Meetings with Remarkable Manuscripts by Christopher de Hamel- Book Review

This is an absolutely gorgeous book.

I had the honour of seeing Christopher de Hamel in person. He was lecturing at an event hosted by Corpus Christi College Cambridge (where he is the Fellow Librarian of the Parker Library- a splendid collection of medieval manuscripts). I was very excited – though slightly nervous as I had also persuaded my reluctant boyfriend to come along with me. I was worried he’d be bored out of his mind- since medieval manuscripts or even the middle ages were never a particular interest of his. I needn’t have worried.  We were absolutely delighted both with the talk and with Christopher de Hamel himself.  As soon as the talk was over I knew I definitely wanted a copy of his book.

Meetings with Remarkable Manuscripts is an examination of 12 famous and for the most part beautifully illustrated manuscripts:

  1. The Gospels of St. Augustine (Cambridge, Corpus Christi College)
  2. The Codex Amiatinus (Florence, Biblioteca Medicea Laurenziana)
  3. The Book of Kells (Dublin, Trinity College)
  4. The Leiden Aratea (Leiden, Universiteitsbibliotheek)
  5. The Morgan Beatus (New York, Morgan Library and Museum)
  6. Hugo Pictor (Oxford, Bodleian Library)
  7. The Copenhagen Psalter (Copenhagen, Kongelige Bibliotek)
  8. The Carmina Burana (Munich, Bayerische Staatsbibliothek)
  9. The Hours of Jeanne de Navarre (Paris, Bibliotheque nationale de France)
  10. The Hengwrt Chaucer (Aberswyth, National Library of Wales)
  11. The Visconti Semideus (St. Petersburg, National Library)
  12. The Spinola Hours (Los Angeles, J. Paul Getty Museum)

Everyone reading it will have their own particular favourite – based on either the manuscript’s history, its content, the beauty of its illustrations or on Christopher de Hamel’s witty anecdotes accompanying each book (one of them includes his cat’s ecstatic reaction to the viola).

Meetings with Remarkable Manuscripts features rich kings, expert collectors, Nazi invaders and eternally curious scholars. We go through the history of book ownership in Europe: from monasteries to private ownership – psalters were often used to teach reading to young European monarchs. De Hamel’s helpful genealogical tree of the various descendants of Saint Louis links together precious books from all over Spain and France from Hours of Jeanne de Navarre to Tres Riches Heures of Duc du Berry. We are told exactly what the libraries which hold the books now look like and how difficult it is to access these incredibly delicate items.

The book is also full of beautiful illustrations. It has given me hours of joy just looking at its gorgeous spine on my bookshelf  – which seems to feature the Visconti coat of arms ( the credits only list and details from the Morgan Beautus, which are clearly displayed on the front cover).

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There are copious illustrations from the manuscripts featured in the book – including one from the Copenhagen Psalter, which looks remarkably like the Gruffalo. 

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That said, the book is far from being a mere collection of illustrations:  The Carmina Burana and the Hengwrt Chaucer appear because of their literary and historical value alone. The Hengwrt Chaucer is mainly featured because of the controversy surrounding the identity of the scribe wrote it (although I perhaps would’ve preferred to see the lovely images from the Ellesmere Chaucer). 

In any case, this is a must-read for any book lover with the slightest interest in the Middle Ages. It is also a magnificent and impressive work of scholarship, with full references included. I only wish I could remember half of all the information presented in it. 

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