de Hamel, Christopher. Meetings with Remarkable Manuscripts: Twelve Journeys into the Medieval World (New York: Penguin Press, 2017) vii + 640pp. ISBN: 978-1594206115.
Christopher de Hamel, the world’s leading consultant on medieval manuscripts, currently resides in Great Britain. Throughout his varied career, de Hamel has worked as a cataloger at Sotheby’s and holds the record for cataloguing the most illuminated manuscripts. He is a Fellow of Corpus Christi College, Cambridge, and is formerly a librarian at Parker’s Library at the college.
A revered and well-connected scholar, de Hamel has generously shared his extensive knowledge in medieval manuscripts through his book Meeting with Remarkable Manuscripts: Twelve Journeys into the Medieval World, a winner of both the Duff Cooper and the Wolfson History Prizes. De Hamel covers fascinating documents including The Gospels of Saint Augustine, Codex Amiatinus, The Morgan Beatus, The Book of Kells, and The Hours of Jeanne de Navarre. Guiding his readers along, de Hamel utilizes the chronological order based on the century in which the manuscript was created. As a student of the medieval era, it was important to me that de Hamel satisfactorily covered the entire thousand years throughout the text. De Hamel is very methodical in the passage of time through each chapter as he explains his reasoning, explaining that he “singled out volumes which seemed to me characteristics of each century, from the sixth to the sixteenth. They tell us something about their times and their societies which made them.”[i] His vocabulary is straightforward, and he writes as if he is conversing with the reader on a tour. While I knew of the existence of quite a few manuscripts, de Hamel for the most part discusses ones that were unfamiliar. Because so many of these manuscripts can only be seen by a select few, only a scholar of de Hamel’s stature and experience could perform this valuable service for the reader. The amount of detail that went into the creation of each illuminated manuscript was intricate, and the color pictures he includes display this rare craftsmanship.
Though engaging, the narrative at times wanders as de Hamel relates anecdotes from his vast knowledge and full career. He at times covers well the historical and social context of a particular manuscript’s creation. In some cases, however, he could have offered more detail. As so much was going on in Europe in those thousand years from, the Viking Invasion to the Reformation, including a timeline would help tremendously in keeping straight in the reader’s mind what was going on around the time each manuscript creation.
Learning the rather interesting and often bizarre circumstances of how a manuscript appeared in its current collection only adds to their uniqueness. Choosing The Gospels of Saint Augustine of Canterbury to be the first manuscript in this book was genius because its ultimate journey into the Matthew Parker’s Library at Corpus Christi College, Cambridge, had many twists and turns along the way. Matthew Parker (1504-75) was an important player in the English Reformation as the first Archbishop of Canterbury under the reign of Queen Elizabeth I, with instructions from her to make the English Reformation absolute. There are many layers to this manuscript, as there are with all of them. First, it is the oldest example in the book. Second, Matthew Parker also believed that as the seventieth archbishop, he was in the “line of unbroken continuity back to Augustine….Only England, in his interpretation, had managed to preserve the Christian Church in its primeval purity, as Saints Gregory and Augustine had intended.”[ii] Matthew Parker also believed that the church in England should be governed separately from Rome, which for him strengthened his claim as being in the line of Saint Augustine. England as always viewed itself differently from the rest of the main Catholic Church partly because a of St. Augustine’s mission to convert Ethelbert, King of Kent c.560-616. Thirdly, when Parker bequeathed his library to the Corpus Christi College, he outlined that the library should audit his collection every August and allow the public access. The college feared the penalty clause and misunderstood it for centuries, thus not allowing the public to view any of the Parker Library manuscripts. The college, however, reversed this policy in the 1990s. Through stories such as this one, de Hamel introduces his readers to the ways in which institutions such as libraries and archives may willingly participate in the exclusion of remarkable manuscripts from use by a wider public.
This book arguably contributes significantly to archival history because the author uses manuscripts to illuminate a wider view on this subject. As a historian, de Hamel emphasizes the cultural and historical importance these manuscripts have in the human story and memory. Accessible archives exist for this reason alone. Reading this book should make the reader curious about the historical and social context of each medieval manuscript. Archival historians should read de Hamel’s book because of the descriptions throughout time of storage for rare and fragile manuscripts. It was a great pleasure to go on the journey through time with Christopher de Hamel and I hope that other readers enjoy it as well.
Ruth L. Slagle, M.L.I.S.
Public Services Librarian
The Baptist College of Florida
[i] Christopher de Hamel, Meeting with Remarkable Manuscripts: Twelve Journeys into the Medieval World (New York: Penguin Press, 2017), 4.
[ii] Ibid, 12.