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

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A friend once told me that the thing about being a fan of horror films is that you have to be resigned to the fact that most horror films are just not very good. While I can’t comment on the current state of the horror genre (my interest in horror peters out at around 1945,) I often find myself mulling over this statement while stocking my library basket. I’m a historian, you see, and an art historian at that. And the current state of academic literature leaves me uninspired to say the least. Apparently to be a historian you must to learn how to be dry as sawdust (even wonderful, animated historians who I could listen to for hours seem to revert back to factual, tedious prose when it comes time to publish or perish.) Our garden is stately, ordered, and (if you ask me) going a little bit brown due to lack of watering. Of course, peeking through the fence to the “pop history” side of publishing is like looking into a technicolor dreamland with tropical flowers of every variety. Upon closer inspection, I can confidently say that only some of these blooms are actually plastic.

Just what am I trying to say? There was a point in here somewhere.

I picked up Christopher de Hamel’s Meetings with Remarkable Manuscripts: Twelve Journeys into the Medieval World with the recommendation of my father. As you might have assumed from above, I don’t typically get excited about academic texts. The facts within them might enthrall me but rarely does a book capture my heart. Meetings with Remarkable Manuscripts certainly inspired some trepidation considering it is a thick brick of a book at around 600 pages and I have several other books in that reading basket I mentioned earlier.

However, now that I’ve come to the end of it, I can confidently say that Christopher de Hamel is now responsible for one of the best reading experiences I have had in books reading to medieval manuscripts, as well as books relating to the middle ages, material culture, art history, and history more generally. It could even be one of the best travel diaries I have read. It is simply that good. It strikes the balance that I have been seeking between color and whimsy and good, solid scholarship. And I didn’t miss any of the other books I checked out in the library that day.

The book is divided into chapters that are each devoted to a different manuscript. These manuscripts range in age and subject matter so as to really give us a broad scope of the field of medieval manuscripts as a whole. If you’re desperate for the specifics, they are as follows: The Gospels of Saint Augustine, The Code Amiantinus, The Book of Kells, the Leiden Aratea, The Morgan Beatus, Hugo Pictor, The Copenhage Psalter, the Carmina Burana, the Hours of Jeanne de Navarre, Hengwrt Chaucer, The Visconti Semideus, and the Spinola Hours. While some of the greatest hits of medieval manuscripts are conspicuously absent (the Belles Heures of Jean de France, Duc de Berry being among them) the book isn’t the poorer for these absences. After all, any book can talk about that particular book of hours. De Hamel has other journeys to take us on.

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De Hamel’s insider clearance to bring the reader in close contact with some of the most remarkable medieval manuscripts could be enough, but his personality and writing are what kept me around for the whole book. He invites us along with him in a conversational manner. At times he is even somewhat conspiratorial, like the naughty New Zealand schoolboy of yesteryear is still hiding somewhere in him, such as when he tells us about eating chocolate liqueurs while handling manuscripts in St. Petersburg. Or when he admits, as an aside, that the figures of the Book of Kells are a bit silly looking. You can virtually see the little glitter in his eye as he makes another aside about those dastardly librarians requiring gloves.

At every turn, De Hamel’s passion for medieval manuscripts shines through. He clearly adores these books (equally as art objects and as little puzzles.) He breezes right through what many writers of manuscripts get bogged down with (his way of writing about folios, in particular, endeared him to me, as I have often thought that these descriptions are nigh-on useless unless you happen to have a facsimile in front of you.) He tells stories through the pages, but never at the cost of the history. He seems perfectly content to say “I don’t know,” but (and this is important) he follows it up with “but wouldn’t it be interesting if…” or “but what I suspect is…” Note that the following by itself is rather a dead end. The latter are thought-provoking. I wish more people knew the difference.

The subjects that interest De Hamel also interest me, which is a happy sort of match. We both are fascinated by the history of objects after their lifetime usefulness and following them through the changing hands of ownership or the changing attitudes towards conservation. We love the pictures of the texts, but we also love the selection of material and how the text is compiled and in what order. We regard medieval manuscripts with awe, but also with a sense of humor (just, as we suspect, the original owners and artists did.)

Do I think that Christopher de Hamel’s book suffers because it is not serious or dry enough? Obviously not. I resent that individual voice is something seemingly reserved for “pop history” genre books read by the general public rather than by seasoned academics. That is not to mention all the dreary history texts that put children to sleep in classrooms across the world. What a different world it would be if, from a young age, we all read history from authors like De Hamel.

For myself, I am just glad that Christopher De Hamel took us along for the ride here. He invited us into libraries and museums, behind doors most of us could not access. Not only that, he did so with open arms, with a smile, and with tales of wonder and delight. If I had a large private library of medieval books, there is no one I would rather have come and assess them.

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