IT’S almost impossible to believe it now, but in the middle of the 1820s, with the full permission of Trinity College, a bookbinder named George Mullen took a knife to the Book of Kells, slicing off the edges of pages and cutting away decoration that had been painstakingly created by monks 1,000 years before.
He did this simply to fit the manuscript into the new covers he had created.
The book was already a famous relic in Mullen’s time but that didn’t stop him. What’s more, there is no record of what he did with the offcuts — so, as Christopher de Hamel says in his superb book, if you have some old decorated strips of vellum lying around at home take good care of them, you could retire to a life of luxury on the proceeds.
De Hamel’s book, Meetings with Remarkable Manuscripts, is so vividly written that it’s as close to time travel as any art historian or book-lover will ever get — an epic expedition into the world as it was when medieval illuminated manuscripts were created.
In its pages, the author, a fellow and librarian of Corpus Christi College Cambridge, takes his readers on a global tour of ancient books, from Copenhagen to Dublin, Munich to New York, all the time making for a knowledgeable travelling companion who wears his learning lightly.
The first problem to overcome on this quest is access to sacred texts — appointments have to be made and security procedures followed — but when he does manage to stand before an original manuscript which exudes its age and glory, his descriptions, enlivened with anecdotes — such as Mullen’s trimming of Ireland’s national treasure — bring his book alive.
De Hamel scrutinises 12 works, each a varied mix of calligraphy and art.
Sometimes that art, such as in the 12th century Copenhagen Psalter is packed with luxurious and rich biblical scenes — the later medieval period loved its bling, and sometimes it takes the form of crabbed, swirling text, but whatever the format, de Hamel maintains a critical eye: “I shall probably have my permission to visit the Republic of Ireland revoked forever”, he writes jokingly, before telling us the picture of the Virgin and Child in the Book of Kells is “dreadfully ugly. Mary’s head is far too big for her body and she has huge staring red-lined eyes. What’s more, the Christ child is grotesque and unadorable”.
This may be true, but considering it is the earliest representation of the subject in European art, and that it is influenced by centuries of Coptic style, its appearance may not be down to a lack of drawing skills.
The majority of the 520,000 visitors who queue to see the Book of Kells every year do so because its images are world famous. The Gospel pages with their intricate strapwork have been endlessly reproduced, but for de Hamel the glory lies in the pages of text which are “far finer and more exquisite than I ever expected”.
And he’s right, how many of us ever look at the penmanship involved with what is called ‘insular majuscule script’? Invented in Ireland, these large curling letters conquered the rest of Europe as the style travelled from monastery to monastery in the minds of educated and skillful Irish monks.
The Book of Kells is the superstar of European illuminated manuscripts and the most famous the author takes in on his journey. There’s no room for the Lindisfarne Gospels, and more surprisingly that milestone of western art, Les Très Riches Heures de Duc De Berry, is also absent. Instead, there are visits to some lesser-known works.
Getting to see the Leiden Manuscript involves overcoming an obstacle course of bureaucracy and security, with de Hamel first being told to examine the facsimile, and then that the book is digitised and freely available online anyway.
When he finally gets permission to visit the Netherland’s most valuable book, he is photographed, and then escorted to the rare book level of Leiden University Library.
The Leiden Aratea is not a religious work, but an astronomical treatise, dating from the early ninth century when it was copied in the palace library of Charlemagne.
The pictures it contains, beautifully reproduced in De Hamel’s book, are, to say the least strange: bears dancing between the coils of a snake; two muscular twins representing Gemini; the five known planets in the form of detached, floating heads — all images which illustrate the totally alien nature of the medieval mind.
Like the Book of Kells, the Leiden Aratea had a run-in with an overzealous restorer, this time as recently as 1989 when a Benedictine nun, Sr Lucie, generally did a good job with rebinding but could not be dissuaded from taking an eraser to the margins, giving it a white, overclean appearance.
Throughout Meetings with Remarkable Manuscripts de Hamel remains an excellent guide, and is no slouch when it comes to evocative writing.
Referring to a time he took The Gospel of St Augustine to a service in Canterbury Cathedral, he noticed that its leaves were so light they fluttered in time to the sacred music. “It was as if the sixth-century manuscript had come to life,” he writes.
Time and again in the pages of Meetings with Remarkable Manuscripts we learn not just what ancient books reveal about medieval history but also what they tell us about more recent times.
Some medieval manuscripts, through no fault of their own, have acquired the darkest of associations.
The Bavarian State Library in Munich is home to the Carmina Burana, a bawdy collection of 350 medieval poems and songs which is utterly unique. It is so valuable that, on applying to see it, de Hamel learns that the head of reference in the rare book department has never actually seen the original himself.
Wearing protective gloves and working on a soft foam-covered table, de Hamel examines the text that inspired the 20th-century German genius, Carl Orff, to compose a choral symphony — a repetitive, musical blitzkrieg that became a piece of propaganda beloved by the Nazis and by Hitler himself.
The verses of the manuscript celebrate youth and masculine prowess, crusades, and chivalry, all set in a beautifully illustrated world of verdant woodlands. As a template for massed spectacle and a celebration of the Fatherland it was ideal, as musically envisaged by Orff with his hypnotic drum beats and insistent rhythms.
But was the symphony consciously composed as propaganda? One side of the debate says no. They argue it was appropriated by the Nazis after it was written; for the other side it’s a very obvious yes. They point out that it was performed widely in Germany throughout the war and that Goebbels praised it in his diaries.
Whatever the guilty associations of the symphony, the original manuscript remains entirely innocent — verses on themes of love, virtue, fate and fortune run through its beautifully written pages.
The physical qualities of Meetings with Remarkable Manuscripts make it a joy to own: it’s a brick of a book with more than 600 heavy-gauge cream-coloured pages, elegantly bound and sumptuously illustrated. Scholarly but accessible, and written by an author who never forgets to engage with his readers, it’s a thrilling adventure into the world of ancient books.
Meetings with Remarkable Manuscripts, Christopher de Hamel Allen Lane, €35.20
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