Illuminating the Past, One Precious Book at a Time

Illuminating the Past, One Precious Book at a Time


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Twelve Journeys Into the Medieval World
By Christopher de Hamel
Illustrated. 632 pp. Penguin Press. $45.

“Meetings With Remarkable Manuscripts” is one of the least likely and most wonderful books I have ever read. Least likely: Where to start? It’s a vanishingly rare pleasure, given the commercial constraints of modern publishing, to handle 600 smoothly weighty pages in which the printed text winds its way seamlessly among more than 200 glorious, often full-color illustrations. And in producing such a gorgeous object, Christopher de Hamel’s publisher has had the courage of his convictions, because its physical and visual delights mirror its commercially unlikely subject matter.

De Hamel — who, after an immensely distinguished career at Sotheby’s, is now a fellow of Corpus Christi College, Cambridge — wants us to meet 12 of the most extraordinary medieval manuscripts that survive in archives around the world. They appear in chronological order spanning a thousand years, beginning with the sixth-century Gospels of St. Augustine, now in the Parker Library at Corpus, and ending with the National Library of Russia’s 15th-century armaments treatise called the Visconti Semideus, and the 16th-century Spinola Hours, housed in the luxury of the J. Paul Getty Museum in Los Angeles.


Strange as it may seem, “meet” is exactly what de Hamel means. You and I would not be allowed within touching distance of these rock stars of the manuscript world, but de Hamel’s expertise gives him access behind the velvet rope. We travel with him, seeing libraries and librarians through his eyes, from Trinity College Dublin’s affable keeper of manuscripts (who sports “a neatly cropped graying beard, a bit like a friendly Schnauzer dog with glasses”) to the “saint among manuscript librarians” in St. Petersburg, who feeds him whiskey-flavored Russian chocolates when, work-absorbed, he misses lunch. We hold our breath with him as the priceless volumes are propped on special bookrests or foam pads or cushions (or, in one case, a pile of other books in an unsupervised photocopier room), and we exhale with him as they begin to reveal their secrets.

De Hamel thinks of these encounters as “interviews,” and — as with all the best interviewers — he takes his place as a character in his own narrative. He is voraciously completist, recording impressions of each journey, place, building and reading room, as well as every recoverable detail of each manuscript’s creation, content and existence as a physical object through time and space. Both supremely learned and cheerfully opinionated, he hates the pictures in the eighth-century Book of Kells (“I am not qualified to say whether the four unpleasant-looking angels are lifelike, but they are certainly anatomically very improbable”) but loves its script (“It is calligraphic and as exact as printing, and yet it flows and shapes itself into the space available. It sometimes swells and seems to take breath at the ends of lines”). Forced to wear unnecessary and unhelpful white gloves while examining the 13th-century Carmina Burana, he is left disconsolate when his wife puts them, blackened with the 800-year-old dust he has brought home as a souvenir, straight into the wash.

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