Meetings with Remarkable Manuscripts

by Christopher De Hamel

Hardcover, 2016



Call number



Allen Lane (2016), Edition: 1, 640 pages


"Meetings with Remarkable Manuscripts is a captivating examination of twelve illuminated manuscripts from the medieval period. Noted authority Christopher de Hamel invites the reader into intimate conversations with these texts to explore what they tell us about nearly a thousand years of medieval history--and about the modern world, too. In so doing, de Hamel introduces us to kings, queens, saints, scribes, artists, librarians, thieves, dealers, and collectors. He traces the elaborate journeys that these exceptionally precious artifacts have made through time and shows us how they have been copied, how they have been embroiled in politics, how they have been regarded as objects of supreme beauty and as symbols of national identity, and who has owned them or lusted after them (and how we can tell). From the earliest book in medieval England to the incomparable Book of Kells to the oldest manuscript of the Canterbury Tales, these encounters tell a narrative of intellectual culture and art over the course of a millennium. Two of the manuscripts visited are now in libraries of North America, the Morgan Library in New York and the Getty Museum in Los Angeles. Part travel book, part detective story, part conversation with the reader, Meetings with Remarkable Manuscripts allows us to experience some of the greatest works of art in our culture to give us a different perspective on history and on how we come by knowledge"--… (more)

Media reviews

Meetings With Remarkable Manuscripts is the most enjoyable work of high scholarship I have ever read, if only because its author so clearly enjoyed compiling it.

Christopher de Hamel has spent most of his life researching and thinking about his subject, for years as the chief specialist in medieval
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manuscripts at Sotheby's, and now as librarian of the Parker library at Corpus Christi college, Cambridge, which possesses some important artefacts. Now that he has decided to share his passion with us, his schema is this: to ease us into the subject, he chooses 12 of the most important surviving illustrated manuscripts from the middle ages, held by great libraries around the world, and takes us with him to examine them all for ourselves.

Some of the manuscripts are perfectly exquisite, some ungainly, some inexplicable, but, as De Hamel says himself, "intrinsic beauty is a difficult conception in art history". Although pages from all 12 are beautifully reproduced in his book, and although he describes them, their histories and their meanings in minute detail, still the power of this volume lies not so much in its scholarship as in its love.
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User reviews

LibraryThing member Stbalbach
Meetings with Remarkable Manuscripts is a wondrous discovery. Christopher de Hamel is one of the world’s leading experts on mediaeval manuscript and in 12 chapters he takes us on a tour of 12 manuscripts in 12 libraries. There is far more to it then I ever imagined but the more one learns the
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more interesting it becomes. Who made it, when, why, who owned it, how did it arrive, etc.. the questions are endless and often involve sleuthing and best guesses. Manuscripts combine the study of medieval history with art in a physical sense that is unusual outside numismatics (coins) and archaeology. De Hamel tells us there are over 1 million in existence around the world and with a little excuse it may be possible to request a meeting with one yourself. This is a wonderful book that is intellectually uplifting and makes you feel smarter for having read it.
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LibraryThing member drmaf
I have to say that this is one of the most intriguing and unusual books I have ever read. The author, an expert on and passionately in love with extraordinarily rare and precious manuscripts, leads the reader on a personal journey to discover 12 of the rarest illuminated manuscripts in the world,
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dating from the 7th century to the 16th. His extraordinarily detailed examination of the minutiae of each book, including the individual quirks of the author, the damage, restoration and rebinding that each book has fone through, as well as the particular circumstances in which each book finds itself today, with a cook's tour of the reading rooms of the world's great libraries, is captivating. Although sometimes he becomes too technical for the lay reader, always he strains to make the magic of these miraculously surviving texts shine. This is not a light read, it demands concentration and committment to follow where he is going, but the discerning reader will reap great rewards for patience. I am fortunate enough to have personally seen just one of the manuscripts he covers (the Book of Kells), but this book has whetted my appetite to see more. Extraordinarily rewarding read that will stay with me for a long time.
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LibraryThing member kakadoo202
While i love book this was just a bit too much information.
Probably great for rare book collectors
LibraryThing member Lukerik
“This is a book about visiting important medieval manuscripts and what they tell us and why they matter.”

Job done.

Twelve chapters. Twelve manuscripts. Each chapter follows the same formula. De Hamel gives you the history of how the book came to be in its current library and describes his visit.
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Very interesting to see the different library cultures at play. I bet there are a few red faces at the Pierpont Morgan Library. He’s kind enough not to name names but they must know who they are. They he describes each manuscript and pulls out some of its more interesting features. Finally there’s some sort of detective work that might shine a light on the manuscript itself, but also into an obscure, or not so obscure, corner of history. There are lots of little discoveries along the way. Did you know that the Roman’s were aware that Venus and Mercury orbited the sun? Neither did I.

An incredibly interesting and readable book. The first night I looked up from it and realised it was four in the morning. The second night I knew what was going to happen so I napped before starting to read. The sun was up by the time I went to bed. This book has charm. I should think de Hamel does too. He managed to talk his way into examining each and every one of these books. The Codex Amiatinus. The Book of Kells. Obviously he has the credentials and knows the right people, but still... do you think they’d ever let me in to see the Hengwrt Chaucer? They’d take one look at me and think of that scene in Red Dragon where he eats the Blake. And quite right too. There’s a church near me with priceless medieval wall paintings. I went to see them and talked to the vicar for a while about the cost of insuring thatch (the church is thatched). I don’t know if I charmed her or bored her, but after a while she went off to do something, iron her cassock or something, and as soon as I was left alone with the paintings I climbed up on the pews and poked them all over.

One of the most interesting chapters for me was the Carmina Burana. I’m a fan of Orff’s musical number but mad never really thought about the source of the lyrics. It is of course a unique manuscript. All other copies are later printings edited from it. De Hamel’s analysis of its format as a kind of secular Breviary was particularly enlightening.

This is to say nothing of the illustrations in Remarkable Manuscripts. On its edge the book looks like geological strata. And those are just the illustrations that run to the edge of the page. The list of illustrations runs to seven pages of close type. Shame about the type face, but the paper is beautiful. Has a glow to it in the right light. Physically a well made book and all for thirty quid. That’s only three packets of fags. I borrowed my copy from the library.
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LibraryThing member neal_
Masterful. An authoritative, instructive, absorbing and entertaining account of some of the most beautiful documents in the world.
LibraryThing member Steve38
A remarkable book. Mr De Hamel easily conveys his lifetime of interest, enthusiam and deep knowledge of manuscripts to me, the lay reader. He takes his 'meeting' quite literally. Introducing each manuscript as if it was an old frienc. Which in Mr De Hamel's case, they are. He knows them intimately.
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It is always impressive when someone with such detailed knowledge and expertise wears it lightly and communicats it easily. It is a common saying that if you make yourself an expert in something, no matter what, you will be able to make your living from it. Mr De Hamel is a case in point. A boyhood enthusiasm kindled by access to manuscripts in his local library turned into a commercial and academic career. The manuscripts he introduces are not as well known as other cultural artefacts of the times such as art and sculpture. But they display the same skills and dedication in their making. Craft and art combined. Wonderful.
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Pol Roger Duff Cooper Prize (Winner — 2016)
Cundill History Prize (Longlist — 2017)
Waterstones Book of the Year (Shortlist — 2016)
Wolfson History Prize (Shortlist — 2017)


Original language


Original publication date


Physical description

640 p.; 9.72 inches


0241003040 / 9780241003046
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