A detail from the story of Saint Jerome from the Belles Heures of Jean de France, Duc de Berry, an early fifteenth-century illuminated manuscript

The deep humanity of books

Manuscripts have weathered the vicissitudes of time only thanks to human passion


This article is taken from the August-September 2023 issue of The Critic. To get the full magazine why not subscribe? Right now we’re offering five issues for just £10.

I’ll never forget my first encounter with a manuscript. It was a summer afternoon, almost 25 years ago, and I was sitting in the reading room of Worcester Cathedral Library. It was pure luck that I was there, really. A few days earlier, I had bumped into the canon librarian as I was coming out of my last A-level exam; when I mentioned that I was hoping to read history at university, he had offered to show me the collection. 

The first manuscript he took down was a volume of Franciscan sermons copied some time in the 14th century. If I’m honest, my memories of the manuscript itself are a little hazy. I was too wide-eyed with excitement, too ashamed of my schoolboy Latin to take it all in. I can still see the canon’s face, though, as vividly as if it were yesterday. 

The Posthumous Papers of the Manuscripts Club, Christopher de Hamel (Penguin, £40)

He was a short, rather stout Scotsman who was usually wrapped in an air of scholarly distraction. Yet as he sat there, introducing me to the strange world of paleography, he seemed to blaze with delight. His eyes flashed when he explained how the manuscript had ended up in the Cathedral’s collection; he chuckled as he picked out the scribal hands. His enthusiasm was infectious. I don’t know how many hours we spent poring over manuscripts, but by the time we’d finished, I was hooked. 

That’s the thing about manuscripts. They are intensely — perhaps uniquely — human works. More so than practically any other cultural objects, they are the products of personal relationships. Each manuscript grew out of close co-operation, not only between the patrons, scribes and illuminators who copied, decorated and paid for the text; but also between the host of farmers, parchment makers, binders and craftsmen who provided the raw materials, or gathered the finished sheets into a coherent volume. They encourage — indeed, rely upon — a physical intimacy between the book and its reader. 

Every mediaeval manuscript has its own feel, its own smell — even, in some cases, its own sound. In the case of parchment or vellum, you can often feel the defects and nodules of the animal’s skin between your fingers; the colours change with the light. Prior to the invention of printing, when silent study became the norm, books were “read aloud, or at least murmured … borrowing the reader’s voice”. Most importantly, manuscripts survive only because of human passion. 

Though manuscripts are often surprisingly sturdy, they have always been vulnerable. No one can say how many have been lost to war, revolution, religious intolerance or just plain carelessness. Those that have come down to us have done so purely because “men and women preserved and valued them”. It is by choice alone that they have weathered the vicissitudes of time, and it is through the enthusiasm of people like my friend the canon librarian that they continue to endure and entrance today. 

It is this “humanity” of books that Christopher de Hamel sets out to explore in his extraordinary new book. Under the pretence that he is welcoming new members to a club of like-minded enthusiasts, he introduces us to twelve figures, each of whom stands, in some way, for a different aspect of humanity’s relationship with books. They range from scribes and scholars to forgers, collectors and curators. In each case, he explores how their lives came to be so deeply intertwined with books and — rather charmingly — imagines the sort of conversation they might have

The variety is extraordinary. There is Anselm of Bec (c.1033–1109), the theologian-scribe, who mesmerised his future disciple Eadmer with his knowledge of manuscripts “both sacred and secular”. Then there’s Vespasiano da Bisticci (c.1422–98), the Renaissance bookseller par excellence, who stood firm against the onslaught of printing, arranging for no fewer than two hundred volumes — in both Latin and Greek — to be copied for Cosimo de’ Medici’s new library at the convent of San Marco. 

Then there’s the Bohemian rabbi David Oppenheim (1664–1736), whose collection of nearly 800 manuscripts (as well as some 6,000 printed books) reflects both the fecundity — and the fragility — of Jewish intellectual life in early-modern central Europe. 

All of de Hamel’s figures are obsessives, of one variety or another. Some are grumpy, even dogmatic, such as the Abbé Jean-Joseph Rive (1730–91), who penned perhaps “the most bad-tempered book on manuscripts ever written”. Others are almost loving. For Sir Stanley Cockerell (1867–1962), manuscripts “were his friends”. Not only did he study them with feverish intensity, but he also took them on holiday and introduced them to visitors as if they were his children. 

Inevitably, such intensity of feeling sometimes blurs into tragedy. On the night of 11 July 1880, the German historian Theodor Mommsen (1817–1903), distracted by the imminent death of his young daughter, knocked over a candle and set fire to his library. Thousands of books went up in flames. Amongst them were five of the oldest manuscripts of Jordanes’s Getica — all borrowed from libraries around Europe, including one dating back to the 8th century. 

There is plenty of humour, too. De Hamel wryly notes that Belle da Costa Greene (1879–1950), who served as the first director of the Morgan Library, was so formidable that the young Pierpont Morgan once paid a “gigantically over-inflated price” for “four German manuscripts”, simply because “he was too frightened” of her “to come home without them”. 

A shadowy figure, Simonides peddled the most bewildering forgeries

Perhaps the most fascinating character, however, is Constantine Simonides (c.1824–c.1890). A shadowy figure, Simonides arrived in England in 1853, speaking voluble Greek and peddling the most bewildering forgeries. There was a papyrus fragment of St Matthew’s Gospel, allegedly written at the dictation of the apostle himself; a tiny copy of Anacreon’s verses; and some imperial charters, “supposedly from the chanceries of the [Byzantine] emperors Theodosius II (AD 423), Michael (860), and Romanus (1031)”. 

By far the most bewildering was a scroll, purporting to be an ancient manuscript of Homer’s Iliad, which Simonides tried to sell to Sir Thomas Phillipps in 1854. Granted, it is an “astonishing display of calligraphic virtuosity”, but it is obviously a fake. No one with even a passing knowledge of manuscripts could be taken in. That Simonides devoted his undoubted skills to flogging such egregious forgeries — and even succeeded in fooling some buyers — nevertheless testifies to the true collectors’ longing for discovery. 

De Hamel’s learning is prodigious. He has an unerring eye for the telling detail, and in retracing a manuscript’s journey from hand to hand, he displays a detective’s love of the chase. Yet he also has that rare gift for combining the highest of scholarship with the most accessible of styles. His writing is elegant, engaging and unfailingly charming. 

Most of all, de Hamel’s book is exciting. Whether he is describing the copyist’s art, a binding from 12th century Winchester, or negotiations at a Victorian auction, his narrative positively sings with enthusiasm. His passion for manuscripts, and the people they have touched, is palpable — even infectious. It is impossible not to share his joy, and curiosity. Like the greatest manuscripts, this most “human” of books deserves not just to be treasured, but shared. 

Enjoying The Critic online? It's even better in print

Try five issues of Britain’s newest magazine for £10

Critic magazine cover