The Mont Saint-Michel manuscripts through the ages

By Marie Lebert, version of 15 January 2017.

* Introduction
* From Mont Saint-Michel to Avranches
* The manuscripts produced at Mont Saint-Michel
* The themes of the manuscripts
* The scripts of the manuscripts
* The illuminations of the manuscripts
* The manuscripts over time
* The Avranches Scriptorial, a museum on the manuscripts
* The Rare Book Library in the City Hall of Avranches
* Some recent publications
* The manuscripts at the digital age
* A project for a Virtual Mont Saint-Michel Library

[Short version as an album with pictures]
[PDF version]
[French version]


avranches_1 Avranches, a city of 8,000 inhabitants, is located in Normandy a few miles from Mont Saint-Michel, a medieval abbey surrounded by sea or sand strands that can be deadly. The Rare Book Library of Avranches includes a priceless treasure, the 199 surviving manuscripts from the Mont Saint-Michel Abbey, the oldest of which dates back to the eighth century, and the more recent from the fourteenth century. Of these 199 manuscripts, seventy manuscripts were produced in the scriptorium of Mont Saint-Michel, while the other ones were produced in secular scriptoria located in Paris, in Île-de-France (the Paris region) and in Italy. These manuscripts, one of the finest French collections from the Romanesque period, have had their own museum since 2006, as well as their own virtual library (select “Avranches”). Here is a virtual journey through the ages, from the 8th century to the early 21st century.

As a librarian, researcher and writer, I find some resonance in the beautiful lines written by Monique Dosdat, a well known scholar for her work on these manuscripts: “The artists seek inspiration from the achievements of previous centuries, after absorbing what they could see in a manuscript they borrowed, or read in an abbey they visited (…). Nevertheless imitation is not servile, and everyone brings his own style together with his expertise.” In my case, past achievements are the books by Monique Dosdat, former curator of the Heritage Fund at the Caen City Library, and Jean-Luc Leservoisier, former curator of the Rare Book Library of Avranches, and I have tried to convey my own feelings while being inspired by their writings.

From Mont Saint-Michel to Avranches

The Mont Saint-Michel Abbey started creating a library of manuscripts in the late tenth century, under the impulse of the Benedictine monks who settled there in 966, with Abbot Maynard as their prior. Later on, they also started gathering a few printed books. The library – a large one by the standards of the time – was reorganized in the seventeenth century by the Maurists, monks from the religious congregation of Saint-Maur, who settled in Mont Saint-Michel in 1622 to replace the failing Benedictine community. They wrote a catalogue and put the bookplate Ex monasterio Sancti Michaelis in periculo maris (From the monastery of St. Michael’s at the peril of the sea) on the first page of each volume, as a (better) equivalent to our modern stamping.

How did the Mont Saint-Michel Library end up in Avranches, several miles away, on the mainland? During the French Revolution, the State confiscated all the libraries of the clergy and the nobility to start public funds, ancestors of our public libraries. As requested by the revolutionary authorities, the 3,550 books of the library – including the 299 manuscripts – moved to Avranches, the main city of the department (a new territorial unit that had just been created). In 1791, under the supervision of the National Guard, the books painfully journeyed in carts through the sand strands of the bay to be transferred on the mainland. Since then, the library has resided in Avranches, first in a damp hall for sixty years with other confiscated church funds, and then in a beautiful hall created in 1850 for the Heritage Fund on the second floor of the brand new City Hall. This has not changed since then. The manuscripts and the printed books are still housed in the same hall in 2015. As a State Heritage, they belong to the French State while being under the custody of the City of Avranches.

The manuscripts produced at Mont Saint-Michel

The history of these manuscripts is closely linked to the history of Mont Saint-Michel. Surrounded by the sea, the two neighbouring rocks near the future city of Avranches were named Tumba (the Latin name for “mount”), which would become Mont Saint-Michel, and Tumbellana (the Latin name for “mound”), which would become Tombelaine. According to the legend related in the ninth-century manuscript Revelatio, St. Michael appeared during the sleep of Aubert, Bishop of Avranches, ordering him to build a church on Mount Tumba, and appeared to him twice more during his sleep before Aubert took action. The first oratory was founded in 708, with a community of twelve clerics. Now enshrined in the Church St. Gervais of Avranches, Aubert’s skull has a hole left by St. Michel’s finger when the archangel started to get angry, for his orders to be fulfilled without any delay. This legend still rings true to these days (except for some physicians).

