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Fabulous Beasts

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It is a commonplace of detection that the best place to hide something is in plain view. When it comes to books, this means reading the parts we normally skip. In my 1794 edition of Fanny Burney’s novel Camilla there is a list, as was the custom at the time, of those who subscribed to the cost of the initial printing. Among all the now forgotten His and Her Graces, the Gentlemen and Ladies, are listed Warren Hastings, the Rt. Hon. Edmund Burke (‘5 copies’), and one J. Austen, Steventon. You have only to pause for a moment over those names and you have opened the door to an adventure in detection.

Detection also involves imagination. I remember coming across a paperback poetry collection in an Oxfam shop which was inscribed with undying love for the recipient on her birthday. Yet there it was, only two or three years later, banished to a charity-shop shelf. What went wrong? Was it a comedy or a tragedy?

My most spine-tingling find, however, was a copy of Sir John Harington’s translation of Ariosto’s Orlando Furioso. It was published in 1591 and reprinted in 1607. The story goes that, as well as inventing the water closet, Sir John translated the raciest section of the epic poem to titillate the ladies at Court. On discovering this, Elizabeth I commanded him as punishment to translate all 46 cantos. The title page of my copy is missing and the corners of some other pages have been rubbed away by earlier hands, but inscribed inside the cover are the words: ‘This book was bought at the sale of the effects of Lady Eleanor Butler and Miss Ponsonby at Plasanwyd [sic] Llangollen and valued as the second edition by the Ladies (July 1832).’

Lady Eleanor was the lifelong companion of Sarah Ponsonby, and their elopement and subsequent lives are described in Elizabeth Mavor’s bestselling The Ladies of Llangollen (1971) where I also found their portraits. That in itself is fascinating enough, but, when I pick it up, my imagination

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It is a commonplace of detection that the best place to hide something is in plain view. When it comes to books, this means reading the parts we normally skip. In my 1794 edition of Fanny Burney’s novel Camilla there is a list, as was the custom at the time, of those who subscribed to the cost of the initial printing. Among all the now forgotten His and Her Graces, the Gentlemen and Ladies, are listed Warren Hastings, the Rt. Hon. Edmund Burke (‘5 copies’), and one J. Austen, Steventon. You have only to pause for a moment over those names and you have opened the door to an adventure in detection.

