Christopher de Hamel “The Book in the Cathedral: The Last Relic of Thomas Becket” – book review

If you ever have the chance to hear Christopher de Hamel speak, take it – he is a master storyteller, telling stories of manuscript discoveries as entertaining as the adventures of Sherlock Holmes.

The talk by Christopher de Hamel that I attended was exactly on the subject recounted in this 58-page book. He told the story of reidentifying a certain 10th or 11th century psalter in the Parker library of Corpus Christi College Cambridge as a potential relic of Thomas Becket.  

This is a particularly fascinating case: relics of the saints have been treasured throughout the middle ages, but it is only more recently in the 19th and 20th centuries that we have become fascinated with books that “once belonged to someone famous.” Most of St. Thomas Becket’s books were, if not neglected, ignored:

“While medieval pilgrims were mobbing the shrine of Thomas Becket in the cathedral in their tens of thousands, hoping for a dab of miraculous water which after several centuries of dilution and slae by the monks had no conceivable contact with the blood of the saint, the archbishop’s books, which he had actually commissioned and read and touched, were neglected on the open shelves in the slype off the cloister.”

For a book to become a relic, it had to be something very special indeed. And there is only one book that was recorded as being venerated as part of St. Thomas Becket’s martyrdom “Item, a binding with the Psalter of St. Thomas, bound in silver-gilt and decorated with jewels”…

Why was that book treated with such reverence?

Though the binding in question has disappeared, De Hamel makes a very strong case for the identification of the psalter with MS 411 in the Parker library.  He also suggests why this book was so special.

I have a certain bias here – as an alumnus of Corpus Christi, I certainly have more interest than most in the volumes stored in Matthew Parker’s library. 

But I do think it is a fascinating subject. Matthew Parker collected his books from dissolved monasteries, hoping to create a library that would back up the Anglican claims for an English national church (Click here for more info about the Parker Library). There are some undoubted treasures in that collection – including a 6th century St. Augustine gospels – it would not surprise me if it turned out that Matthew Parker had indeed got his hands on a book rumoured to have been owned by St. Thomas Becket. 

Anyhow, this is a lovely short book to read on a trip to Cambridge – or perhaps- to Canterbury cathedral.

P.S.  De Hamel is also the author of a slightly chunkier book about medieval manuscripts – available with beautiful illustrations.  Here’s a link to my review of it. 

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