19.09.19 de Hamel, Making Medieval Manuscripts

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Lisa Fagin Davis

The Medieval Review 19.09.19

de Hamel, Christopher. Making Medieval Manuscripts. Oxford, UK: Bodleian Library Publishing, 2018. pp. 156. ISBN: 1-85124-468-3 (paperback).

Reviewed by:
Lisa Davis
Medieval Academy of America

Christopher de Hamel's Making Medieval Manuscripts, a revised edition of his 1992 Scribes and Illuminators, is a copiously--and beautifully-illustrated survey of the materials and techniques used to create handwritten books in the Middle Ages. A small, portable paperback, with full-bleed full-color images throughout, the volume is thoughtfully laid-out and designed, with large, legible text and detailed, informative captions. The intentional brevity of the book necessitates the exclusion of several important topics, lacunaeacknowledged by the author who admits early on that he must regretfully omit a discussion of connoisseurship and style of script and illumination, counting on the bibliography to direct readers to further resources.

The Introduction sets the stage with a brief chronological outline of book production from the Fall of Rome to the High Renaissance, from monastic practice to the book trade (although with very little coverage of book production in a university context). The chapters are arranged in a sequence that mirrors the steps of book production. Chapter 1 is titled "Paper and Parchment" but goes somewhat further than a discussion of support to include a detailed and clear explanation of structure and codicology, folding, ruling, and general preparation of the page. The lengthy and somewhat gory section on the making of parchment is informative, although it comes at the expense of similar details for paper and papyrus, both of which receive somewhat short shrift. The second chapter, titled "Ink and Script," also covers more ground than its title would imply, discussing quills, ruling, gatherings, and catchwords. The final chapter rather incongruously combines "Illumination and Binding," two elements of book production involving separate craftspeople, traditions, and even workshops. The strongest section of this chapter is--unsurprisingly, given de Hamel's decades of experience and well-known expertise--the discussion of the tools, techniques, and materials of manuscript decoration. The volume ends with a brief glossary, an index, and a surprisingly thin bibliography that includes only one book published in the last ten years. For a general audience, for example, the omission of Raymond Clemens and Timothy Graham's seminal 2007 textbook An Introduction to Medieval Manuscripts is surprising.

The text is only slightly revised from the 1992 edition. A word-for-word comparison finds only a few small additions of a sentence or two and minor substitutions of one word for another. A phrase has been added on p. 25 explaining the different sources of parchment that tend to be used in different parts of Europe, for example, and another added on p. 119 discusses the use of silver vs. gold in illumination. The earlier volume was part of the series Medieval Craftsmen; the chapter titles were therefore anthro-centric, with titles such as "Ink-Makers and Scribes" instead of the revised "Ink and Script." This seemingly minor change widens the focus of the volume to implicitly embrace the materiality of manuscripts in a way that is more fitting for the accompanying text, which focuses more on tools and materials than on the craftspeople themselves.

The design of the book and the choice and use of images are much improved from the earlier edition. The images are all high-resolution, full-color, and full-bleed. The font is larger and set in one column instead of two, making the volume easier to read. The illustrations alone are a treasure trove of exempla, with numerous depictions of artists and scribes at work and well-chosen images throughout that clearly demonstrate their intended features. Many of these are also found in de Hamel's History of Illuminated Manuscripts and are among illustrations regularly used by art historians in introductory lectures (myself included), while others are less well-known but no less effective. Some images that were reproduced in black-and-white in 1992 are now in color, such as the image on p. 49 (there are no figure numbers in the new edition, since each image now has a full page to itself and can therefore be cited by page number). Others have been replaced by more effective examples. The 1992 edition's fig. 10--meant to highlight the visual and tactile distinction between hair and flesh side of parchment – has been replaced by a much better and more demonstrative image on p. 37. The watermark example that was fig. 11 is much improved by the image on p. 32. In at least two cases, the images in the new edition are of better quality than the images in the relevant library's own digital repository: the rather extraordinary uncut and unfolded binion (currently serving as a final flyleaf in BnF lat. 1107, f. 400r) is reproduced in color but is available on the BnF website in black-and-white only (49); p. 106, a glorious image from an initial pattern book (Bodleian, Douce f. 2), is not available online at all. Other images have been moved from their 1992 placement to be put to better use in the new edition, such as the unfinished Book of Hours (Bodleian, Douce 267, fols. 162v-163r) that was, as fig. 40 in chapter 3, used to illustrate an unfinished manuscript with intended illustration. In the new edition, the image has been moved to Chapter 2 and significantly enlarged to overlay two facing pages (52-53), illustrating the sequence of writing vs. decoration. The former fig. 18 has been moved from Chapter 1 to Chapter 3 (122) and enlarged, a much more purposeful placement and design that makes legible the minuscule guide letters that could barely be discerned in the 1992 edition, although they were referenced in the caption.

As with the 1992 edition, the intended audience of the volume remains unclear. Written in de Hamel's engaging and personal style, and with its small paperback format, the book appears at first glance to be written for a general audience, something that a visitor to the Bodleian might purchase in the gift shop after touring an exhibition. A book that introduces a curious public to the joys and wonders of medieval manuscripts is an extremely valuable publication in and of itself. That being said, there are moments throughout the book when the author assumes somewhat more expertise from his readers than might be expected from a general audience, as when he explains of the origin of the word "rubric" with an offhand "Rubrics (hence the word)" without no further explanation (72). Similarly, he refers to the "secular workshops of the Gothic period" (74) without further elaboration, assuming, presumably, that his readers already know to what he is referring. Art historical terms such as Gothic and Romanesque remain undefined and are excluded from the glossary. While there is much here for a general audience, such readers may find themselves occasionally puzzled and with unanswered questions. Experts, on the other hand, will find the book somewhat elementary but with much to glean from the well-chosen illustrations. De Hamel, by essentially reproducing the text without revision, has missed a valuable opportunity to fine-tune the book to target a specific audience. At the same time, he has taken effective advantage of the opportunity to improve the design and illustrative content of the book. For readers who own and refer to the 1992 edition, then, the 2018 edition will be most welcome.

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