Few objects are earthier than a medieval manuscript. Written with quill pens taken from the feathers of geese, they are penned on parchment, vellum made from the skins of animals. The ink of their scripts is concocted from gall-nuts or charcoal. They may be adorned with rich pigments scooped from the soil or with gold and gems. They are sewn with threads of natural fibers, and they are bound in wooden boards sheathed in leather. The more exalted their contents—Bibles, books of hours, scriptural commentaries—the more chthonic their aspect. The amalgam of transcendent texts with materials entirely terrestrial makes them palpable analogues of incarnation, the Word made Flesh, spirit clasped and conjoined with the humblest matter. Of course, printed books share in this luster, but by definition they are not unique, one-of-a kind, the work of a single scribe (or team of scribes). Manuscripts have a stamp of individuality; we are, however remotely, in touch with the hands that went into their making.

The more exalted a manuscript’s contents, the more chthonic its aspect.

In Christopher de Hamel’s extraordinary survey of twelve such manuscripts dating from the sixth to the sixteenth centuries, we are constantly made aware of this analogue in some of its most brilliant exemplars.1 Indeed, his emphasis on the physical minutiae of his manuscripts is almost overwhelming in its specificity, and rightly so. As a paleographer he is concerned with tangible details: with measurable dimensions; with lineation; with the precise characteristics of various scripts—his beloved uncials, rustic capitals, Carolingian minuscules—and with the hands of individual scribes; with the order and arrangement of the quires (their “collation”). But this is no dry codicological treatise. It is enlivened throughout by the author’s genial manner, his wit and sense of adventure, his lightly worn erudition, and his delightful prose style. In his introduction he says that his book “should be as near to a conversation as a published book can be,” and in this he succeeds wonderfully well. Moreover, he views his meetings with the manuscripts as “celebrity interviews,” yet no mere celebrity has ever been more searchingly interrogated, scrutinized, probed, and assessed than de Hamel’s subjects. No pin-prick in a page, inserted as a guide mark for a scribe or illuminator, goes unremarked; and yet, somehow, such considerations are never arid or fussily antiquarian but are offered to equally illuminating effect. (He also gives the collation of each manuscript in standard technical notation but these are relegated to footnotes so as not to impede the flow of the narrative.)

The manuscripts are presented chronologically, from the late-sixth-century Gospels of St. Augustine of Canterbury, one of the treasures of Corpus Christi College, Cambridge, to the Spinola Hours from around 1515, now in the Getty Museum (and for which he composed the first bibliographic description when it was sold at Sotheby’s in July 1976). Along the way we also encounter the Codex Amiatinus, a pandect or complete Bible and the oldest text of the Latin Vulgate; the Leiden Aratea, a truly weird poem on astronomy; the Morgan Beatus, a tenth-century commentary on the Apocalypse; Hugo Pictor, now in the Bodleian, with its famous painting of the eponymous scribe himself; the Copenhagen Psalter, one of the most beautiful of illuminated manuscripts; the thirteenth- century Carmina Burana, now in the Bayerische Staatsbibliothek in Munich; the diminutive, and exquisite, Hours of Jeanne de Navarre; the Hengwrt Chaucer, a fourteenth- century marvel now in the National Library of Wales; and the Visconti Semideus, a Renaissance treatise on warfare, now in the National Library, St. Petersburg. I list the locations because de Hamel travels to each of them in turn for his “interviews” and gives vivid accounts of their settings; these too are essential to his encounters. Rare manuscripts, rather like birds of paradise, have their sequestered habitats.

Each manuscript is sumptuously presented, with full-color plates and many inset images of small details, of comparable books, or of personages somehow connected with the manuscripts, from Geoffrey Chaucer, shown in a lovely portrait from around 1415, to James Joyce, who owned a facsimile edition of the Book of Kells, to Hans Kraus, the legendary book dealer who bought the Spinola Hours at Sotheby’s for an astonishing £370,000 in 1976. The presentation of each work is cleverly done: for example, a photograph to scale of each of the bound volumes is given at the beginning of its chapter so as to make its dimensions obvious—one of several features, such as the sheer texture of the pages, that no digital image can capture. At a glance we are able to set the massive seventy-five-pound bulk of the seventh-century Codex Amiatinus (“comparable . . . to the weight of a fully grown female Great Dane,” as de Hamel rather zanily notes) alongside the fourteenth-century Hours of Jeanne de Navarre, compact enough to be slipped into the pocket of a lady’s gown. The most conspicuous glory of de Hamel’s book lies in its full-page color plates. These are not only beautifully reproduced but abundant. For the Leiden Aratea, a Carolingian manuscript on astronomy, no fewer than twelve plates are given in sequence so that one has the momentary sensation of leafing through the book itself. Chapter Three, on the Book of Kells, shows us everything from the Long Room in the Trinity College Library in Dublin (where the book, a major tourist attraction, is on display) to the custom-made wooden cases (beautiful objects in their own right) to page after splendid page of the original, including damaged or formerly blank pages on which charters have been written in Old Irish, with its own distinctive script.

