A new book claims that England’s Gospels of St Augustine and Ireland’s Book of Kells, among other famous medieval manuscripts, are fakes
Turning the diverting pages of M J Harper’s Meetings with Remarkable Forgeries (Urquhart Press, £12.95, June 2017) is a meeting with a remarkable book.
The first thing the prospective reader needs to know is that it is an excoriating riposte to Christopher de Hamel’s Meetings with Remarkable Manuscripts (September 2016), a much-lauded and best-selling book about 12 famous medieval illuminated manuscripts, described by its publisher Penguin as ‘the most beguiling history book of the year’.
Since 2000, de Hamel has been Fellow and Librarian of Corpus Christi College, Cambridge, and the Parker Library, which is in his care and includes many of the earliest manuscripts in English language and history. In the course of a long career at Sotheby’s, de Hamel is said to have ‘probably handled and catalogued more illuminated manuscripts and over a wider range than any person alive’.
However, although revisionist historian Mick Harper might find de Hamel’s book beguiling, it is not in the way that Penguin would have intended.
Harper’s response is not to be charmed or enchanted but, rather, under the other dictionary definition, to feel tricked into doing something — in this case, believing that ancient manuscripts are ‘Dark Ages’ originals from the sixth, seventh or eighth centuries, when, he insists, they are actually forgeries made by monks centuries later, sometimes as late as the 12th century.
Harper casts an ominous dark cloud of doubt over the vaunted provenance of the Gospels of St Augustine (said to be sixth century), the Irish Book of Kells, the Lichfield Gospels and the Hereford Gospels (allegedly all eighth century).
As for the Book of St Cuthbert, reputedly seventh century and bought jointly by the British Library, Durham Cathedral and Durham University in 2012 for £9 million, its highly improbable origins point to a hoax, Harper assures us.
His conclusion is that monasteries forged these gospel books as part of a ‘real estate scam’ — to deceive people into accepting monasteries’ ownership of lands as…