“Stick your nose into other people’s business and it’s considered rude,” Christopher de Hamel says, “but stick your nose far enough back and it’s considered history.” In his latest book, Meetings with Remarkable Manuscripts: Twelve Journeys into the Medieval World, de Hamel turns what he sees as the voyeuristic pleasure of discovering secrets about others’ lives into historical and writerly method. He invites his readers to accompany him as he travels to archives in cities across the globe; he beckons them closer, asks them to look over his shoulder as he points to textual details that are not only beautiful—at times reproduced for us in all their gilded splendor—but also clues that can be added together to tell stories about the people and networks that produced, kept, coveted, stole, and circulated these medieval books.
Each chapter of de Hamel’s book is focused on a single manuscript. He chooses his 12 manuscripts, which date from the sixth to the 16th century and span genres, for being what he determines “characteristic” of the times and places that produced them. Interested in facilitating a “glamorous experience for the reader,” these texts are ornate, , and often quite famous: the Hengwrt Chaucer and the Spinola Hours, to name two.
But Meetings with Remarkable Manuscripts is also about today’s age, our own values and desires and customs. When he brings us with him to encounter these old books, de Hamel introduces us to the regulatory practices of distinct archives and the cultures of the cities surrounding them. He notes the no-nail-polish rule at New York’s Morgan Library; he delights in the curator who offers him chocolates while he studies the Visconti Semideus (a treatise on warfare for princes) at St. Petersburg’s National Library; and the strict entrance requirements at Los Angeles’s Getty Museum lead him to suggest that “in America anyone in uniform assumes you are a felon until proven otherwise.”
When de Hamel told his wife that he was writing another book on medieval texts (he calls the books he wrote before “more like coffee table books,” more for browsing than reading), she playfully teased, “if only you could write on an interesting topic, people would read it.” The book’s reception stood up to speak in de Hamel’s defense. In addition to rave reviews, it has been awarded the Duff Cooper Prize for 2016 and the Wolfson History Prize for 2017.
As the popular reception of the Game of Thrones seriesmight attest,there is something about the medieval past that excites people today. Dedicating his life’s work to studying and writing about medieval manuscripts, de Hamel is arguably better positioned than most to take a stab at what it is that makes the Middle Ages speak to people today. But when asked to talk about the relevance of medieval manuscripts to our own present moment, de Hamel is surprisingly hesitant. He admits finding a “thrill in actually encountering the original object…a kick about it.” But what to make of that thrill? Does it matter; why; how? De Hamel is resistant to providing sure answers here. When pressed, he speculates briefly that people living today might turn to the medieval past in their “nostalgia for a time when right and wrong were clearer, when people lived more simply and in connection to the seasons.”
Instead of making claims about what they can teach us, de Hamel relishes how medieval manuscripts enable connections between the past and present. “Language. Art. History. Survival,” he says, “and the human interactions with all of those. That’s what manuscripts are about.” The “thrill” of seeing and touching the vellum pages of these sometimes one-thousand-years-old books (he hates when curators make him wear gloves) is also the joy of connecting to people who lived long ago. “We can enjoy ourselves poking impertinently into the affairs of men and women of long ago,” de Hamel writes, “and sharing the same original artefacts which gave delight to those people too.”
And as to the moments of discovery that happen when handling and interpreting these delightful objects? De Hamel insists that paying attention to manuscripts inevitably produces new knowledge about the past. He extends the invitation to me, to his readers, to everyone: you too can experience manuscripts and you too will find something new, he says (like a good teacher, perhaps, encouraging; still, something about how he says it makes me believe him). “It’s rather like being in love,” de Hamel says, when he describes what it feels like to follow his observations to points of discovery. “You suddenly think,” he continues, “‘I think I’ve bloody got it.’ You have a secret smile. You go back to the same point. You wake up in the morning thinking about it.”
“Like teenage love,” de Hamel reflects, “it wears off too.” But he says that “it is the search that matters. It’s an adventure.” Perhaps that promise of adventure is what draws us most to the medieval past, or the event that connects us to it. De Hamel’s book invites us to keep searching and shows the payoff in doing so.
Brianna Jewell is a writer living in New York City.