De Hamel is refreshingly blunt.

In this chapter, one of his finest, de Hamel is refreshingly blunt. In discussing the image of the Virgin and Child on folio 7V of the Book of Kells, perhaps “the earliest illustration of the subject in European art,” he notes that “the picture is dreadfully ugly.” And he goes on to remark that

Mary’s head is far too big for her body, and she has huge staring red-lined eyes and a long nose which looks as though it is dripping downwards, and a tiny mouth. Her pendulous breasts are visible through her purple tunic, and her little legs stick out sideways like a child’s drawing. The baby, seen in profile, is grotesque and unadorable, with wild red hair like seaweed, protruding upturned nose and chin, and a worrying red line from his nose to his ear . . . .

This may not win him friends in Ireland, but his remarks are pertinent for at least two reasons. First, he is unhampered by any preconceived reflex of veneration: he really looks at an image and tells us what he sees. This is rare enough to be applauded. (And, come to think of it, he’s right: this is a singularly unappealing depiction of Virgin and Child.) Second, and more importantly, he remarks that “intrinsic beauty is a difficult concept in art history, especially across a divide of 1200 years.” Maybe the image was based on some earlier, especially venerated depiction and “the weirdness may be inherited tradition rather than simply being poor draftsmanship.” Perhaps too, we may speculate, beauty, intrinsic or not, was not the point of the image but something homelier, humbler, a whiff of the original stable amid all the splendor of ornamentation and the trappings of majesty. As de Hamel notes of the Gospels of Saint Augustine, “When the manuscript was exhibited in the Fitzwilliam Museum in 2005, a visitor was seen by Stella Panayotova, curator of manuscripts there, weeping and kissing the ground in front of its glass case.” The aesthete’s sharp eye can mislead; the image of Virgin and Child in the Book of Kells was designed to be revered, adored, and entreated by believers, not merely appreciated by future connoisseurs.

While de Hamel’s book could serve as a manual of paleography for the uninitiated, and does so with immense flair, it is far more than that. In each chapter he sets a manuscript in its precise historical and social context. Each chapter, moreover, deals with a different aspect of manuscripts: scribal practices, collectors and librarians, royal patrons, the trade in manuscripts, and the often undocumented relations of one set of manuscripts with others. We learn a great deal about Anglo-Saxon England or the scriptorium of Gregory the Great in Rome or warfare in Renaissance Italy or the vexed circumstances of Jeanne de Navarre’s accession to the throne in Pamplona in March of 1329, and about other reines bibliophiles (such as Christina of Sweden) or the paltry company of scriveners in Chaucer’s London. We learn too about the tangled provenance of the manuscripts, as well as about the scholars, bibliophiles, collectors, and sellers of manuscripts at various periods, such as—to name but one— J. P. Morgan, son of the great robber baron, who extended his father’s collection with the assistance of the remarkable Morgan librarian Bella da Costa Greene and acquired the exquisite manuscript known as the Morgan Beatus, a gorgeously illustrated commentary on the Apocalypse. This manuscript, as de Hamel notes in one of many fascinating asides, had been acquired by the aptly named Guglielmo Libri (1802–69) whom de Hamel calls “the best-known thief in the history of manuscripts,” and who “helped public collections by joyfully relieving them of unwanted treasures.” He pilfered from libraries in Dijon, Lyon, Grenoble, Carpentras, Montpellier, Poitiers, Tours, and Paris, among others—but he could accomplish this not only because he was unprincipled but because he had great expertise and “a wonderful eye for rarity.” Such erudite crooks figure more than once in de Hamel’s pages.

In keeping with his “conversational” approach, de Hamel takes us along with him on his visits to far-flung libraries. (Of the Copenhagen Psalter he says, “Sit beside me and let’s gaze in admiration for a moment. We won’t touch it: just look.”) On each visit, whether to Florence or Dublin or Leiden, New York or Copenhagen or Aberystwyth, not forgetting Munich, St. Petersburg, and Los Angeles, as well as his own Parker Library in Cambridge, he evokes the libraries themselves and their settings and premises, the reading rooms, the lovingly fashioned cases or boxes in which the manuscripts are nestled. (His tenure at the Parker Library had an ironic twist. Twenty-five years before becoming a curator there, as a student eager to consult its treasures, he had been refused admittance: habent sua fata curatores!) He is generous in acknowledging the various friends and colleagues who assisted him at each stop. Paleographers and lovers of medieval manuscripts come through in his accounts as a hospitable and rather jolly bunch, and we are made privileged eavesdroppers at their encounters. Sometimes the initial encounters are humorous. At the Medici Library, he reports, “My first inquiry about seeing the Codex Amiatinus itself was met with refusal, that deep all-encompassing sigh of infinite regret which only the Italians have perfected: it is too fragile . . . . In Italy, however, the word ‘no’ is not necessarily a negative. It is merely a preliminary stage of discussion.”

