… 12 rich slices of history …
With this book, Christopher de Hamel introduces us to twelve fabulously beautiful illuminated manuscripts describing not only their historical context but also the collectors who have handled them and the libraries they are now in.
Christopher certainly doesn’t talk down to the reader, even going into the technical “collation” or order of pages of each book, though he does try to avoid using too much jargon. He explains in his introduction Christopher wanted “the challenge of trying to convey to a wider audience the thrill of … intimate contact with major medieval manuscripts”.
Like a rich slice of fruit cake, each chapter is studded with nuggets of history, encounters with library staff and expert musings on provenance. It’s a book to be enjoyed slowly by a winter’s fireside.
Meetings with Remarkable Manuscripts won The 2016 Pol Roger Duff Cooper Prize (for non-fiction writing) earlier this year. In his speech of thanks, Christopher de Hamel remarked that many medieval scribes ended the arduous business of copying a book with the words, “Explicit hoc totum, Pro christo, Da mihi potum“; which he translated as ‘Here ends the whole thing, For Christ’s sake, give me a drink’ – words that raised much laughter, and many champagne glasses.
Biography: In the course of a long career at Sotheby’s Christopher de Hamel has probably handled and catalogued more illuminated manuscripts and over a wider range than any person alive. Since 2000, he has been Fellow and Librarian of Corpus Christi College, Cambridge. The Parker Library, in his care, includes many of the earliest manuscripts in English language and history. He is a Fellow of the Society of Antiquaries and the Royal Historical Society.
Cover design moment: The dust jacket must have been delightful for Jim Stoddart, the Art Director at Penguin Books, to play with. Which images to choose from so many gorgeous illustrations? He shows a mastery of design by selecting a plate from The Morgan Beatus. It is a charming tree full of birds, some feeding their chicks cupped in their nests which are balancing somewhat precariously on prickly branches. They look just right for copying in a doodle or two and thus his choice exacts suits the approachable and chatty style of the text. He adds a lovely detail to the top of the design: worn and slightly foxed page edges to hint at the many manuscripts contained within the one book.
This book is the eighth review in my British Books Challenge 2017. Come and join us at over at Chelley Toy’s site.
Meetings with Remarkable Manuscripts was published in hardback by the Allen Lane imprint of Penguin Random House on 22nd September 2016.