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For the Love of Manuscripts

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A scribe (in all probability Bede) writing, from Life and Miracles of Saint Cuthbert by Bede, Twelfth century. Bridgeman Pictures.

The Posthumous Papers of the Manuscripts Membership is a logical sequel to Christopher de Hamel’s Conferences with Exceptional Manuscripts (2016), by which he launched readers to a few of the most well-known handmade books of the Center Ages and Renaissance. On this new guide he turns his consideration to the essential query of how such manuscripts have survived the intervening centuries since they had been made. The guide examines the lives of 11 males and one lady whose actions have performed a serious half in shaping the fates of medieval books and figuring out each what survives and the place the manuscripts are to be discovered in the present day.

The folks chosen for de Hamel’s imaginary manuscripts membership, impressed by actual teams such because the Roxburghe Membership and the Grolier Membership, are drawn from eight centuries. The topics have been chosen rigorously to showcase completely different sorts of engagements with manuscripts, starting with the Twelfth-century monk, Saint Anselm, and the tradition of copying and distributing manuscripts that he promoted on the abbey of Le Bec in Normandy and later at Canterbury the place he was archbishop. De Hamel imagines assembly his topics, drawing on surviving locations in addition to manuscripts. There’s, after all, far more proof for the newer topics, so these imagined conferences grow to be somewhat much less speculative because the guide progresses. The central premise, nevertheless, is that these individuals who lived in very completely different occasions and locations would discover frequent floor with de Hamel, the reader and one another of their shared love of manuscripts.

The members of de Hamel’s fictional membership are a intentionally various group. After the monk Anselm, the reader is launched to Jean, Duc de Berry (1340-1416), one of many richest males of his time, the Florentine bookseller Vespasiano da Bisticci (c.1422-98) and the artist Simon Bening (c.1484-1561). From this level the interactions with medieval manuscripts stop to be these of creation and shift as an alternative to gathering and preservation. The following member of the membership, Sir Robert Cotton (1571-1631), might be finest often known as the creator of an infinite library partially destroyed by fireplace in 1731, with what survived now forming a serious a part of the collections of the British Library. Cotton’s pursuits, in addition to the actions of those that rescued books from the fireplace, have due to this fact performed a major position in shaping the fabric obtainable to trendy students.

The chapter on Rabbi David Oppenheim (1664-1736) is especially invaluable to these of us conversant in Latin manuscripts, however not Hebrew ones, as a reminder of the challenges dealing with these starting to work with unfamiliar materials, which has been one main motive for the disposal of previous manuscripts. On this research de Hamel is accompanied by an skilled, Brian Deutsch, who not solely interprets the Hebrew for him, however offers the reader insights into a special set of values for manuscripts, the place previous doesn’t essentially imply invaluable and as an alternative originality and rarity of the textual content are key.

For de Hamel, an enthusiasm for books can compensate for a lot of different failings. Supremely assured in his personal judgements, Abbé Jean-Joseph Rive (1730-91) emerges as somebody who can be a difficult membership member and his story illustrates how gathering tastes, in addition to scholarly opinions, have modified over the past 300 years. Equally, Sir Frederic Madden (1801-73) spent a lot of his profession as keeper of manuscripts on the British Museum feuding with the pinnacle of printed books, whereas Constantine Simonides (1824-90) each bought and solid manuscripts, offering us with invaluable insights into what the students and collectors of the nineteenth century most desired (even when it didn’t survive). Sir Thomas Phillipps, who amassed the biggest personal assortment of manuscripts and was one other man famend for being troublesome to cope with, may simply have had his personal case research, however as an alternative seems repeatedly within the lives of others.

The research of Theodor Mommsen (1817-1903) and Sydney Cockerell (1867-1962) hint the growing professionalisation of the research and care of manuscripts within the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, with Mommsen the one particular person (up to now) to have been awarded a Nobel Prize for his work on manuscripts. Skilled by the collectors John Ruskin and William Morris, Cockerell performed a key position advising English collectors of illuminated manuscripts earlier than becoming a member of the Fitzwilliam Museum in Cambridge. As well as, he constructed his personal assortment earlier than releasing the books again onto the market in his previous age. The guide concludes with Belle da Costa Greene (1879-1950), underlining how white and male the historical past and historiography of gathering has been. Different girls do seem all through the guide, notably Simon Bening’s daughters, one among whom grew to become an artist. However, a lot stays to be finished as we search to know the contributions of those that supported and facilitated the members of this manuscript membership. De Hamel’s guide is a invaluable start line.

The textual content is engagingly written, inviting the reader to comply with the creator on his travels to review these folks in their very own environments. All through his profession de Hamel has finished an immense quantity to make these complicated and interesting artefacts accessible to a large viewers. At occasions his imaginative leaps exhibit the gaps between our modern questions and the character of historic data. For instance, suggesting medical diagnoses for the folks of the previous can solely ever be extraordinarily speculative. However, though the guide wears its thorough analysis calmly, the reader will discover a lot invaluable data within the endnotes. The epilogue signifies that membership of de Hamel’s membership just isn’t restricted to 12; many different characters seem, who might grow to be the topic of a research in their very own proper. The membership is open.

The Posthumous Papers of the Manuscripts Membership
Christopher de Hamel
Allen Lane 624pp £40
Purchase from bookshop.org (affiliate hyperlink)


Laura Cleaver is Senior Lecturer in Manuscript Research on the Institute of English Research.

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