A second manuscript, Introductio Monachorum, tells the story of Aubert’s clerics being replaced by Benedictine monks at Mont Saint-Michel. In 966, the Duke of Normandy Richard I sent off a Benedictine community under the supervision of Abbot Maynard, who was the first abbot to create a scriptorium and a library. After the relics of saints and the sacred bows, the library – that is to say a few books in a cabinet – was the greatest treasure of an abbey. The scriptorium gave birth to thirteen manuscripts, copied from manuscripts lent by other abbeys to create new manuscripts for worship and study. The interlibrary loan is nothing new. It already existed in medieval times.

The scriptorium produced seventy manuscripts, most of them between the late tenth century and the twelfth century, with a flourishing period in the eleventh century, particularly between 1050 and 1080, when William the Conqueror, Duke of Normandy, brought peace and prosperity to the Anglo-Norman kingdom. (Britain had become part of Normandy after the Battle of Hastings in 1066. Normandy would become French only in 1204.) Thirty-three manuscripts were produced between 1050 and 1080.

The scriptorium of Mont Saint-Michel became one of the most productive monastic scriptoria in Europe. Fifteen scribes transcribed thousands of pages in silence, in perseverance and in prayer, with extreme care to their work, and with a constant search for perfection and harmony. The illumination was added then, often by the scribes themselves, with illuminated initials and full-page paintings.

The scriptorium created its own style, with original creations. The interaction between images and texts was so dense that specialists talk about “illuminated script”. Adorned with scrollwork and foliage, illuminated initials have a simple design, which would become a specific style of Romanesque illumination in Europe.

Despite being secluded in the monastery, scribes were not entirely cut off from the world. The Mont Saint-Michel Abbey actively participated in exchanges of manuscripts, of scribes and of artistic influences. These exchanges were common in Benedictine abbeys. With visitors coming from all over Europe, the scribes of Mont Saint-Michel got acquainted with Nordic, Byzantine and Carolingian traditions. The scriptorium developed close relations with the scriptorium of the Abbey of Winchester in England, and with the scriptorium of the Abbey of Fécamp in Normandy. Manuscripts themselves – which were then lent to other abbeys, for their own scribes to copy them for their own library – contributed to the spreading of the currents of thought and science of their time.

Following its heyday in the eleventh century, the scriptorium experienced a downturn during the first half of the twelfth century, a period marked by political instability, before its revival under Robert of Torigni, who has the Abbot of Mont Saint-Michel during thirty-two years (1154-86). An outstanding builder, Robert of Torigni – often surnamed “Robert du Mont” (Robert of the Mount) in French – built new buildings, including two towers, with one of them assigned to the library. According to the tradition, this library included 140 books – an enormous figure at the time – and the abbey received the beautiful name of “City of books”, long before Paris became the capital of publishing.

Only a dozen manuscripts produced by the scriptorium have survived the test of time. The most famous one is the Cartulaire du Mont Saint-Michel (Ms 210), a collection of the property titles of the abbey, produced from 1154 to 1158 with many illuminated initials and some full-page drawings. The cartulary was then continued for three centuries to transcribe the charters (acts) of the new properties of the abbey, but without the beautiful script and the rich ornamentation of the twelfth-century work. When the cartulary was restored in the early 2000s, a beautiful facsimile was published in 2005 by the association Les Amis du Mont Saint-Michel (The Friends of Mont Saint-Michel).

After Normandy was annexed to France in 1204, its monastic scriptoria started declining, and went on declining while experiencing the turmoils of the Black Death (1346-53) and the Hundred Years’ War (1337-1453). Ten manuscripts only – mainly liturgical books – were produced at Mont Saint-Michel from the thirteenth to the fifteenth century. Moreover, new scriptoria were created in main cities and not in abbeys any more. On the one hundred manuscripts from the thirteenth to the fifteenth centuries that are now housed in the Rare Book Library of Avranches, most of them were produced in secular scriptoria in Paris and in Île-de-France (the Paris region). Some manuscripts were also produced in Italy, for example Decretales, a canon law collection produced in a secular scriptorium in Padua. However, the scriptorium of Mont Saint-Michel stopped production only in the early sixteenth century.

On the 199 manuscripts from the Mont Saint-Michel Library still existing in Avranches, seventy manuscripts were produced at Mont Saint-Michel, and 129 manuscripts were produced elsewhere. On the same 199 manuscripts, three manuscripts were produced in the eighth century, thirty-six manuscripts were produced in from the tenth to the twelfth century, and ninety manuscripts were produced from the thirteenth to the fifteenth century.

The centrepiece of the collection for the Gothic period is a 1,200-page Bible dating from 1210-15 and produced in a secular scriptorium in Paris or in its surroundings. Composed of two volumes – the Old Testament (Ms 1) and the New Testament (Ms 2) -, this Bible was transcribed by a single scribe. The eighty-four historiated initials on a gold-leaf background are the work of two or more artists. This manuscript and others contributed to the reputation of Paris as the “City of books” in Europe.

