In Dan Friedkin’s 2020 historical drama The Last Vermeer, the protagonist Han van Meegeren (played by Guy Pearce) takes the stand to defend himself in court. Van Meegeren stood accused of selling paintings by Johannes Vermeer to Nazi officers, a crime of collaboration that carried the death penalty. In the film’s climax, Van Meegeren reveals that he did not in fact sell genuine Vermeers to the Nazis: he had forged every single one. Once his deception was revealed, Van Meegeren called out into the hubbub of the courtroom: “Only one minute ago, these paintings were considered sublime and priceless. Now they are worthless and not one brushstroke has changed!”
Archivists, historians, librarians, and researchers all confront ethical concerns in the course of research. Yet among the ethical questions that researchers can ask themselves, one of the most troubling might be “should this object have been made at all? And what do I do about that now?” Librarian Megan Rosenbloom’s research tackles these kinds of controversial objects: her book discusses anthropodermic bibliopegy, or books bound in human skin.
Abstract: The body of the early-modern ruler would never truly be his own. Instead, it served as the physical embodiment of the broader nation state. For the Hapsburgs in the sixteenth century, armor was one key method for uniting the physical body of the king with the military prowess of the nation. This process began at a young age: in the case of Philip III, at the age of seven, when he received a suit of armor produced by Milanese armorer Lucio Piccinino. This paper unites a visual study of gauntlets made for Philip III with studies of the contemporary portraits of Philip III by artists at the Hapsburg courts and historical analysis of Phillip’s education. By analyzing each of these sources, it becomes clear that Phillip’s prince hood was caught in a crossroads between the ancient and the modern. He at once embodied the classical heritage of Greece and Rome, indicated by the decorative program of the armor, and the future of the country, suggested by the armor’s contemporary form and function.
Thank you to the editing team at the Coalition of Master’s Scholars on Material Culture.
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.
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.
If you think this book would be appealing for you, you can purchase it here on Amazon or here on Book Depository using my affiliate links. At no additional cost to you, these funds help to put a young scholar through graduate school. Thank you so much!