While no reproduction matches being in the presence of an ancient manuscript and experiencing “the weight, texture, uneven surface, indented ruling, thickness, smell, tactile quality’’ and sheer aura of a rare book, Christopher de Hamel says, his sumptuous Meetings with Remarkable Manuscripts (Penguin Press, $45) surely comes close. Anything lost in the rich, full-color images is made up in de Hamel’s spirited, illuminating text. One of the world’s top authorities on medieval manuscripts, de Hamel has frequented the world’s finest reading rooms. He’s a veteran of Sotheby’s and the former librarian of Cambridge’s Parker Library, home to the Gospels of St. Augustine. The first of the dozen meticulously presented manuscripts of this dream collection, the Gospels are the “oldest non-archeological artifact of any kind to have survived in England.” Mining these treasures for information about script, pigments, bindings, conservation techniques, and more, de Hamel turns palaeographic details into fascinating cultural narratives. Textual clues in the Codex Amiatinus reveal that “the oldest complete copy of the Latin bible,” housed in Florence, “was…made in England.” It looks like a suitcase and weighs 75 pounds. The Book of Kells, “the most famous book in the world,” is riddled with errors and inconsistencies, which prove that it was meant to be admired as a superlative art object rather than studied as a text. Among the other highlights of this timeline of books “characteristic of each century, from the sixth to the sixteenth,” are the Leiden Aratea, a Carolingian transcription of a classical astronomy treatise that commemorates 18 March, the medieval Christian anniversary of the day of creation; the literally shimmering late 12th-century Copenhagen Psalter; the 13th-century Carmina Burana, profane love lyrics with images so realistic de Hamel completed in fifteen moves the depicted layout of a chess game; and the oldest surviving manuscript of The Canterbury Tales, replete with the “mysteries of medieval publishing.” As de Hamel uses these works to trace wider historical arcs of politics, war, literacy, class, and the shift from religious to secular cultures, he gives us an incomparable lesson in how many ways there are to read a book.
Meetings with Remarkable Manuscripts: Twelve Journeys Into the Medieval World - Christopher de Hamel
Availability: Special Order—Subject to Availability
Published: Penguin Press - October 24th, 2017