Ironically, the two most beautiful manuscripts of the Mont Saint-Michel Library – a Sacramentary from the eleventh century, and a Romanesque Bible – do not belong to the Rare Book Library of Avranches, whereas they were both executed in the scriptorium of Mont Saint-Michel. The Sacramentary is the property of the Pierpont Morgan Library in New York. The Romanesque Bible is the property of the City Library of Bordeaux, in South West France. This one-volume Bible includes dozens of historiated illuminated initials.

Fifteen manuscripts – complete or fragmentary – produced at Mont Saint-Michel were dispersed around the world, for example a fragment of some Évangiles (Gospels) from the eighth century in St. Petersburg, a few manuscripts in the French National Library in Paris, and other manuscripts in Rouen (Normandy), in London, in Leiden (Netherlands) and in the Vatican.

The themes of the manuscripts

The Mont Saint-Michel manuscripts are both sacred texts and works of liberal arts and profane science. The many sacred texts are the Holy Scripture and its commentaries, the works by the Church Fathers, and liturgical books. All these books were essential to the life of a Benedictine community punctuated by prayer, by meditation and by religious services several times a day.

The collection holds few copies of the Bible – either the complete Bible or one of its Books – but it holds over fifty glosses and commentaries on the Old and New Testaments, most of them dating from the thirteenth century and free from any ornamentation.

Eighty manuscripts are the main works written by the Church Fathers, who were the authoritative interpreters of the Christian tradition between the first and the fifth centuries. These works were then copied tirelessly in the following centuries, as evidenced by the twenty-seven manuscripts written by or about St. Augustine, the ten manuscripts by St. Gregory, St. Jerome and St. Ambrose, and the eight manuscripts by Origen, father of the Greek Church.

The liturgical books are sermons and lives of saints, as well as anthologies and “mélanges”, since the same manuscript often includes several works bound together.

The Mont Saint-Michel Library was open to the currents of thought and science of its time, and its books were used for dissemination of knowledge among the monks. Thus liberal arts and profane sciences are also represented, with historical books and chronicles, the main texts of Antiquity and the Middle Ages, treatises of canon and civil law (Roman law), and treatises relating to astronomy, medicine and computation (how to calculate the liturgical time).

Antique texts were works by Plato and Cicero, treatises by Seneca and Boethius, and thirty-one treatises by Aristotle grouped in nine bound manuscripts, meaning as many books for Aristotle than for St. Augustine. Texts from the Middle Ages included three treatises by Peter Abelard.

The scripts of the manuscripts

The scribes first used the Roman majuscule, before using the uncial majuscule and then the Caroline minuscule. The oldest manuscript of the Rare Book Library of Avranches, which dates from the eighth century and was not produced at Mont Saint-Michel, was written in uncial majuscules. This early Carolingian script was intended for ceremonial books, with letters using round forms, instead of Roman angular majuscules. Whereas the classical uncial majuscule – created in the fourth century in Italy – had a geometric pattern, the uncial majuscule used at Mont Saint-Michel had a round pattern inspired from the Insular (Irish) tradition.

The Roman majuscule and the uncial majuscule were then replaced with the Caroline minuscule, a smaller script created at the time of Charlemagne to revive the tradition of clarity and readability of classical Antiquity. The Caroline minuscule gradually supplanted other scripts in charters and books. In the late tenth century, when the scriptorium was created, the Caroline minuscule had a less round, higher and more angular shape. Only the titles and first words of a text were still written in Roman and uncial capitals, often with a coloured ink.

With the exception of a Treatise by St. Ambrose in three volumes (Ms 63-65) produced in the fifteenth century on paper, the Mont Saint-Michel manuscripts were transcribed on parchment, made from sheepskin (for most of them) or goatskin scraped or dried under tension, or they were transcribed on vellum (from the Old French “vélin”), made from calfskin and considered a finer-quality material. The black ink was made from a black pigment such as charred wood or carbon black, with a binder such as honey or Arabic gum. The colour ink was for example the minium red ink or the (emerald) green ink. The minium red ink was made from lead oxide found in red sandstones. The script of the text was written freehand, by lifting the pen, with only the tip of the pen on the parchment, and had to be perfectly regular, even when several scribes were working on the same manuscript.

Who were these scribes? These were well-read literate monks. Being a scribe was far from being a subordinate job. An extensive culture was needed, as well as patience and perseverance for three to four hours a day to copy the text of a manuscript lent by another monastery. Some scribes transcribed alone several manuscripts, and even several thousand pages. Eleven scribes signed their work in a colophon, meaning a few lines at the end of the manuscript that mentioned their name – and sometimes a place and a date – for future generations.

