Because it is heavily illustrated, Christopher de Hamel's immensely readable Meetings with Remarkable Manuscripts is far less daunting than its page count might imply. It wants to be read by anyone even remotely curious about early Western manuscripts and book history. Although it is too long for use as a text in most book history courses, and is in any case written for interested nonspecialists (me, for example; but I suspect that specialists would enjoy it, too), my only difficulty, were I to teach such a course again, would be choice of chapters. I would use more than one.
De Hamel discusses twelve manuscripts in order of their creation, from the late sixth through the early sixteenth centuries: roughly a thousand [End Page 260] years, beginning after the breakdown of imperial order in western Europe and running to the early modern period. Each chapter mentions other manuscripts to which its subject is related, through illustrations, artists, craftsmen, texts, previous owners, or other matters; an appended list of these manuscripts requires six pages. His twelve exemplars live in European or North American libraries. The book's organizing conceit ("meetings" with manuscripts, de Hamel as tour guide) encourages "conversational" descriptions of buildings and settings; staff; varied rules, regulations, and enforcement standards; lunch; and bits of autobiography (the last time I was here; I remember when this place was a barren hill; people with whom I discussed this book or whose scholarship I use).
The book introduces many lenses through which to view manuscripts. It shows how cooperative the enterprise of trying to understand a manuscript must be, and depicts instances of students in the field functioning as a community. Emphasizing how much is not yet known about the manuscripts he discusses, de Hamel simultaneously models how a student finally confident enough to speculate about what remains uncertain must show those bits of evidence, hypotheses, and general historical background that support, or question, speculation. Students, teachers, and readers will value his discussions of specific manuscripts. These demonstrate why manuscripts are worth thinking about at all, despite what we don't, and may never, know about them. And he shows that working with them is fun. "There is a pleasure in handling a manuscript which has not changed owners in almost a thousand years and has never travelled more than a couple of miles," he remarks (p. 260), referring to Salisbury Cathedral's copy of St. Jerome's commentary on Isaiah, written during the reign of William the Conqueror when the Cathedral, still located in Old Sarum, had not yet moved two miles to where "the new town of Salisbury" would be built in the thirteenth century. De Hamel's emergent self-portrait depicts a real human being enjoying his work.
The first of the major manuscripts de Hamel discusses, the Gospels of Saint Augustine, dates from the late sixth century. Preserved at Corpus Christi College, Cambridge, where de Hamel was Librarian, its Augustine is not the Bishop of Hippo but rather the first Archbishop of Canterbury, sent by Gregory the Great to bring Christianity to the "angels" of an island far from Rome. "Probably the oldest non-archaeological artefact of any kind to [End Page 261] have survived in England," de Hamel writes, "continuously owned and in use in the country since the late sixth century," it is "the oldest surviving illustrated Latin Gospel Book anywhere in the world" (p. 44). He describes its script, illustrations, and how it came to England from Rome.
De Hamel's second manuscript is a pandect (or complete Bible) made at Jarrow (Northumbria) circa 700. It traveled in the opposite direction. The Codex Amiatinus (now in the Laurenziana, Florence), "the oldest surviving entire manuscript of the Vulgate," is "still the principal witness for establishing the text of the Latin Bible" (p. 61). Intended as a giftby St. Coelfrith for Gregory II, it never reached its intended recipient, fetching up instead at San Salvatore on Monte Amiata (Tuscany) and reaching the Laurenziana only at the end of the...