Christopher de Hamel’s Meetings with Remarkable Manuscripts is the culmination of a scholar’s lifetime spent forming relationships with Medieval manuscripts.
The author is a Fellow of Corpus Christi College, Cambridge, as well as the Librarian of the Parker Library. He has forgotten more things about Medieval Manuscripts than most people ever learn.
The author sets up the aim of the book in the introduction as an attempt to take the reader on a personal journey to meet rare manuscripts that they would not normally be able to access.
Increasingly manuscripts are digitalised or seen purely in facsimile copies. Undeniably this is a wonderful way of making them more widely accessible but, as this book argues, nothing compares to actually seeing a manuscript in reality. However, very few people are actually permitted to view and handle such important and fragile pieces of history.
Christopher de Hamel uses this as a way to open up that wonder to a wider audience. It is rare to read a history book where I would genuinely describe the tone as friendly. Academia is full of gate-keeping. Often history books are inaccessible even to students of the subjects, let alone the general interested public. Specialised terms are used and not explained. Sometimes historians will quote in a second language, such as Latin or French, and offer no translation. Trust me, as a student still learning the craft, this is incredibly off-putting.
I understand that academia should not be watered down for the sake of the many. Yet I genuinely believe that no one benefits when you make your work inaccessible to none but a special few.
Christopher de Hamel writes with a refreshing ease. He concisely explains the basics of palaeography so that an audience with no knowledge of the subject knows enough to understand his uses of terminology. I have studied a little palaeography at Master’s level but de Hamel’s explanations never felt superfluous. Everything was a polite reminder that helped illuminate the author’s point.
The book is far from simplified in content. He chooses 12 medieval manuscripts, from the sixth century to the sixteenth, each with a particular story to tell. You are gifted with a moment by moment description of the opening of each manuscript. The provenance is explored, as well as physical particulars such as size and collation. Every sentence is packed with historical context as well as personal nods that bring the journey the author took to meeting each tome to life.
The book is quite long and packed with information but it is clearly laid out into individual ‘interviews’ with manuscripts. You can dip in and out and investigate a new manuscript each time. There are also frequent images to bring the manuscripts to life.
I have said before that a historian is almost like a detective and nothing proves that more than this book. In the same manner as Agatha Christie wrote Poirot’s denouements, each chapter traces each fact and each leap of logic that brought the author to his conclusions on the manuscripts. It is humbling to be included in his thought process.
The author has the rare gift of a style that can be enjoyed by both academics and those new to the subject. He proves that academia can be for the many. The joy that the author felt in compiling this work shines through every chapter.
The author never comes across as just trying to show the reader how much he knows about the subject. It genuinely feels like he wants to share the enjoyment he has in manuscripts and open the reader’s eyes to something wonderful.
I couldn’t recommend this book highly enough if you have an interest in medieval history and manuscripts, whether it a casual curiosity or an academic preference.