Meetings with Remarkable Manuscripts (2017) is by far the most exciting 500-page book ever written about medieval manuscripts.
Wheel of Fortune from the only manuscript of the Carmina Burana
True, this is a low bar, but after reading the whole thing I remain astonished at how much fun I had. De Hamel comes across as both utterly charming and profoundly learned. In his latest job he has been a manuscripts expert with Sotheby's, and you can see why he has been a success at it; if I were the owner of a rare manuscript I would absolutely love to have de Hamel visit my mansion and give me his opinions of it.
In Meetings with Remarkable Manuscripts de Hamel takes a close look at a dozen famous medieval books, from the sixth-century Gospels of Saint Augustine to the sixteenth-century Spinola Hours. He has chosen manuscripts about which stories can be told and puzzles solved, not just the ones with the prettiest pictures.
Book of Hours of Jeanne de Navarre
De Hamel has visited the library where each of these is held and inspected the manuscript in person. So we start with the journey to the library, some of which are as remarkable as the books they contain – the old reading room of the Biblioteca Medicea Laurenziana in Florence was designed by Michelangelo. We learn how each manuscript is presented to those privileged enough to see it, and then what it looks like and even how it smells. The Codex Amatianus, he notes, weighs about as much as a female Great Dane. De Hamel goes quickly through the technical details: how is it bound, how many leaves are missing, whether the order of the pages has been changed.
He inquires into how each book came to be made, and for whom. The Gospel of St. Augustine, for example, may well be one of the books that Pope Gregory the Great sent along with Augustine's mission to England in 597; the evidence comes from the manuscript and the peculiar mixed version of the Latin Bible it contains, and it is fascinating. The Hengwrt Canterbury Tales may be the copy of Chaucer's very own scribe, on which the scribe was working as Chaucer delivered him tales, right up to the poet's death. I loved these little detective stories, told by de Hamel with verve but also with honest scholarship.
De Hamel spends some time on what books as objects can tell us about the broader intellectual and social world. The style of making books in England changed drastically after the Norman conquest, and the centralizing bureaucratic program of the Norman monarch and church can be seen in the hundreds of manuscripts that survive from an attempt to equip every cathedral and major monastery with a core list of important books. Many of the fanciest medieval manuscripts are Books of Hours, but this is not an ancient form; it seems to have been invented for the women of the French royal family in the 13th century. Those queens and princesses then took them along when they were married to kings and princes across Europe, which is why there are famous examples in Denmark and England. And thus we can follow, marriage by marriage and book by book, the spreading influence of the French royal style.
Leiden Aratea, Orion
Consider the Leyden Aratea, a book of astronomy and astrology made at the court of Charlemagne, so far as we can tell a nearly perfect copy of a 4th-century manuscript. Everything was copied, from the by-then-archaic script to the faces in the paintings; does this perhaps tell us something important about the Carolingian Renaissance and the attitude of tis leaders toward the Roman past?
If you are interested in these things, read Meetings with Remarkable Manuscripts. You will have a meeting with a remarkable book and a remarkable man.