Reviewed: Christopher De Hamel

Vanessa Braganza

Reviewed: Christopher De Hamel, Meetings With Remarkable Manuscripts (Allen Lane: 2016) 640pp., £30.00 By Vanessa Braganza

Face-to-face encounters with the most eminent medieval manuscripts in Western history are even rarer than meeting the Pope. You can currently pay in the range of £30 to see Daniel Radcliffe perform live in the West End. You may even get a chance to see the Queen from a distance or obtain a celebrity’s autograph, but you will probably never sit down with the Codex Amiatinus and thumb through its pages.

Christopher De Hamel’s new book, Meetings With Remarkable Manuscripts, is the next best thing. Part travelogue, part historiographic analysis, De Hamel’s ‘interviews’ with famous manuscripts give the reader a virtual tour through the lives of some of the biggest celebrities in the world of paleography and medieval studies. 

The book’s immediacy has as much to do with its gorgeously vivid illustrations, most of them in colour, as with De Hamel’s direct and often intimate engagement with the reader. Cleverly couched in terms of a series of in-person encounters, the reader is invited to imagine themselves accompanying the author on a journey from place to place, sitting with him in front of each manuscript, and engaging with its structure. 

De Hamel’s rhetorical appeal to the imagination works in tandem with his detailed bibliographic descriptions to render the experience realistic. In fact, one particular strength of this book is the fact that it makes a wealth of bibliographical detail available to a lay audience, while maintaining a level of sophistication appreciable to an academic readership as well. De Hamel provides a brief overview of basic bibliographic terms and concepts in his introduction, which a reader can quickly understand and a scholar can easily skip over. 

The range of manuscripts which De Hamel examines is astonishing. Beginning in home territory with the Gospels of Saint Augustine in the Parker Library at Corpus Christi College, he travels to Dublin to see the Book of Kells, to New York to see the Morgan Beatus, and to the Bibliothèque Nationale in Paris to visit the Hours of Jeanne de Navarre. 

Each chapter moves beyond vivid descriptions of each manuscript, whose lifelike detail contributes to the reader’s sense of virtually ‘meeting’ them, and often achieves unprecedented historiographic and paleographic analyses. 

There is a provocative discussion of whether the Gospels of Saint Augustine actually belonged to Saint Augustine, which also considers the differential value they hold as a relic for a spiritual as opposed to an academic audience. De Hamel traces the text back to Pope Gregory the Great by reintroducing forgotten parallels between the text of the manuscript (a hybrid between the Vulgate Latin Bible and an older Latin version, the Vetus Latina) and Gregory’s sermons. 

He advances another interesting argument about the Visconti Semideus, a manuscript on military strategies previously dated at around 1438. The stylistic contrast between its text-embracing watercolour illustrations of military campaigns and its opening colophon (a publisher’s or printer’s emblem) leads to a previously unnoticed dating disparity. De Hamel hypothesises that the manuscript was commissioned, begun, subsequently put on hold for financial reasons, and picked up at a later date. This protracted provenance would account for the different dates which he infers from the varying styles of illustration. 

Not every feature of a manuscript, De Hamel recognises, warrants scholarly analysis so much as a recognition of human nature and humour at work. An overview of the whimsical grotesques of the ‘Simon Master’ in the Copenhagen Psalter calls into question the logic behind certain monstrous medieval illuminations. De Hamel concludes that some of the more bizarre illustrations, such as a lion ostensibly leaning his shoulder on a fish, serve a decorative or amusing function, rather than an explicitly semiotic one.

Overall, this book moves with the intellectual intensity and excitement of a Sherlock Holmes episode. De Hamel’s fusion of beautiful visuals with a simulated series of encounters drives home the thrill of deduction that makes bibliography exciting. He brings his readers along for the ride as he continues to unearth novel discoveries about some of the oldest textual artefacts in Western history. 

Vanessa M. Braganza graduated with a B.A. with highest honors in Medieval and Renaissance English from the University of Virginia, where she was an Echols Scholar, as well as a recipient of the University Achievement Award and the Wagenheim Scholarship. She is currently pursuing her MPhil in Renaissance Literature at the University of Cambridge. She is interested in the use of mathematical concepts in early modern texts and in neuropsychological critical approaches, and has presented her work at the Northeast MLA conference. She recently had a short piece on John Hayward’s Life and Raigne of King Edward the Sixt published on the Parker Library’s blog.