical question I've asked myself: what percentage of printed matter would be a worthwhile trade for (let's say) the complete works of Heraclitus?

  14. Your Kells strategy is sensible. Your last question is a good one. I have asked some version of it myself. We are lucky to have some of what we have, but with just a little more luck we would have had even more.