Christopher de Hamel is a wonderful and inspiring writer, wearing his scholarship lightly and introducing his readers to manuscripts, libraries, manuscript makers, and authors with the lightest of touches such that they hardly realise that they are absorbing so much knowledge. This is evident in all his books, but particularly his previous best seller and award winner – ‘Meetings with Remarkable Manuscripts’. Could his newest book live up to that?
It certainly does!
In this latest one – ‘The Posthumous Papers of the Manuscripts Club’ – a play on the title of Dickens’ first novel, Christopher de Hamel takes as his theme not the makers of manuscripts (apart from Simon Bening), or the manuscripts, but those who collected and commissioned them, whether for themselves, other people or for religious foundations or libraries. It is an interesting conceit and one which could easily become rather dull and monotonous, but Christopher has such deftness of style, and introduces contemporary sources so well into the narrative, that it becomes such a good read and a difficult-to-put-down book. He starts with St Anselm as here, abbot of Bec Abbey, and then Archbishop of Canterbury. As with his previous book, Christopher takes us on a journey to Bec and describes what it must have been like at the time, bringing in Anselm’s correspondence and the ‘prickly’ script of Canterbury along the way.
The range of Christopher’s collectors include a monk (above), bookseller, illuminator, librarian, and, bringing us into the twentieth century, a curator. There are twelve chapters, all focusing on these different approaches of manuscript collection. The bookseller in chapter 3 is Vespasiano da Bisticci, the bookseller of Florence, and Christopher again sets out and visits the city to trace not only Vespasiano’s original shop but also the house where the bookseller retired; it is situated about five miles outside Florence. He left the city once the printing press signalled the decrease in demand for hand-written books, and Christopher quotes a letter from Vespiano to Pandolfini trying to persuade him to come and stay at; ‘…this pleasant and charming place, where the woods, fine hillsides, springs and clear streams and cascades invite you …’ – who could resist? Before his retirement, Vespasiano commissioned many manuscripts for his prestigious clients including this for the Duke of Urbino, illuminated by Francesco Roselli.
Constantine Simonides was a nineteenth-century forger, specialising in Greek manuscripts and particularly those of the early Christian era and ancient Greek authors. The photograph of him in the book (as here) certainly shows someone who lived up to that of an itinerant scribe and dealer, looking slightly dishevelled and about to pull out unknown manuscript treasures no doubt from a carpet bag! This is an intriguing chapter of deception and veracity, and brings in doubt about the authenticity of the Codex Siniaticus in the British Library (soon dispelled!).
Sir Sydney Cockerell will be familiar to calligraphers as the person who advised the great scribe Edward Johnston to study the manuscripts of the late tenth century so that he could improve his writing style, and from which Johnston devised his Foundational Hand. Cockerell had been William Morris’s secretary and together they bought the manuscript shown here, when, as this book describes they were in Beauvais together and at just after 7 in the morning Morris demanded that Cockerell ‘come out and buy a manuscript’! Despite his later advancement to be Director of the Fitzwilliam Museum, manuscripts were in Cockerell’s heart throughout his life, and the excitement with which such works could be bought for relatively small sums during the latter part of the nineteenth-century, and the delight of such collectors Cockerell advised and worked for such as John Ruskin, Henry Yates Thompson and Charles Perrins (of Lea and Perrins sauce fame) when they owned them is almost palpable in this book.
This is such a good book, a romping read through the ages of book collecting and dispersal that any thought of it being boring is dispelled in the first sentence. Should you buy it? YES, you should – it is very highly recommended!