Here I have to admit that for all the magnificent images in these manuscripts, for all the illuminated borders and elaborate ornamentation of, say, the Book of Kells or the spectacular paintings in the Spinola Hours, it is the various scripts of these works that most enchant me. The uncial letter (the word “uncial” may derive from the Latin uncia, “an inch,” as de Hamel explains) is sublime in its stately simplicity, as seen in both the Gospels of Saint Augustine and the Codex Amiatinus. Arrayed in double columns, per cola et commata (which de Hamel renders as “by clauses and pauses”), perhaps to form easily enunciated phrases for reading aloud from lectern or pulpit, the script is at once sturdy and majestic, perfectly suited for the words of scripture. In their symmetry and clarity the columned words display a compressed monumentality; they seem carved out of the ink that forms them. The double columns of text have an architectural look, like the pillars of a temple in which the words are shaped stones.

What de Hamel calls the “restlessness” of medieval manuscripts, their crisscrossing journeys over centuries, can be documented in several of his exemplars. Thus, the Codex Amiatinus, long believed to have been written “in the hand of the blessed Pope Gregory” (ca. 540–604), in Rome, turns out to have been produced in Jarrow, England, under the auspices of the abbot Ceolfrith (ca. 642–716). The Venerable Bede, “that towering genius among the Anglo-Saxon writers,” as de Hamel calls him, was also active at Jarrow and may have consulted this manuscript. The massive work was on its way to Rome when it was deposited at the monastery of San Salvatore on Mount Amiata in Tuscany (readers of poetry will recognize this as the site of Eugenio Montale’s great poem “News from Mount Amiata” with its “missals in the attics”). It was recorded as being there in 1036, centuries after its creation. Only in the late nineteenth century was it identified as having been copied in Jarrow. The identification created a sensation: “the oldest complete copy of the Latin Bible was actually made in England.” After 1789, the Grand Duke of Tuscany ordered it transferred to the library designed by Michelangelo in Florence where it now resides in all its heft and splendor under the telegraphic tag Cod. Amiat. 1.

Paleography is a sensuous pursuit.

Paleography is a sensuous pursuit. It relies on the acuity of the eyes, but it is also their delight. The touch and the feel of manuscripts are essential; the fingertips often sense more than the eye can see. A paleographer should have a good nose too. Manuscripts have distinct, quite personal fragrances. In examining the Codex Amiatinus, de Hamel depends both on the feel of the parchment and on its smell. “I have no vocabulary to define this,” he writes, “but there is a curious warm leathery smell to English parchment, unlike the sharper, cooler scent of Italian skins.” No doubt the ears play a part too in discerning the particular creak or swish of parchment when the leaves are turned. (Only the sense of taste is, fortunately, not involved.)

In my own experience, many years ago, as a curator and cataloguer of manuscripts—in my case, Arabic manuscripts—I was made aware of this sensuous aspect of handwritten books. My texts had none of the majesty of those de Hamel deals with; they were “school texts,” treatises on logic or grammar or medicine or arithmetic, often shabbily bound and tattered by use. They had been passed down over generations from fathers to sons, teachers to pupils. Usually they were festooned with spidery marginalia: emendations to the text, or corrections, or indignant objections. Their flyleaves bore stamps of ownership or notices of approbation attesting that a student had mastered the contents and was now authorized to teach them. The colophons were precise, often to the very day and month; though just as often, the manuscripts were missing their colophons or were acephalous, making identification difficult. Such beauty as they had lay purely in their calligraphy and in the glossy sheen of the hand-glazed paper. Occasionally there were miniatures or the riotous floral motifs of the lacquered Kashmiri bindings (so much for the Muslim “ban on images!”). But the principal attraction lay in the scribal hands, almost always of a fastidious elegance; you could feel the pleasure a scribe had taken in the subtle flourishes and dainty swoops he added to certain letters or words. I could not help being aware of the unseen but palpable host of those who had written or annotated those works, of those who had pored over them, memorizing their lines. Once, while leafing through a sixteenth-century manuscript of Persian provenance, I found a single strand of hair tucked inside as a bookmark; it was a slim, frizzled, rather shiny hair plucked from some luxuriant but long-vanished beard. Had this reader grown bored with his text (it was rather dreary)? Or had he meant to return to a certain passage sometime later? There was no way to know, of course, but I had the vivid sense of the palpable aura that accompanies those who study or consult old manuscripts.

Christopher de Hamel cannot convey this aura any more than he can give us the touch or smell of his chosen manuscripts; and yet, he brings us as close to these rare masterpieces as any of us is likely to come. This is truly a beautiful book, worthy to stand beside the works it celebrates. If there are libraries in heaven, as I’m sure there must be, such books as these, and their fellows, will be there not only for perusal but for the touch and smell and gaze, no doubt transfigured but still redolent of the earthly materials of which they were formed—and there won’t be a whisker in sight.

1Meetings with Remarkable Manuscripts: Twelve Journeys into the Medieval World, by Christopher de Hamel; Penguin Press, 632 pages, $45.

This article originally appeared in The New Criterion, Volume 36 Number 7, on page 20
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