Manuscript men

Manuscripts are inseparable from the flesh-and-blood people who made and used them: the Latin manu means “by hand”, and scriptus “written”. The word is suggestive of more than the penmanship of an individual scribe. As Christopher de Hamel points out, each page of a medieval manuscript “was touched many hundreds of times and usually by several people long before it was finished.” Manuscripts “then need to be handled to have ongoing life at all: they talk with words but only when people can turn their pages to read them”. Their creation is a process that never really ends, so long as people continue to have a hand in the accumulation of marks and meanings. In The Posthumous Papers of the Manuscripts Clubde Hamel turns his exceptionally keen scholarly eye to these invisible hands: scribes and illuminators, antiquaries and librarians, collectors and curators – even a forger.

His “inquiry into the relationship between people and manuscripts” takes the form of an asynchronous group biography. The book’s twelve chosen subjects are not linked by time or place, but by the manuscripts they made or amassed. Often these links are quite direct. One manuscript, the richly illuminated fourteenth-century Tres Riches Heures, was handled by no less than four of de Hamel’s subjects over the centuries, before eventually being held by the author himself. But he also proposes a less literal affinity between his subjects. He sees them all — and, by extension, himself — as members of this book’s titular confraternity of manuscript lovers.

It is hard to imagine a more capable guide to this world than de Hamel. In the course of his academic and auctioneering career he is likely to have seen and handled more medieval manuscripts than anyone else alive. As in his previous book, Meetings with Remarkable Manuscripts (2016), he demonstrates his flair for conveying the physicality of these objects: how they cockle and warp under moisture, how the calfskin pages smell like bacon when burnt (as they frequently were across the candle-lit centuries). And he lugs his kitchen scales to the archives to weigh each book of a five-volume, fifteenth-century Cicero (the first volume weighs 6.8kg, the others about 4.4kg – “the whole set would therefore weigh about the same as … a boy of seven or eight”).

De Hamel paints his human subjects just as vividly, imagining encounters with them in their monasteries, castles and stately homes. What sort of people were they? St Anselm, the eleventh-century philosopher monk with whom this book begins, seems to have had an altruistic love of manuscripts, motivated by religious duty. Surviving correspondence shows how he orchestrated the lending of manuscripts between monasteries, developing international intellectual networks along the way. But perhaps the more typical member of the club is someone “obsessive, sometimes bordering on madness and certainly on villainy”. Acquisition is addictive. “It is no use my wearing not to buy another thing. The moment I am sufficiently tempted, I fall!”, wrote the William Morris-trained collector Sydney Cockerell, at the height of his manuscript fixation. Thomas Phillipps, a nineteenth-century textiles heir, spent almost his entire substantial inheritance on a collection of 40,000 printed books and 60,000 vellum manuscripts. When the British Museum library’s keeper of manuscripts, Frederic Madden, visited Phillipps’s country pile, he described priceless manuscripts “lying in heaps under your feet, piled upon tables, beds, chairs, ladders”.

Madden, to whom another chapter is dedicated, had his own neuroses. He maintained a lifelong rivalry of near-deranged intensity with Anthony Panizzi, the British Museum’s keeper of printed books and later principal librarian. Their print vs manuscript turf war curdled into a petty feud; Panizzi spent years (unsuccessfully) campaigning to get Madden’s dog, Fido, banned from the museum grounds. These are, it is fair to say, difficult characters. Moreover, for people who supposedly cherish manuscripts, they often don’t treat them very well. Robert Cotton, the Elizabethan antiquarian whose manuscript collection formed the nucleus of what would later become the British Library, whiled away his evenings cutting up and rebinding fragments of eighteen-century Anglo-Saxon books, according to his own aesthetic whims. In 1880 all five extant copies of Jordanes’s Geticaa sixth-century history of the Goths, were destroyed by a fire in the cluttered study of the great classicist Theodor Mommsen, who had borrowed them from various institutional libraries and took them home on the train.

Mommsen was forgiven, partly because he was a distinguished scholar, but also because he cultivated an air of harebrained idiosyncrasy that granted him exemption from the social and professional rules governing everyone else. Eccentricity, awkwardness, even a conjectured “element of autism”, characterize several of the Manuscripts Club’s members. Bibliophilia can be a retreat from the confusing world of normal people or a way to bond with other enthusiasts. De Hamel judges Cotton to have been “clever but shy”; the buying and sharing of manuscripts offered both intellectual nourishment and a sense of belonging. Two centuries earlier the same was surely true of Cosimo de’ Medici when he joined a younger crew of Florentine manuscript-hunters: “for a relatively small outlay, a possibly lonely man was swept into an antiquarian circle which provided camaraderie and a shared interest “.