Detection also involves imagination. I remember coming across a paperback poetry collection in an Oxfam shop which was inscribed with undying love for the recipient on her birthday. Yet there it was, only two or three years later, banished to a charity-shop shelf. What went wrong? Was it a comedy or a tragedy? My most spine-tingling find, however, was a copy of Sir John Harington’s translation of Ariosto’s Orlando Furioso. It was published in 1591 and reprinted in 1607. The story goes that, as well as inventing the water closet, Sir John translated the raciest section of the epic poem to titillate the ladies at Court. On discovering this, Elizabeth I commanded him as punishment to translate all 46 cantos. The title page of my copy is missing and the corners of some other pages have been rubbed away by earlier hands, but inscribed inside the cover are the words: ‘This book was bought at the sale of the effects of Lady Eleanor Butler and Miss Ponsonby at Plasanwyd [sic] Llangollen and valued as the second edition by the Ladies (July 1832).’ Lady Eleanor was the lifelong companion of Sarah Ponsonby, and their elopement and subsequent lives are described in Elizabeth Mavor’s bestselling The Ladies of Llangollen (1971) where I also found their portraits. That in itself is fascinating enough, but, when I pick it up, my imagination doesn’t stop with the Ladies but flies back to the sixteenth century, when it was first on a bookseller’s table in Elizabethan London. Perhaps Ben Jonson picked up this very copy and leafed through it, maybe even Shakespeare himself turned over a few pages. After all, part of the plot of Much Ado about Nothing is pinched from Orlando Furioso . . . Printed books are within reach of us all, but go back a couple more centuries to a time before the invention of printing, and the best most of us can hope for is to see a single manuscript page displayed in a locked glass cabinet in a library or a museum. There may be an exquisite illustration of an imaginary beast peering out at us from behind a letter, and we long to touch it and turn the page. Recently the British Library and the French Bibliothèque Nationale have copied and put their manuscript treasures on line, so it’s possible to browse page by page. But there can be nothing like the experience of touching the parchment itself. There are a few scholars who are fortunate enough to be able to do so, to feel the texture of the page, to hold a magnifying glass over the brilliant illuminations by the mostly unknown monks who created them. But these experts are on the whole a reclusive lot, their studies appearing in learned journals which most of us never see. So it is a huge pleasure to discover that one of them has written a book for the common reader, profusely illustrated in vibrant colour, albeit not of facsimile quality (and just as important, not at a facsimile price). Christopher de Hamel’s Meetings with Remarkable Manuscripts (2016) is a joy. The binding, the layout and the lavish illustration make it a pleasure to handle before you even turn to the content, which perfectly fulfils its promise. De Hamel’s writing is not academic but vivid and entertaining, while the coloured reproductions are almost as dazzling as the fabulous beasts which so often clamber around their margins. As he says in his introduction, ‘the chapters are not unlike a series of celebrity interviews’. Nor do you simply meet these extraordinary manuscripts: you walk with him into the libraries where they dwell. Some libraries are remarkably helpful and easily accessible, leaving him for hours alone with the text, his pen and his notebook. Others are more like high-security prisons where, having been admitted through a series of locked doors and escorted down long corridors, he finally reaches the cell in which the precious text has been placed ready on a table, and the interview takes place under the hawk-like gaze of a guard. Each encounter becomes a detective story as he examines the way in which the book was put together and tries to uncover as much information as possible about the scribes who wrote and illustrated it. This painstaking process reveals that ‘the manuscript has a persona, an identity and very often a name which subsequently stays with it forever. It is curious how assigning names to particular manuscripts gives them a character as with domestic animals.’ The Book of Kells was so named in 1620 and it has been called that ever since. The less memorably named Codex Amiatinus is one of the dozen remarkable creatures de Hamel encounters. This is the oldest surviving text of the Vulgate (St Jerome’s Latin translation of the Bible), and since the end of the eighteenth century it has lived in the Biblioteca Laurenziana in Florence. Yet it was created in England, copied from a text lent to the monasteries of Jarrow and Wearmouth by Rome sometime around AD 700. The monks made three copies: one for each monastery and one to go back to Rome. This was often the way in which the loan of a text was repaid: by providing a copy. This one in Florence is the only survivor. It contains the oldest English painting to which any absolute date can be assigned (that is, not later than AD 716). Bede knew of the book and wrote about it. The monk Ceolfrith was given the task of escorting this copy back to Rome. However, he died on the way and the book was stranded for a while in France. In 1036 it is recorded as being in the San Salvatore Monastery in Italy and as being ‘written in the hand of the blessed Pope Gregory’. (Apparently it was quite common to ascribe the writing of texts to Pope Gregory.) De Hamel unravels its wandering journey from Jarrow to Florence and along the way uncovers much about the times it lived through and the people it met. It is still bound in one volume (as Bede recorded back in England in the eighth century) which is 11 1/2 inches thick and about 20 inches tall. Before opening it de Hamel has to ask for other books to rest it on to avoid straining the spine. This being one of the friendlier libraries where he is left alone with the volume (apart from the occasional person popping in to use the photocopier), he is able to try picking it up and discovers that, using both arms, he can just lift it. From a previous interviewer, who took some scales to meet the Codex fifty years before this visit, he has already learned that it weighs around 90lb – ‘about the weight of a fully grown female adult Great Dane’. By the end of his adventures with the twelve manuscripts he describes one’s spirit is aflame and it’s not hard to imagine taking seriously his exhortations to go further. ‘There are good careers in manuscript studies in rare book libraries, universities and the antiquarian book trade, but there are opportunities too for perceptive enthusiasts, textual editors, private collectors, scribes, artists and readers, exactly as there have been for a thousand years.’ For a professional’s view you can read C. J. Wright’s ‘Confessions of a Manuscripts’ Curator’ in SF no. 23. But you can also take up Christopher de Hamel’s challenge to seek out treasures for yourself. He estimates that there are probably upwards of a million medieval manuscripts waiting to be discovered in libraries, local museums and country houses. Most of them won’t have glorious imaginary beasts painted in their margins, but they are themselves wonderful beasts and not imaginary at all, just hiding in plain view waiting to reveal their secrets. And according to de Hamel, you may even be able to buy a page of a thirteenth-century Bible for less than the price of a good theatre ticket. Finally, a word of warning. If you decide to buy this wonderful book, do make sure to buy the hardback version. The Penguin paperback may be cheaper, but it has been reduced in size, and though the cover is in colour, all the illustrations inside are in black-and-white, which largely takes away its point.

Extract from Slightly Foxed Issue 65 © Alan Bradley 2020


About the contributor

Alan Bradley takes great delight in a local book auction where, even if he can’t afford to buy, he can pat and greet some remarkable beasts on their way to new homes.

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