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The Posthumous Papers of the Manuscripts Club by Christopher de Hamel

25 November 2022

Michael Wheeler reads about characters who acquired manuscripts

“FOR a priest, there was not much Christian generosity in the Abbé Jean-Joseph Rive (1730–91). La Chasse aux bibliographes, dated 1789, is the most bad-tempered book on manuscripts ever written.” And Christopher de Hamel should know: he has read the others.

He also seems to have handled most surviving medieval manuscripts, in a long career with Sotheby’s and at Cambridge. The autistic Abbé, classified as “The Savant”, is seventh in a line of 12 members of “The Manuscripts Club”, which stretches from St Anselm (The Monk) to Belle da Costa Greene, of the Pierpont Morgan Library (The Curator). In 500 pages of lavishly illustrated text, the reader is offered a wealth of information and entertainment.

To breathe life into his selected historical figures, the author uses several devices that close the gap between their time and ours. The chapter on Simon Bening (The Illuminator), for example, begins with an announcement that we have arranged to meet him at the Victoria and Albert Museum, London. Our route through the museum, including the “insistent shopping mall”, is described, ending up at Room 90a and the first case on the left, where we find a small self-portrait of Bening in old age (reproduced on the facing page). On his desk is an image of the Virgin and Child, with a rack for brushes and pigments to the left of the desk. Manuscript and maker are vividly present

By the time we reach Sir Frederic Madden, of the British Museum (The Librarian), we are used to moving into an imaginative version of the historic present, as when the author tells Madden about progress on this book, and is asked by the librarian for more information on David Oppenheim (The Rabbi), “as he asked the Bodleian in reality in 1865”. Madden “knows more about Simon Bening than anyone in Europe”, but is less impressed by the Duc de Berry (The Prince).

AlamyThe Duc de Berry at his New Year feast in the January miniature of the Très Riches Heures illuminated by the Limbourg brothers, c.1415. This depiction is illustrated in the book

The author moves effortlessly through space as well as time, taking us to museums and private collections in different parts of the world, describing what various manuscripts feel like in the hand — how they smell, and even how they burn. Collectors, represented here by Sir Sydney Cockerell, tend to be great travellers, like de Hamel himself (The Scholar). Cockerell admired Ruskin, who thought nothing of travelling through France in 1888 with several manuscripts in his pockets: a tiny 13th-century Bible, a Dutch Psalter, and a Parisian Breviary, “which he intended to give (but did not) to Beauvais Cathedral”.

Vespasiano da Bisticci (The Bookseller), Sir Robert Cotton (The Antiquary), Constantine Simonides (The Forger), and Theodor Mommsen (The Editor) complete the membership, which, at the end of the book, gathers for a lively evening at the Morgan.

Here is great learning delivered in a wrapper of Pickwickian whimsy.


Dr Michael Wheeler is a Visiting Professor at the University of Southampton and the author of The Year That Shaped the Victorian Age: Lives, loves and letters of 1845 (Cambridge University Press, 2020).


The Posthumous Papers of the Manuscripts Club
Christopher de Hamel
Allen Lane £40
Church Times Bookshop £36

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