Meetings With Remarkable Manuscripts: Book Review

Meetings with Remarkable Manuscripts: Twelve Journeys into the Medieval World. ByChristopher De Hamel. New York: Penguin Press, 2017.

Christopher de Hamel’s love letter to medieval manuscripts celebrates every component of the medieval book: the beauty and craftsmanship of each hand-written page, the passion and tireless dedication of the scribes, the romantic interiors of modern archives and the meticulous care of the archivists who have preserved these manuscripts. In his brief introduction, which reads like a giddy confession by a starstruck fan, de Hamel introduces his select body of manuscripts by explaining that he will treat them as celebrities. He explains that each one has its own personality, history, purpose and mystery, and that he intends to reveal each book’s intimate story through his own “interviews” with these superstars. His text flows effortlessly and draws readers in as we begin to understand the thrill de Hamel experiences each time he picks up a priceless centuries-old illuminated book and gets to know it personally. De Hamel, poignantly aware that most people will never gain access to the reading rooms of the St. Petersburg National Library or hold a Carmina Burana in their hands, hopes to recreate that experience with his own enthusiastic description of the texts and to transmit the electric jolt he feels each time he opens their covers for the first time.

The author has selected his celebrities carefully and offers extensive chapters on twelve manuscripts that represent as  broad a collection as possible. These twelve books span the sixth through fifteenth centuries, demonstrate illumination techniques from a myriad of European countries and most importantly, managed to survive centuries of tumultuous historical events that destroyed so many other medieval artifacts. Each chapter includes a detailed description of the book’s text and images, the history of its provenance and movement, theories as to its purpose, biographical information about its authors, illuminators and owners, and finally, his personal connection to each book. De Hamel travelled the world and spent years studying and cataloging these books, running his hands lovingly over their pages until he absorbed their essences and captured their unique personalities. Then, he sat down to write.

In his writing, de Hamel does make each chapter feel like an interview conducted with fascinating individuals in exotic locations. He beckons his readers to follow him into the Royal Library at Copenhagen. He details the strangers he chitchats with as he crosses Trinity College campus on a crisp autumn morning to see the Book of Kells. He lets his readers feel the warmth of the sun on a beautiful day in Los Angeles as we accompany him into the Getty Museum to chat with the Spinola Hours. De Hamel captures and conveys the romantic and rarified atmosphere of these marbled reading rooms with cathedral ceilings and endless rows of ancient books reaching far out of view. We sit with him at a long desk as he narrates the heft and fragrance and sheen of each book. He introduces each paragraph before him and offers to turn the page whenever we are ready.

De Hamel fills his book with tasty little anecdotes that appeal to history buffs of all centuries and build connections between readers and these beautiful books. We learn that Winston Churchill formatted his speeches the same way that sixth century scribes did. He typed his words in two columns, in a “by clauses and pauses” style that allowed for dramatic caesuras and punctuated phrases (22). De Hamel discloses in a hushed whisper that the great bibliophile Guglielmo Libri, who lived in France as an exile from 1831 on, always carried a stiletto with him for fear of assassination, a fear – hopefully- shared by few modern librarians today (197). He explains that as the Bastille fell, eager book collectors such as the Russian diplomat Piotr Dubrowsky, swooped in to loot its large repository of medieval manuscripts and scattered them throughout Europe. His stories weave in and out of the past and the present and are often interrupted by his own itinerary; he has to leave the library to meet his wife for lunch or perhaps he slips into a cherished memory of being denied access to the Parker Library as a graduate student. (He later became full time curator and Fellow of that library in 2000.) He fills his book with honest and personable glimpses into his world of precious books, quirky archivists and gorgeous art.

This is a beautiful book. Nearly half its pages contain reproductions: full-page color reprints of the initial pages of the Book of Kells, zodiac illustrations from the Leiden Aratea, torn, faded pages of text from the Hengwrt Chaucer, sumptuous portraits of saints from the Hours of Jeanne de Navarre. There are also dozens and dozens of photographs of university libraries, portraits of archivists and paleographers bent over their desks smoking intently, and pictures of Nazi trains smuggling precious books out of their native lands. Meetings with Remarkable Manuscripts is a genuine pleasure to read, so bright and beautiful, and exemplifies a generosity of the archives and the publisher that pays great tribute to its subject.

A broad audience can enjoy this book. Although a 632-page book about medieval manuscripts may not seem like an obvious choice for a pop culture topic, its broad appeal is a testament to the author’s excellent writing and exuberance throughout. As current American culture grows increasingly virulent in its anti-intellectualism, this type of book that so innocently and sincerely revels in the simple pleasure of academic pursuit can remind our students of the value and delight of intellectual activities. Both our undergraduates and graduate students would benefit from his accessible descriptions of his research methods and undeniable enthusiasm about spending a Saturday afternoon at the library. Given the straightforward prose and conversational tone, Meetings with Remarkable Manuscripts could also be equally enjoyed as a recreational read for a general audience. It’s so easy to pick this book up, read a chapter, and then put it down again until you simply can’t resist diving back in and being introduced to the next remarkable manuscript.

Katherine Allocco

Western Connecticut State University

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