Medieval manuscripts ‘most amazing things’

Dr Christopher de Hamel peruses medieval manuscripts at Dunedin City Library during his visit to...
Dr Christopher de Hamel peruses medieval manuscripts at Dunedin City Library during his visit to the city. PHOTO: LINDA ROBERTSON
Centuries-old manuscripts can still tell us much about art and life.

That is the opinion of Dr Christopher de Hamel, an authority on medieval manuscripts, who is visiting Dunedin.

The London-born Dr de Hamel moved to New Zealand at a young age, and attended King’s High School and then the University of Otago.

He was subsequently awarded a Phd degree by Oxford University for his research on 12th-century Bible commentaries before working as a medieval manuscripts expert for auction house Sotheby’s in London for more than 25 years.

It was in Dunedin as a teenager he discovered his love of medieval manuscripts, frequently visiting the Dunedin Public Library and poring over them.

"I just thought they were the most amazing things," Dr de Hamel said.

"They really spoke to me.

"They bring you in contact with art, and life, of centuries ago.

"I have the same reaction to them that some people get from meeting famous people they admire."

Dr de Hamel’s work at Sotheby’s brought him into contact with "hundreds of thousands" of medieval manuscripts over the course of his career.

"It’s incredibly exciting work sourcing the manuscripts and then watching the auctions take place," he said.

"In many ways, the practice of auctioning hasn’t changed in hundreds of years. You have items come up, you have lots of shouting of amounts and then they get sold."

Dr de Hamel said the most prestigious manuscripts could sell for prices "in the millions of dollars", but many of them went for prices that did not put them out of reach of "most well-resourced libraries".

"They can tell you about life during the plague, or people’s prayer habits at church, or what sort of art was popular," he said.

"I think they can help provide a special link to the past."

Dr de Hamel’s book, Meetings with Remarkable Manuscripts, won the Wolfson History Prize in 2017.

He was "overjoyed" by the response to the book, he said.

"One of books I’ve written had a print run of 500 copies or so. This book sold in the hundreds of thousands."

He planned to write a book on medieval manuscript collections in New Zealand, Dr de Hamel said.

He said for "diversity", Dunedin had the best collection in the country.

"It’s remarkable because this is the furthest away part of the world where they exist."