Book Review: Meetings with Remarkable Manuscripts

Meetings with Remarkable Manuscripts:Twelve Journeys into the Medieval Worldby Christopher De HamelPenguin Press, 2017The fine art of paleography, the study of ancient books and manuscripts, is itself on glorious display in Christopher De Hamel's new book Meetings with Remarkable Manuscripts: Twelve Journey into the Medieval World. The volume is a sumptuous production from Penguin Press: heavy-stock paper that enhances the stunning full-color illustrations running throughout, efforts clearly designed to give readers the closest approximation to seeing and touching these rare books in person.That's a valuable service in itself, as De Hamel makes clear. These twelve manuscripts – priceless items like the Codex Amiatinus or the Carmina Burana or the Hengwrt Chaucer – after many lifetimes of use, are now kept strictly under lock and key:

The most celebrated illuminated manuscript in the world are, to most of us, as inaccessible in reality as very famous people. To a large extent, anyone with stamina and a travel budget can get to see many of the great paintings and architectural monuments, and may stand today in the presence of the Great Wall of China or Botticelli's Birth of Venus. But try – just try – to have the Book of Kells removed from its glass case in Dublin so that you can turn the pages. It won't happen.

De Hamel tells the stories of these manuscripts and describes them in loving detail; every chapter captures the sheer wonder of being in the presence of such amazing works of art. That sense of wonder is not a modern phenomenon – it's always accompanied these books, even as far back as 1185, when Gerald of Wales marveled at a decorated manuscript he saw in Kildare. “You will notice such intricacies, so delicate and subtle, so close together, and well-knitted, so involved and bound together,” he wrote, “and so fresh still in their colourings that you will not hesitate to declare that all these things must have been the work, not of men, but of angels.” (De Hamel, ever alert, points out that if Gerald thought he was looking at the famous Book of Kells in Kildare in 1185, he was mistaken).Our author works a good deal of history into his life-stories of these manuscripts – this is a heavy, thoughtful, satisfying book – but there's also an enchantingly personal undertone of revelation that runs throughout, right down to the groan-inducing jokes:

I confess that I love collating manuscripts. It is strangely satisfying to work it out quire by quire and to find that the total adds up reassuringly to the precise number of pages in the book. The answer should be absolute. You peer into the central folds, looking for the sewing threads, and you gradually build up a series of V-shaped diagrams of the structure throughout the volume. This would be entirely impossible from a facsimile or microfilm, and it often furnishes the magic key for the separation of hands and the units of text. I have sometimes thought that if I ever retire I should call my pensioner's cottage “Duncollatin'.

In its accounts of cold abbeys and arid plains and Viking raids, Meetings with Remarkable Manuscripts relates again and again the many lost worlds of the past, but always before the reader's eye is another kind of lost world at the book's core: the age of electronic communication doesn't have the remotest cognizance of a hand-inscribed, painstakingly illuminated one-of-a-kind manuscript. The books De Hamel features are beautiful items in and of themselves. Lingering over the artwork in these pages doesn't exactly raise hopes for Meetings with Remarkable Emails.