They’re not all loners. Vespasiano da Basticci, the bookseller who commissioned that child-sized Cicero, moved deftly through the highest echelons of Florentine society; he was a go-between for Cosimo and his short biographies of contemporaries fizz with gossip, “the chatter of the street and the wine bar”. Later, Belle de Costa Greene, the only woman with a chapter of her own in this book, would find similarly gainful employment as a fixer for John Pierpont Morgan, schmoozing on his behalf to procure rare manuscripts. She was compelled to conceal her African American origins with a cover story of Portuguese heritage. Eventually, as with Vespasiano, her charm and expertise bought her a ticket to the top, where she “mingl[ed] with Astors and Vanderbilts”.

In one way or another, though, all these people are outsiders. Sometimes we get an inkling that de Hamel is an effective chronicler of this bunch because it takes one to know one. When he says he “would give almost anything to be able to rummage through the book chests in the cloister with Anselm beside me”, we feel that he means it. He always has a soft spot for fellow club members, even the rogues and misanthropes. That fellow-feeling makes for good biographical writing. But it also understates a glaring truth: manuscript collections of any size are extremely expensive. The members of this club are either staggeringly rich people, like the Duc de Berry, or their fixers and facilitators, like Vespasiano and Greene. As a result, The Posthumous Papers of the Manuscripts Club cannot avoid being, at least in part, an anthropological study of great wealth, and the power and politics that go with it.

De Hamel is not oblivious to this. He marvels at the “unlimited budget” granted by Cosimo to Vespasiano, explains how manuscripts painted by the sixteenth-century Belgian illuminator Simon Bening Veblen goods (“the more you charge, the more highly valued the commodity”) and gives a good account of the nineteenth-century growth of manuscripts as an asset class for wealthy investors. But he doesn’t seem to share my feeling that this frenzied private acquisitiveness raises ethical questions. De Hamel is relaxed about people getting filthy rich, so long as they spend their money on manuscripts. At several points in this book I wanted to cry, Indiana Jones-style, “That belongs in a museum!” – but for de Hamel that is missing the point. For him manuscripts in public libraries are in “captivity”, rather than “in the wild”. Our “lives are poorer” if we view them only “in the strip-lit reading room of a modern national library” and not in the recesses of a candle-lit castle. Personally, the wonder and magic I have experienced in those reading rooms, with their faintly municipal atmospheres and their terrible cafés, were enhanced by the fact that anyone could show up, request a manuscript and become the latest in a long line of readers, joining with them hand to hand.

De Hamel’s attitude leads to blind spots. A potted biography of William Young Ottley, “one of the earliest connoisseurs of quattrocento art”, admiringly discusses his “magnificent thirteenth-century French Psalter”, but refers only in passing to his inheritance of £10,000 on the death of his father, “who had sugar plantations in the West Indies”. Is it not worth explicitly mentioning – and, for that matter, investigating – the fact that the Psalter, sold on in 1927 to JP Morgan, was purchased with the proceeds of slave labor? In a similar vein, the energetic acquisition strategy of the nineteenth-century British Museum library is praised as “evidence of a truly international outlook in Victorian England which is neither exclusive nor chauvinistic”. This is a surprising finding, and becomes more so if we consider Anthony Panizzi’s response in 1860 to a question about whether “Oriental, Mexican and Peruvian” acquisitions were “stored away in the basement”, to which he replied: “Yes, a few of them; and I may add, that I do not think it is any great loss that they are not better placed than they are.”

The Posthumous Papers of the Manuscripts Club constitutes a remarkable scholarly achievement. Hardly an incidental detail is spared in its 600-page span, which is great if you’re the sort of reader who appreciates knowing that Thomas Phillipps’s stately home is now reached by a “modern drive” that is “more suitable for cars”, or that one of Sydney Cockerell’s children would go on to invent the hovercraft. But someone in the club would do well to acknowledge the awkward truth of high-end collecting and connoisseurship: sometimes it really is all about the money.

James Waddell is a PhD candidate in English at UCL. He was runner-up in the 2021 Observer/Anthony Burgess prize for Arts Journalism

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