The Posthumous Papers of the Manuscripts Club by Christopher de Hamel - review by Tim Smith-Laing

Tim Smith-Laing

Illuminators & Accumulators

The Posthumous Papers of the Manuscripts Club


Allen Lane 624pp £40 order from our bookshop

Materialism gets a bad press. It is all very well to disdain the accumulation of material goods, and I am more than willing to admit that ‘experiences’ and ‘relationships with other humans’ have plenty going for them. But I suspect that those who inveigh most loudly against the love of things are not so much spiritual as lacking in imagination. There are things and there are things. It is not just that, as Christopher de Hamel notes, ‘a yearning for possession can be among the most powerful of emotions’. It is also that the right material transforms materialism into a kind of spirituality. In the case of de Hamel’s chosen yen, the medieval manuscript, it goes further still: ‘sometimes bordering on madness’, the urge to possess can turn into a service to mankind. Linked by their love of manuscripts, the twelve accumulators de Hamel profiles in this delightful book have, taken together, been responsible for making and preserving some of the most beautiful and important objects to have survived the Middle Ages. Thank God for materialists.

The Posthumous Papers of the Manuscripts Club follows on from de Hamel’s 2016 book, Meetings with Remarkable Manuscripts – one of those rare surprise hits on a niche subject that garnered prizes and stormed the Christmas book lists. Here, rather than meeting manuscripts, de Hamel imagines himself encountering those who, like him, have dedicated their lives to them. It is a select fraternity: across ten centuries, only a dozen enthusiasts make the cut. Beyond their shared obsession, though, the cast is as varied as could be: it runs from a saint, Anselm (c 1033–1109), to a certified sinner, the forger Constantine Simonides (c 1824–c 1890), via the petty, the powerful and the otherwise powerless. The motley crew includes one duke, three knights of the realm, a lapsed Catholic cleric, the chief rabbi of Moravia and Bohemia and an African-American autodidact who assembled one of the most important manuscript collections in the world.

The result is a joy, both deeply scholarly and wittily humane, the writing infused throughout with de Hamel’s vast and genial expertise. More than once de Hamel turns out to have handled the same manuscripts that his subjects did. His profile of the Low Countries miniaturist Simon Bening (c 1484–1561) sees him recount the ‘harrowing experience’ of transporting one of his books from Amsterdam to Sotheby’s in London during a disrupted Christmas travel season. The image of de Hamel trying to get home from Heathrow ‘in the freezing early hours of a midwinter morning’, with the oldest manuscript by one of the greatest illuminators of the early modern period dangling by his side ‘in a shopping bag’, is enough to make you shudder in both sympathy and envy.

Although lay readers may find, as I did, that certain figures here are more engaging than others, they are all illuminated through de Hamel’s knack for picking out the human detail. Like a modern commuter clutching a paperback, one of the bookseller Vespasiano da Bisticci’s (c 1422–98) clients ordered himself an extra-small, one-volume collection of the works of Virgil, Juvenal and Martial as ‘a comfort for the journey and a pleasure in the carriage’. And what could be more familiar than the apology offered by John Donne to Robert Cotton in a letter from around 1604: ‘Sir, I have both held your booke longer than I ment, and held you longer by thys letter, now I send it backe’? I might get that printed on some cards to use myself.

Better still is the workplace grudge nursed by Frederic Madden (1801–73), keeper of manuscripts at the British Museum. Madden despised his rival, Antonio Panizzi, head of printed books, with a fervour. Whatever Panizzi was actually like, Madden denounced him as, among other things, ‘peasant-born, foreign, scheming, untruthful, Roman Catholic, overweight, dishevelled’. Retiring only after Panizzi had done so, Madden left as a parting shot in his department’s ledger ‘a deep curse on the unscrupulous, lying, scheming Italian villain, by whose enmity my official life has been embittered so many years’. It did not stop there. Six years later, outraged that Panizzi had failed to die in accordance with a spiritualist prophecy he had solicited, Madden wrote in his diary, ‘Daily, hourly, do I curse him!’

For me, though, the most arresting figure is de Hamel’s final subject, Belle da Costa Greene (1879–1950). It is to her expertise, nous and skill that New York’s Morgan Library owes its existence. Greene worked as J Pierpont Morgan’s private librarian, managing and expanding his collection. It was at her urging that he transformed his library, which contained one of the largest collections of manuscripts in the world, into the public institution it remains today. Her story would be extraordinary enough if it were just a case of a woman succeeding in the intensely male world of financiers and collectors at the start of the 20th century. What makes it more extraordinary still is that Greene was African-American. During the age of segregation, equipped with a spurious Portuguese family tree, Greene had to pass as white and live a permanent lie to pursue her vocation.

This is a fascinating book and, not negligibly, it is also a handsome one. Crammed with full-colour illustrations, it might not be a manuscript, but it is about the next best thing.

Sign Up to our newsletter

Receive free articles, highlights from the archive, news, details of prizes, and much more.

The Art of Darkness

Cambridge, Shakespeare