Meetings with Remarkable Manuscripts by Christopher de Hamel - review by David Ekserdjian

David Ekserdjian

The Illuminati

Meetings with Remarkable Manuscripts


Allen Lane 612pp £30 order from our bookshop

When, in 1963, G I Gurdjieff called the middle volume of his All and Everything trilogy Meetings with Remarkable Men, he must have thought he had come up with a pretty nifty title. He could hardly have imagined that it would one day be followed by the likes of Thomas Pakenham’s Meetings with Remarkable Trees (1996) and the present volume. However, even if this is only the beginning and hundreds of Meetings with… are just around the corner, it seems reasonable to assume that Christopher de Hamel’s remarkable – to fail to coin an alternative adjective – book will effortlessly make it into the top ten.

De Hamel singles out a dozen manuscripts for scrutiny, while at the same time alluding to a host of near misses that might have made the grade. It should be explained at the outset that here ‘manuscripts’ means medieval illuminated manuscripts, which combine art and calligraphy. It is perhaps telling that the final chapter is devoted to the Spinola Hours from the early 16th century (now in the Getty Museum in Los Angeles), a near last gasp of the great tradition, and not to an even later work such as Giulio Clovio’s Michelangelo-inspired Farnese Hours of 1546 (Clovio received a glowing write-up in Vasari’s Lives of the Artists, and his portrait holding the Hours was painted around 1571–2 by El Greco, no less). De Hamel confesses that he regards the third quarter of the 12th century as ‘the greatest period in Western European book production’.

In his introduction, de Hamel explains that the book was initially going to be called ‘Interviews with Manuscripts’, and compares its individual chapters to celebrity interviews. Intriguingly, only one chapter is devoted to a true celebrity, the Book of Kells, while other famous manuscripts, such as the Très Riches Heures du Duc de Berry, do not make the cut. Be that as it may, these plainspoken and even chatty ‘interviews’ are organised in straightforward chronological order, ranging across just over nine centuries, and cover manuscripts made in Italy, the Netherlands, France, Spain, Germany and England. Each chapter can naturally be read as an independent case study, but they are planned as an ensemble and cumulatively evoke a whole lost world in all its quirky particularity. ‘Prayer and private faith are difficult subjects for a social historian,’ writes de Hamel, and one of the many kinds of historian he triumphantly proves himself to be is a social one. In the same vein, he is admirably aware that these manuscripts are the creations of actual human beings, whether in the case of the Morgan Beatus, named after the author of the text, or in the chapter entitled ‘Hugo Pictor’, on a late-11th-century biblical commentary now in the Bodleian, in which the artist included a self-portrait among the illuminations.

The supreme dilemma that bedevils the study and appreciation of medieval manuscripts is that it is so hard to gain access to the originals. In purely artistic terms, the two I would most love to get my hands on are the Book of Kells and the Spinola Hours. Like the vast majority of the manuscripts selected, they are religious as opposed to secular texts. There are consequently numerous illustrations of the Evangelists and scenes from the Old and New Testaments. But in the Spinola Hours, the calendar pages display wonderful slices of everyday life, while the manuscript also contains charming representations of the signs of the zodiac, including a vignette of Gemini in which the twins are conjoined and appear to share a single head. Moreover, both these manuscripts reveal a spectacular love of what might be termed art for art’s sake. In the Book of Kells, it is the sinuous, abstract complexity of the so-called carpet pages that beguiles, while the Spinola Hours offers radiant still lifes of flowers, butterflies, moths and even snails glinting around the text. In most, but not all, cases, we have no idea who was responsible for these masterworks. What is clear is that they were often team efforts: in the Spinola Hours five distinct hands have been identified, all anonymous.

Happily, more of this material is readily accessible in glorious Technicolor than ever before, thanks mainly to the internet, but necessarily at one remove. We can all stroll round the National Gallery or the Louvre, but looking at a computer screen or even flicking through a deluxe facsimile is not the same thing as turning the pages of an original manuscript. One of de Hamel’s many ambitions in this book is to try to bring that experience to life. He not only explains where the works have ended up, often with photographs of the exteriors and interiors of the libraries and museums that are their final resting places, but also recounts whom he met on his visits to inspect them and how well they looked after him (the exception to this rule is the first chapter, as he himself is Donnelley Fellow Librarian at the Parker Library of Corpus Christi College, Cambridge, where its subject, the Gospels of St Augustine, lives). At the same time, he goes to considerable lengths to describe the fate of each manuscript, from the time of its creation to the present day. Predictably enough, their owners have included a goodly number of royals and aristocrats, who may or may not have loved these particular treasures. But they have also comprised passionate collectors of all sorts, including no less a villain than Hermann Göring.

De Hamel regards the experience of handling a manuscript as a cross between unwrapping a present and a contact sport. All twelve manuscripts are illustrated to scale in their bindings at the beginning of their respective chapters, which immediately underlines their variety. The Laurentian Library in Florence houses the biggest: the Codex Amiatinus has 20-inch-high pages and a spine that is an amazing 11½ inches across and at 90lb or so weighs – in Rupert Bruce-Mitford’s unforgettable formulation – about as much as a fully grown female Great Dane. In contrast, its diminutive cousin, the Hours of Jeanne de Navarre in the Bibliothèque nationale in Paris, is a modest 7¼ by 5½ inches. The sense of touch comes into play when handling the manuscript, as the nature of the vellum used is potentially revealing: there is much gnashing of teeth when de Hamel is required to follow the example of snooker referees and don white gloves. A different species of Sherlock Holmes-like attention to detail is involved in the art of collation, of which de Hamel is evidently a master. This process seeks to reveal not only where pages are missing from manuscripts, but also how they were often parcelled out to be written by different scribes.

In terms of the actual selection, it gradually becomes clear that supreme artistic distinction is by no means the only criterion at work. Unsurprisingly, the vast majority of the texts are not only religious but also in Latin. The secular exceptions are the Visconti Semideus, which is predominantly devoted to military strategy but has fine illuminations, the Carmina Burana, which owes its fame above all to Carl Orff’s music rather than to its words or images, and the Hengwrt Chaucer in the National Library of Wales at Aberystwyth, which is in Middle English. It is also sparingly illuminated and was pointedly preferred to the more glamorous Ellesmere Chaucer, now in the Huntington Library in California, which is universally agreed to be by the same scribe. In 2004, the scribe in question was identified as one Adam Pinkhurst, on the basis of a signed example of his handwriting. If so, he must be the butt of a short poem, ‘Chauciers wordes a Geffrey unto Adam his owen scryveyne’, in which he is reproved for sloppy copying. Perhaps unsurprisingly, not everyone agrees, and this hypothesis has provoked exactly the same sort of violent disputation that some of us know only too well when it comes to the attribution and connoisseurship of works of art. De Hamel cannot quite buy it either, but is impeccably well behaved.

The least illuminating parts of de Hamel’s book are the sections on the art in the manuscripts. On the whole, his comments are unobjectionable but not especially inspiring, and the denunciation of the Virgin and Child page from the Book of Kells (‘dreadfully ugly’, ‘grotesque and unadorable’, and so on) is a rare instance of the Homeric nod on the part of de Hamel. But it is hard to remain grumpy for all that long with a scholar who can make even his bibliographies and notes page-turningly entertaining.

Sign Up to our newsletter

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

The Incomparible Monsignor

Kafka Drawings

Follow Literary Review on Twitter