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Hidden Hands: The Lives of Manuscripts and Their Makers

Mary Wellesley

6 Reviews

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Literature: history & criticism

A stunning book about significant medieval manuscripts; their authors, their histories and the moments that mark their lifetimes.

Manuscripts teem with life. They are not only the stuff of history and literature, but they offer some of the only tangible evidence we have of entire lives, long receded.

Hidden Hands tells the stories of the artisans, artists, scribes and readers, patrons and collectors who made and kept the beautiful, fragile objects that have survived the ravages of fire, water and deliberate destruction to form a picture of both English culture and the wider European culture of which it is part.

Without manuscripts, she shows, many historical figures would be lost to us, as well as those of lower social status, women and people of colour, their stories erased, and the remnants of their labours destroyed.

From the Cuthbert Bible, to works including those by the Beowulf poet, Margery Kempe, Julian of Norwich, Sir Thomas Malory, Chaucer, the Paston Letters and Shakespeare, Mary Wellesley describes the production and preservation of these priceless objects. With an insistent emphasis on the early role of women as authors and artists and illustrated with over fifty colour plates, Hidden Hands is an important contribution to our understanding of literature and history.

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Praise for Hidden Hands: The Lives of Manuscripts and Their Makers

  • This is an engaging and beautiful book - the engagement arising from the author's deep commitment to understanding the lives of medieval women and men, and the beauty from her ability to make us see and hear them talking about and living their experiences. It isn't just an introduction to literary manuscripts but also a series of glimpses of the extraordinary diversity of medieval lives. Mary Wellesley has taken jewels from our bibliographic treasures and placed them, carefully and with love, in the palm of the reader's hand

  • Mary Wellesley is a born storyteller and Hidden Hands is as good as historical writing gets. Wellesley draws on her deep scholarly knowledge of medieval manuscripts to weave a captivating tale, told through generations of 'tremulous hands' and forgotten artistic geniuses, whose works inform so much of what we know today about the Middle Ages. This is a sensational debut by a wonderfully gifted historian.

  • Their creators being largely anonymous, Medieval manuscripts tell their own stories in this Decameron of devotion and obsession, encryption and skullduggery, extravagance, destruction, and survival. The result is an unexpectedly swift page-turner on the era when pages were turned slowly.

  • Hidden Hands shines with 'bibliophilic feeling.' With care forensic and literary, Wellesley reveals the traces of their history legible in the pores of the page and in the process provides a page-turner of her own. - Amaranth Borsuk, author of The Book

  • Mary Wellesley has written a most original book which is at once a vivid personal account of scholarly detective work and a model of how history might be taught now that there is easy electronic access to ancient manuscripts. She traces the precarious survival of the the earliest books, expounds with clarity the methods and purposes of authors, scribes, patrons, annotators and illustrators and speculates with sympathy on their motives. Hands (especially female ones) assume personalities, indeed voices which are recognisable even when alien - and often urgently appealing.

  • This is a lovely book, beautifully written and brimming with enthusiasm . . . Wonderful. - Sunday Times (History BOTY)

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