Christopher de Hamel’s family came from pre-revolutionary France. A hundred years later they added the posh French particle “de” in an obligatory piece of Victorian bigging-up. Now they are socially secure, and de Hamel is as English as they come. As a boy, his pockets were weighed down by coins and medals; today his olive corduroy trousers are home to the keys of his kingdom – the Parker Library of medieval manuscripts where he is the Donnelley Fellow Librarian and where every book in his care, however rare and valuable, is stamped with the initials C.C.C.C. for Corpus Christi College, Cambridge.
To visit the librarian in his lair is to meet a happy man. There is nothing de Hamel enjoys more than talking about manuscripts. He wrote his PhD thesis on 12th-century biblical commentaries and spent 25 years at Sotheby’s, where, in 1983, he sold the magnificently illustrated Gospels of Henry the Lion of 1188 to the German government for a record £8.1m ($12m); the underbidder was J. Paul Getty junior. For the past 16 years he has been the Parker librarian, and he knows his bibliographic onions. “I’ve catalogued more medieval manuscripts than anyone alive, and probably more than anyone has ever done.” He has distilled a lifetime of obsession into a new book, “Meetings with Remarkable Manuscripts”.
The week before I went to Cambridge to meet him I spent an hour that became two, three, four each evening, reading it. Since it doesn’t come out till September, all I had was a typescript, with no illuminations. That didn’t matter. Reading is my life, but only about once a decade do I find a book that seems to tilt the world, so afterwards it appears different.
The world de Hamel describes spans 1,000 years from the late sixth century, when people began to write in earnest, to 1520. He introduces the Irish “Book of Kells”, the Florentine “Codex Amiatinus” and the “Hours of Jeanne de Navarre”, the private prayer book of a French queen, as small as the palm of her hand, which was passed from princess to princess down the royal line to three queens of different countries, each a direct descendant of the canonised French king, Saint Louis, until it was looted on the personal orders of Hermann Göring.
But it all begins with St Augustine’s Gospel, which takes us back to de Hamel’s spiritual patron, Bishop Parker, and the Parker Library.
Parker, who studied at Corpus Christi, became Anne Boleyn’s chaplain. In 1559, when he was 55, her daughter, Elizabeth I, made him Archbishop of Canterbury, with instructions to cement the Reformation so that England could never again be Catholic. To that end, he accumulated 600 manuscripts, choosing books that fitted his agenda – not “Beowolf”, which is fiction and set in Denmark, but Old English gospels from the tenth century, books on the use of English rather than Latin in churches and by kings, books of royal coronations, books that provided evidence that England’s religion had English roots. He wrote the 39 articles that define Anglicanism as a free, independent English church, responsible to the king – with married priests and preaching in English. Both his working drafts, with all their corrections in red, and the original signed by the bishops of England and Wales and the deans of the chapters and the cathedrals, are in the Parker Library. Translated into English, they became the foundations of the established church that stated: “The Bishop of Rome hath no jurisdiction in this realm of England.”
Of Parker’s books, none was more important than St Augustine’s Gospel, which is why it is the first manuscript the reader encounters in de Hamel’s new book. St Luke is portrayed in the gospel as the authors of Greek books were, with a short grey beard, sitting on a marble throne reading. This was Christianity straight from St Peter. The gospel was commissioned by Gregory the Great, who sent Augustine to preach at Canterbury in 597. It was deposited in St Augustine’s Abbey there until Archbishop Parker got hold of it in the mid-16th century, and has only ever had two owners.
When Parker died in 1575, he left the manuscripts, which he held by permission of the Privy Council, to Corpus Christi. The only condition was that there should be an annual audit. If a single one was missing, the whole collection, together with the rare Tudor silver he bequeathed with it, would be forfeit to Gonville & Caius College, up the road. For four centuries, virtually no one was admitted; and even now the books leave only rarely. De Hamel took St Augustine’s Gospel to Westminster Abbey when Pope Benedict came to England in 2010. There it was blessed and kissed by both the pontiff and Rowan Williams, then Parker’s successor as Archbishop of Canterbury. And earlier this year, the new Archbishop of Canterbury, Justin Welby, summoned the primates of the Anglican Communion to Canterbury to discuss same-sex marriage. To inspire them, Pope Francis sent the ivory head of St Gregory’s crozier provided that the Gospel was also present.
As “Meetings with Remarkable Manuscripts” explains, books have been carried in processions, used to swear oaths, burned, given as gifts, sometimes stolen. They have tremendous power. That seems to be as true now as it was 15 centuries ago.