By Chet Yarbrough
Meetings with Remarkable Manuscripts
By: Christopher de Hamel
Narrated by Christopher de Hamel
Christopher de Hamel is a British academic librarian. He is an expert on mediaeval manuscripts. De Hamel takes listeners on an international journey to view ancient illuminated manuscripts.
De Hamel’s peregrinations are fascinating, in part because of his excellent recitation. But also because of interesting stories about manuscript’ provenance, purpose, and location. (A listener’s regret–there are no illuminated manuscript’ plates in the audio book appendix. This review is meant to partially address that regret.)
Illuminated manuscripts are held for safekeeping in controlled access libraries and museums around the world. These manuscripts are called “illuminated” because they were hand-made with images and script drawn in gold and silver. They were made by Western European scribes between 500 and 1600 CE (common era).
They vary in size from as large as three feet tall (Codex Gigas with 310 leaves of vellum made from 160 donkeys) to one so small it could fit into the palm of one’s hand; e.g. the “Prayer Book of Claude de France” produced in the 16th century.
De Hamel reviews 12 manuscripts. The most famous is the “Book of Kels” found in Ireland. The most interesting might be the “Spinola Book of Hours” because the author plays a role in its discovery and collation. The “Spinola Book of Hours” is a 16th century manuscript with 88 miniature paintings. It is presently located in the J. Paul Getty Museum in Los Angeles.
The purpose of ancient manuscripts is to educate and enlighten medieval populations. Just as today, the greatest benefit is to the rich. The rich could afford the manuscripts but the poor were offered limited exposure through the few religious schools that served the poor. Many ancient manuscripts were used to teach the young how to read while educating them in the history of the world and the religion adhered to by royalty.
(The invention of the Guttenberg press in 1440 CE was the beginning of the end of the illuminated manuscript but the art of the handmade manuscript survives into the early 17th century.)
De Hamel tells 13 stories about 12 illuminated and one technically not-illuminated manuscript (the “Codex Amiatinus”). All entertain and inform interested listeners.
The following list shows de Hamel’s chosen manuscripts. An interesting manuscript that reflects on modern times is Tres Riches Heurees du Duc de Berry. It reflects on the Black Plague’s European devastation.
- BOOK OF DURROW (7th century book of hours, biblical tales and Virgil/Homeric tales, most well known. Located in Dublin @ Trinity College – is the oldest completed illuminated transcript)
- CODEX AMIATINUS (created by missionaries, 8th century, North Umbria creation. Bible.) technically not illuminated-no silver or gold.
- LINDISFARNE GOSPELS (Somehow saved) 8th century New Testament, stolen by the Vikings. Contains the gospes of Mark, John, Luke, and Matthew.)
- THE BOOK OF KELLS (most famous, 9th century, greatest of any era)
- ST. ALBANS PSALTER (12th century, detailed art work)
- MORGAN CRUSADER BIBLE (13th century) artistic masterpiece about the Old Testament crusades
- WESTMINISTER ABBEY BESTIARY (164 illustrations, 13th century, real and imaginary animals)
- THE BOOK OF HOURS OF JEANNE d’Evreux (14th century) life of Jesus.
- THE BLACK HOURS (15th century) created in Greece, purchased by Piermont Morgan and housed in the Morgan Museum in New York.
- TRES RICHES HEURES du Duc de Berry (15th century, master work, unfinished because of the plague.)
- Grimani Breviary (16th century, religious and secular stories, made in Flanders. Over 1600 pages – stories from the bible)
- PRAYER BOOK OF CLAUDE DE FRANCE (16th century) fit in the palm of one’s hand. Magnifying glass needed.