Meetings with Remarkable Manuscripts: Twelve Journeys Into the Medieval World by Christopher de Hamel

Do you love books?  Do you love old books?  You only think you do.  Let me tell you about Christopher de Hamel.  He’s a paleographer, which means he’s been privileged to gain access to some of the oldest and rarest books in existence.  And he wants to share that experience with you.  As he tells it, each of these handwritten Medieval works has a biography of their own.  If books could talk, oh, the stories they would tell about the places they’ve been and the people they’ve seen.  That’s what a paleographer does: they learn those stories.  But de Hamel knows that most people wouldn’t understand what it means to encounter these books, to handle them, to learn all that is learnable from aspects that can’t be experienced even in digital reproduction.  The way he tells it, books from certain parts of the world even smell different than others, the way a sommelier knows fine wines.  Now, that’s a man who loves books!  Of course, the different libraries where these manuscripts are kept have their own rules, so part of the journey is all about where and how these books are encountered now, under what conditions, and what it’s like to deal with their gatekeepers and guardians.

It’s hard to believe it’s been as long as it has since Medieval Night at the Dallas Museum of Art, which is where I last got to see some beautiful manuscripts.  If you’ve not had the opportunity to see something like this before, trust me when I say that there isn’t an e-reader or physical reproduction on the planet that will do justice to the original works.  It was practically a sacred experience for me to see some of these books under glass, with only two interior facing pages visible.  That’s as close as any of us will ever come.

This book is all about de Hamel’s experiences with twelve manuscripts, written as though engaging in conversation with the unlearned enthusiast who maybe have no idea what to expect apart from a given work being old.  In case anyone wants to look these up, these are the twelve he’s selected to discuss, all of which he has personally encountered:

The Gospels of Saint Augustine
The Codex Amiatinus
The Book of Kells
The Leiden Aratea
The Morgan Beatus
Hugo Pictor
The Copenhagen Psalter
The Carmina Burana
The Hours of Jeanne de Navarre
The Hengwrt Chaucer
The Visconti Semideus
The Spinola Hours

Let that sink in.  A majority of these are religious in nature, which is to be expected given that monks were usually the ones with the skills and the time dedicated to creating these works.  But notice that not all of them are spiritual in nature.  The Carmina Burana, for example (longtime readers know I’m a fan of that one), or that early Chaucer manuscript… hardly works inspired by devotion to a higher power.  It’s that mix that creates a greater sense of history, reminding us that there’s nothing one-note about a Middle Ages.

I got this on Audible, which is narrated by the author with all of the reverence, appreciation, incredulity, and outright snark tinging his voice at the appropriate moments.  Truly, it sounds less like a narration and more like a conversation at most turns.  Thankfully, the internet is invaluable when it comes to tracking down digital images of these manuscripts for reference.  I will own the hardcover edition of this, which by all accounts is a hefty three-pound tome due to the illustrations.  Again, all I can do is remind people, as the author does, that there’s not a reproduction in the world that can come close to the real deal.  But for those who are interested in learning more and/or already have an appreciation for such things, this book in either form will aid you in your question.  This book is a treasure.

18 thoughts on “Meetings with Remarkable Manuscripts: Twelve Journeys Into the Medieval World by Christopher de Hamel

  1. I may have to read this…I love old manuscripts! In seminary I got to handle a $6,000 reproduction of Codex Vaticanus (aka Codex B in New Testament textual criticism) and the librarian was fussy enough about letting me near that…I can’t imagine trying to get near the real thing.

    I also got to see up close (handle the little glass cases they were sandwiches inside) half a dozen or so 4th-7th century papyri fragments which was incredible!

    Liked by 1 person

      • I’m not sure how old. The pages were individually cut to the exact shape and feel of the pages in the original and reproduced wormholes, stains, ink smudges, and all.

        The Vatican severely limited access to Codex B until the 19th century, but it’s now recognized as one of the most valuable extant New Testament manuscripts (and oldest manuscript to contain the complete Bible).

        Liked by 1 person

        • You know, I’d be really curious as to the process for how that duplicate was made. It’s sort of like those bands that recreate the Beatles down to the tape hiss and ambient popping or a stray squeak or whatever.

          And you know I’m going to have to look up this Codex B. I bet that’s all kinds of pretty to look at. *sigh* I do love those old manuscripts…

          Liked by 1 person

          • It’s actually a relatively plain looking codex. Early 4th century scribes hadn’t started doing elaborate illuminations. There are a few colored bits and stars/diamonds at the start of books but it’s mostly continuous text in three columns. I can’t imagine copying the entire Bible by hand with the degree of consistency and precision the early scribes had.

            Liked by 1 person

  2. I just can’t resist WWII books even though I’ll probably never write about it. This time I have a few American Revolution biographies as well. That era might someday be a possibility at least. If I was smarter (better at marketing anyway) I would have wrote Eliza Hamilton, but I think there’s about a dozen new novels about her since Hamilton the musical came out.

    Liked by 1 person

    • And any of those books can offer insights of character or situation that might click something for you on the stuff you’re working on. Justifications R Us. :)

      I need a list of these books… you know, for, um… personal research purposes.


  3. You crack me up! Alright, so I just finished Prisoner B-3087 by Alan Gratz. Technically YA, but powerful stuff. True story of a Polish Jewish boy who endured TEN concentration camps. Yes, 10! It’s just mind boggling what humans are capable of doing to each other.

    My NetGalley horde includes Then They Came for Me by Matthew Hockenos and Auschwitz Lullaby by Mario Escobar from WWII. AR stuff is Rush by Stephen Fried and Eliza Hamilton by Tilar Mazzeo. I do have Chivalry and the Medieval Past by Katie Stevenson, which is hopefully more applicable to what I’m writing.

    Liked by 1 person

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