Sometimes it’s okay to judge history by its cover
By Helen Hazen
September 5, 2017
Meetings With Remarkable Manuscripts: Twelve Journeys into the Medieval World by Christopher de Hamel; Penguin Press, 632 pp., $45
Christopher de Hamel is technically a paleographer, someone who studies ancient forms of writing, but that title is woefully inadequate to describe his erudition. He is better referred to as a world-renowned expert on medieval manuscripts, but even that is insufficient. Take this by way of example: when de Hamel puts his hands on the beautiful Codex Amiatinus, the earliest known copy of the Latin Vulgate version of the Catholic Bible (housed in a museum in Florence, and whose origins had been presumed to be Italian but later proved to be English), he can sense the work’s true ancestry by the “curious warm leathery smell to English parchment” compared with “the sharper, cooler scent of Italian skins.”
Yes, as an expert on very old books, he smells them. He also knows what color and type of thread were used in ninth-century French manuscripts, and he tells you, his reader, how the cursive script was exported from Rome and what it looked like in the Merovingian minuscule in France or the Alemannic minuscule in western Germany. He knows where and when variations of the Latin Vulgate were in use, how garnets decorated the covers of sumptuous works from medieval England but never from medieval Ireland. He can point out dates of origin from the heraldry used in 14th-century Navarre. He knows where and when scribes used a sizably rounded-out letter D. He can tell you all about how three-dimensional perspective developed until it became common practice in 15th-century art.
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Helen Hazen was a librarian at the University of Iowa Libraries before moving to Arequipa, Peru, where she is now curator of Early Printed Books at the Convento de la Recoleta. She is the author of Endless Rapture: Rape, Romance, and the Female Imagination.