The Book in the Cathedral
By Christopher de Hamel Penguin, £9.99
The year 2020 marks the 850th anniversary of the martyrdom of St Thomas Becket in Canterbury Cathedral, but all events planned for the year – including the loan of the martyr’s bloodstained shirt by the Basilica of Santa Maria Maggiore to Canterbury Cathedral – have been postponed due to the pandemic. One related event that was not postponed was the publication of Christopher de Hamel’s The Book in the Cathedral: The Last Relic of Thomas Becket. In this brief book of 64 pages, Britain’s leading authority on medieval manuscripts (best known for his 2017 book Meetings with Remarkable Manuscripts) traces the last remaining volumes from the personal library of St Thomas Becket, and describes his rediscovery of Becket’s personal psalter.
As de Hamel notes, contemporary secular society is no less preoccupied with “relics” than medieval Christendom, although the character of what appeals to a secular audience has changed. Rather than seeking a spiritual connection with past figures through relics like bloodstained tunics, a contemporary audience seeks an intellectual connection with how a person thought and saw the world. Books are thus, de Hamel implies, the ultimate modern relics.
While St Thomas is remembered for the manner of his death, his intellectual life remains elusive. We know he was not exceptionally learned, and relied to a large extent on the recommendations of John of Salisbury for reading matter. On his ill-fated return to England in 1170, after a period of exile in France, Becket brought back a book collection which, he hoped, would win favour with the monks of Canterbury.
Becket’s personal library was hastily assembled, de Hamel argues, to provide instant learning for an archbishop without an academic background in theology. The library reflected his interest in the recently founded Cistercian order, whose Abbey of Pontigny had been the scene of his exile in France.
Books known to have been in Becket’s collection survive in the library of Trinity College, Cambridge, the Parker Library of Corpus Christi College, Cambridge and the Bodleian Library in Oxford. But none of these books were venerated as secondary relics of St Thomas – a reflection of the practical approach to books in the Middle Ages, which were usually valued for their content rather than their provenance.
The manuscript rediscovered by de Hamel, Parker Library MS 411 (a 10th-century Anglo-Saxon psalter) was not only owned by St Thomas but was also treated as a relic of the saint. De Hamel convincingly traces the psalter (which originally had a sumptuous jewelled cover) to a list of the saint’s relics.
The treatment of books as relics (often identified by the Latin word textus) was not unknown – and personal prayer books and psalters thumbed by the saints were especially treasured. This relic of St Thomas, whose cover was no doubt torn off at the Dissolution as treasure forfeited to the Crown, found its way to Matthew Parker, Queen Elizabeth’s archbishop of Canterbury – who, in the political climate of the time, had no incentive to draw attention to the book’s connection to Becket. However, de Hamel argues that Parker became interested in the manuscript not only because it was owned by Becket, but because it was owned by the archbishops of Canterbury, beginning with that other martyred archbishop, St Alphege.
Becket’s friend Herbert of Bosham recorded that, when the archbishop had to escape across the Fens in 1164 disguised as a Gilbertine lay brother, he entrusted Herbert with the mission of keeping safe an especially precious book. Although we cannot know for certain what that book was, de Hamel suggests it could have been the Psalter of St Alphege; two of the knights who murdered Becket in Canterbury Cathedral later recorded that the name of St Alphege, the archbishop killed by drunken Danes at a feast in 1012, was the last invoked by St Thomas at the moment of his death. De Hamel even speculates that Becket, who took the trouble to dress in pontificals for his martyrdom, could even have been holding the psalter when he died.
The Book in the Cathedral is a captivating and tantalising account of a leading book historian’s investigation of a truly remarkable manuscript – a psalter that perhaps strengthened medieval England’s greatest martyr bishop.