The acclaimed author of Meetings with Remarkable Manuscripts introduces us to the extraordinary keepers and companions of medieval manuscripts over a thousand years of history
The illuminated manuscripts of the Middle Ages are among the greatest works of European art and literature. We are dazzled by them and recognize their crucial role in the transmission of knowledge. However, we generally think much less about the countless men and women who made, collected and preserved them through the centuries, and to whom they owe their existence.
This entrancing book describes some of the extraordinary people who have spent their lives among illuminated manuscripts over the last thousand years: a monk in Normandy, a prince of France, a Florentine bookseller, an English antiquary, a rabbi from central Europe, a French priest, a Keeper at the British Museum, a Greek forger, a German polymath, a British connoisseur and the woman who created the most spectacular library in America—all of them members of what Christopher de Hamel calls the Manuscripts Club.
This exhilarating fraternity, and the fellow enthusiasts who come with it, throw new light on how manuscripts have survived and been used by very different kinds of people in many different circumstances. Christopher de Hamel’s unexpected connections and discoveries reveal a passion that crosses the boundaries of time. We understand the manuscripts themselves better by knowing who their keepers and companions have been.
In 1850 (or thereabouts) John Ruskin bought his first manuscript “at a bookseller’s in a back alley.” This was his reaction: “The new worlds which every leaf of this book opened to me, and the joy I had in counting their letters and unravelling their arabesques as if they had all been of beaten gold—as many of them were—cannot be told.” The members of de Hamel’s club share many such wonders, which he brings to us with scholarship, style and a lifetime’s experience.
About the Author
Christopher de Hamel is the author of Meetings with Remarkable Manuscripts, winner of both the Wolfson History Prize and the Duff Cooper Prize. Over the course of a long career at Sotheby’s, he may have catalogued more illuminated manuscripts than any other person alive, and possibly more than any one individual has ever done. He is a fellow of Corpus Christi College, Cambridge, and was the former librarian of Parker Library there, which includes many, even most, of the earliest manuscripts in the English language and in history. De Hamel lives in London.
“Exceptional in expertise, graceful in style and illustrated as vividly as its subject, this book is a masterpiece.” —Dominic Green, Wall Street Journal
“Crack the spine of any volume by de Hamel and you will step into a world of bookish wonderment. One of the most eminent living scholars and catalogers of medieval European manuscripts, de Hamel is also their greatest champion, having devoted his career to revealing their treasures and mysteries . . . makers and collectors and preservers, the people who have been responsible for helping to perpetuate one of the great cultural legacies of the pre-modern world . . . de Hamel sets aside his posture of well-earned expertise to gaze with the reader in ingenuous wonder at the work arrayed before him . . . an invitation all but the most churlish readers will gratefully accept.” —Bruce Holsinger, New York Times Book Review
“A love story. [De Hamel’s] interest is with community: with the passion for art, for learning, for nerdy minutiae, for history still living and breathing on the page, that brings manuscript lovers together. If you can imagine shedding tears because a manuscript is so exquisite, then this is a book about your people.” —Elyse Graham, Public Books
“Lively . . . De Hamel’s encyclopedic knowledge and irrepressible enthusiasm for his subject animate the whole.” —Booklist
“Expansive . . . De Hamel’s fascination with rare manuscripts shines throughout . . . sure to entertain.” —Publishers Weekly
“Fascinating and multilayered . . . dense with facts and dates but never dry. De Hamel, manuscript consultant for Sotheby's since 1975, is a charming and knowledgeable guide, and his ‘visits’ with his subjects—tours of their residences or libraries—brings their obsessions to vivid life . . . An impressive immersion in the storied precincts of art connoisseurship.” —Kirkus
“Continuously intriguing and surprisingly lively . . . lavishly illustrated and unfailingly engaging. It is a love letter to collectors across nearly 10 centuries, written by an expert, imbued with passion for his subject . . . Once readers look inside, they will be hooked. In every respect, this title is a winner.” —Library Journal (starred review)
“This book can be enjoyed on so many levels. The illustrations are exquisite and the writing . . . is intelligent, illuminating, voluptuous and mischievous. The members of the club are brought to life with sensitivity; we can't help but find their nerdiness endearing . . . The most delightful feature of this book is, however, the author. I've never encountered one so willing to bare his soul, without ever explicitly setting out to do so. He throws open the doors to his world, exposing its beguiling nature. Sit at my table, he says, feast on what I adore. ‘The Club is still open for membership . . . All applicants are warmly admitted.” —Gerard DeGroot, The Times (UK)
“De Hamel . . . has the rare capacity to turn a scholarly specialism into a humane and humorous adventure . . . retains an almost lyrical sense of wonder as he unclasps each groaning tome, opens its parched pages and lightly steps into the alternative world painted by its illuminators . . . he speaks of ‘meeting a beautiful manuscript’ rather than reading it and his own book makes you feel you've spent time—a very long but absorbing time—in his convivial company.” —Peter Conrad, The Guardian (UK)
“Gloriously engaging and readable . . . De Hamel wears his erudition lightly, and the reader is taken deeply into the worlds of individuals who lived across almost a thousand years of history.”—Richard Ovenden, Financial Times
“Like taking a walk in excellent company . . . an exceptional book, and itself an object worth cherishing.” —Daniel Brooks, Sunday Telegraph (UK)
“Magnificently surprising . . . a gallery of unforgettable characters.” —Rowan Williams, New Statesman, Books of the Year (UK)
“De Hamel's great gift is to tell life stories without taking anything away from the manuscripts, which remain the star of the show. Thanks to the beautiful illustrations in this wonderful book, we can see for ourselves how spellbinding an encounter with them must have been. Five years ago de Hamel entranced the world with his Meeting with Remarkable Manuscripts. This time the meetings are with remarkable manuscript owners, and the result is equally precious.” —Kathryn Hughes, Sunday Times (UK)
“Stunningly beautiful . . . The illustrations emit a light of their own, but what shines even brighter is the author's boyish enthusiasm for his subject.” ―Times Books of the Year (UK)
“A rich feast of scarlet and gold.” —Dominic Sandbrook, Sunday Times Books of the Year (UK)
“Difficult to put down.” —Jonathan Sumption, The Spectator (UK)