Day 1

 Born in London, Christopher de Hamel actually grew up in New Zealand, and early on (at 12 or 13) encountered and became fascinated with medieval manuscripts.  Educated at Oxford, he ended up (by accident he says, but such paths are often so), at Sotheby’s, and for 25 years (according to professor Scott Gwara’s intro) he fully described some 10,000 medieval manuscripts, and is estimated to have handled some 80,000.  His authority is apparent at every turn, but he is a charming speaker, and wears his knowledge with grace and humor.  A self-described antiquarian, de Hamel is unapologetically enthusiastic about manuscripts, and about how much fun he has working with them–it’s quite contagious.  

In the first session he stressed the major differences between medieval manuscripts and early printed books, including the obvious:  the former are produced one at a time, hand-written and multi-colored; the latter are produced in numbers, mechanically, in black and white; printed books were largely done on paper, and manuscripts on vellum or parchment (the two terms mean the same thing, i.e., any animal skin stretched and scraped clean).  According to one scholar, parchment is sheep or goat, and vellum is calf, but most curators, collectors, and dealers are generally not expert enough in mammalian dermatology to tell the difference.  Not much vellum was purchased before 1150, when only monasteries produced books, but was rather a by-product of eating meat, and plentiful in terms of demand.  The first recorded sale in England of vellum is by a vegetarian monastery in 1180, and with the rise of the universities (and thus, demand), purchasing vellum became necessary.  Oxford was buying vellum by 1200. 

The basic component of manuscript production is the quire / signature / clutch of parchment–i.e., one skin, folded one or more times to form a gathering, sewn together initially by a tacketing stitch in the upper left hand corner.  Quires are written one at a time, and then illuminated in the same fashion (always written first).  The illuminator does a rough sketch, draws over the sketch in ink, and then paints over the ink in whatever colors he choses.  He works in gold first, and then in the other colors: red (vermillion), blue (lapis lazuli, or azurite), green (verdigris), and yellow (saffron).  In terms of ink, most manuscripts are written in iron gall ink, despite many medieval recipes for carbon ink (which was used in printing).  Paraphrasing de Hamel, one must be careful in beliving medieval “how-to” guides, in that they tended to describe how things ought to be done, not necessarily how they were done.

De Hamel than gave a necessarily oversimplified overview of scripts in the West, which began with the Roman alphabet in square Capitals (suited to stone inscriptions) and Rustic Capitals (more useful in writing), to Uncial (the script of Christianity), which evolved into Half-Uncial and only survived as an Irish or insular script.  On the continent, Roman cursive (a minuscule script), which was the script of administration and bureaucratic communication, morphed over time into the Merovingian Cursive hands (France), Anglo-Saxon Minuscule (England), Visigothic Minuscule (in Spain, to the 11th Century), and Benaventine Minuscule (southern Italy).  Humanistic Minuscule, French andEnglish Cursive, Bastard Secretary & Black Letter Cursive were used for various kinds of texts through the end of the seventeenth century.  The point to remember that scripts were always merging and diverging, evolving and changing.  For a more precise and detailed (but brief, given the subject) account, see Michelle P. Brown’s British Library Guide to Writing and Scripts (U. of Toronto, 1998).

There followed a discussion of mistakes in manuscripts (wrong words, spelling errors, omissions, and additions) and forgeries (mostly a case of an early script with a later illumination–sometimes 20th century!).

The last session of the seminar on this day was a more formal presentation on how to identify and date a manuscript (or a fragment), using the knowledge so far presented, and using sources such as the Patrologia Latina, and websites like CHD Book of Hours (  We all took a short break, and then attended a public talk (ca. 200 people) by Dr. de Hamel on medieval Bibles.


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