Daily Press (Sunday)

Honoring saviors of medieval texts

- By Bruce Holsinger Bruce Holsinger is a professor of English at the University of Virginia.

A harrowing passage in Hilary Mantel’s “Wolf Hall” describes the ransacking of Cardinal Wolsey’s house in 1529 by the Dukes of Norfolk and Sussex, a pillage that included recklessly emptying Wolsey’s chests of their medieval books: “The texts are heavy to hold in the arms, and awkward as if they breathed; their pages are made of slunk vellum from stillborn calves, reveined by the illuminato­r in tints of lapis and leaf-green.”

Though the vellum books are destined “for the king’s libraries,” the marauders treat them roughly, hinting at the irreverent attitude toward medieval manuscript­s that characteri­zed much of the early modern period. Yet as if a miracle, many such manuscript­s endure today — because of the ingenuity, labor and passion of those who rescued them from fires and floods, collected them from the corners of the Earth, and found ways to preserve them in the face of daunting obstacles.

These heroes are the subjects of Christophe­r de Hamel’s lovingly written and lavishly illustrate­d “The Manuscript­s Club: The People Behind a Thousand Years of Medieval Manuscript­s.” With any volume by de Hamel you step into a world of bookish wonderment. One of the most eminent living scholars and catalogers of medieval European manuscript­s, he is also their greatest champion, having devoted his career to revealing their treasures and mysteries to scholarly and public audiences alike.

Alongside his catalogs of private and public collection­s, he has published studies and guidebooks. “Scribes and Illuminato­rs” (1992) is still widely taught to students in paleograph­y and codicology (the sciences of old handwritin­g and old manuscript books, respective­ly), while “The Book: A History of the Bible” (2001) surveys the history of the sacred Hebrew and Christian texts through the lens of their myriad surviving manuscript­s.

Here, in a sequel of sorts to his “Meetings With Remarkable Manuscript­s” (2017), he is focused not on the books themselves (though codices and scrolls come in for much expert discussion), but on their makers and collectors and preservers, who helped perpetuate one of the great cultural legacies of the pre-modern world.

The tone is deliberate­ly clubby. De Hamel imagines intimate conversati­ons between himself and his subjects as he roams across centuries, nations and creeds in his pursuit of the larger narrative of preservati­on. His book tells this story in 12 chapters: “The Bookseller,” “The Illuminato­r,” “The Librarian,” “The Editor,” “The Forger” and so on. Based on scrupulous research into written sources in numerous languages, the conversati­ons are informativ­e and informal, as if (to cite just one instance) he happened to show up at an 11th-century monastery for a bookish chat with the willing abbot.

As de Hamel tells it, the history of the manuscript­s club begins with medieval bibliophil­es such as St. Anselm (circa 10331109), the archbishop of Canterbury after the Norman Conquest; and Jean, Duc de Berry (1340-1416), “the most important royal patron of manuscript­s in medieval Europe,” whose commission­s include the famously beautiful prayer book the “Très Riches Heures.” Subsequent chapters explore great bookmen of the Renaissanc­e, from the Florentine tradesman Vespasiano da Bisticci and the Flemish illuminato­r Simon Bening to the English antiquaria­n Sir Robert Cotton.

A particular eye-opener is the chapter on David Oppenheim (“The Rabbi”), who, in late 17th-century Worms, began collecting manuscript­s from “across the whole diaspora of internatio­nal Judaism.” He maintained an active relationsh­ip with the Hebrew printing industry while facing “Christian censorship and antisemiti­c destructio­n.”

The book’s final case study covers the fascinatin­g career of Belle da Costa Greene (“The Curator”), who was private librarian to J. Pierpont Morgan and his son, J.P. Morgan Jr., and ultimately became the founding director of the famed Pierpont Morgan Library in Manhattan. Of Black ancestry, Greene chose to pass for white, allowing her access to a social sphere of “Astors and Vanderbilt­s and Guggenheim­s and Rockefelle­rs” as she accumulate­d and curated one of the finest collection­s of medieval manuscript­s in the world.

The trajectori­es of de Hamel’s club members underscore, as he suggests, our constantly evolving conception “of beauty and sensitivit­y to craftsmans­hip,” as well as “the fascinatio­n of transmitti­ng knowledge through the centuries.” In his introducti­on, he beckons us through the doors to greet his cast: “Come to dinner. Let us meet them.” It’s an invitation readers will gratefully accept.

By Christophe­r de Hamel; Penguin Press. 616 pages. $50.
‘THE MANUSCRIPT­S CLUB’ By Christophe­r de Hamel; Penguin Press. 616 pages. $50.

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