Here are a few examples. Moralia in Job by St. Gregory the Great is a one thousand-page manuscript in thick bound volumes. The first volume (Ms 97) was transcribed by the scribe Hervard, and the second volume (Ms 98) by the scribes Martin and Gautier. Hervard probably transcribed alone at least four manuscripts – with three of them belonging to the Rare Book Library of Avranches -, meaning 600 in-folio pages written on two columns. Giraud transcribed alone three manuscripts. The Homilies by St. Gregory the Great (Ms 103) were transcribed by six scribes, who were Gautier the Cantor, Hilduin, Ermenald, Osbern, Nicolas and Ecoulant. The script of this manuscript is so regular that it is impossible to distinguish the work of one scribe from the work of another scribe.

Fromond transcribed the entire manuscript holding works by St. Jerome, St. Augustine and St. Ambrose (Ms 72). At the end of the manuscript, he wrote this beautiful five-verse rhymed colophon: “Long life to the hand that is so zealous to write so well. If someone is the scribe, you seek, reader, to know him. This is Fromond who, with zeal, wrote the book from beginning to end. What he transcribed is very considerable [very long]. He is the author of so many sacred works. Blessed is Fromond. Here is a brother we must love forever.”

The illuminations of the manuscripts

The scribe was often the illuminator too, at least during the Romanesque period. Hervard, for example, drew the initials of the manuscript he was copying, both with the black ink he was using for the text and with the minium red we was using for the first words of a section.

The first full-page painting produced at Mont Saint-Michel dates back to the late tenth century. On this painting, the scribe Gelduin offers the manuscript of the Recognitiones (Ms 50) to St. Michel while the archangel pierces the devil with a lance. This is the only full-page painting in the manuscript, which is itself the first manuscript to be produced in the scriptorium.

According to Monique Dosdat, author of L’enluminure Romane au Mont Saint-Michel (The Romanesque Illumination at Mont Saint-Michel), a reference work published in 1991, the most beautiful manuscripts were produced between 1050 and 1075, first with full-page paintings (prior to 1060), and then with inhabited (or historiated) initials for the ornamentation of patristic texts (between 1060 and 1075).

The inhabited initials are a harmonious synthesis of (a) the Merovigian zoomorphic initial, usually characterized by birds, fish and other animals arranged to form a letter, with these animals often becoming lions, dogs and fantastic animals in the Mont Saint-Michel manuscripts; and (b) the Franco-Saxon (Carolingian) initial, usually characterized by a clear script and an ornamentation influenced by Antiquity, with interlacing added in the legs or ends of initials in the Mont Saint-Michel manuscripts, before plant and animal patterns were gradually added over the years. What does this harmonious synthesis consist of? Under the Insular (British) influence, interlacing was replaced by acanthus ornaments and by florets with elegant and varied scenery, and the fantastic animals, often reduced to their head or muzzle, spilled stems and clumps.

Unlike the spindly letters (such as the letters I or S) or the acute letters (such as the letters A or T), the round bellies of the letters O, P and Q favoured ornamentation, and the scribes invented an original type of initial, especially for the letters P and Q. The general outline of the letter P was geometric, and probably drawn with a ruler and a compass. Then were added three elements: first the interlacing from the Insular tradition, then scrollwork of acanthus leaves with fruits, and finally animated beings filling the branches. The letter Q, based as well on a geometric layout, was also ornamented with interlacing, and the slash on the Q was adorned with an animal. All these elegant lines were then enhanced with rich colours.

The saints were present in the illuminations, the first one being of course St. Michel. The scribes also depicted three Church Fathers, St. Jerome, St. Ambrose and St. Augustine. St. Augustine was the most represented, first as a writer drafting his works under divine inspiration, and then in controversy scenes with the Manichean Faustus or with Felician, a believer in Arianism. A simple and clear layout delimited surfaces painted in pastel colours (pink, green or blue).

In the mid-12th century, the temporal world took over the spiritual world and, according to Monique Dosdat, “masterpieces were no longer found in patristic texts; they were found in a cartulary, i.e. a collection of property titles, in chronicles and in an astronomy treaty. Law, history and science superseded theology. The Romanesque period was over.”

The Cartulaire du Mont Saint-Michel for example was ornamented with four full-page drawings executed in pen. The illuminated initials were different from those of earlier manuscripts. They were drawn either in black ink or in colour ink (red and blue), with an entirely new script. The graphics were new too for their decorative patterns and their reference bestiary. The letters chosen as initials were also different, because the first page of a charter usually began with I (for example In nomine Dei summi) or with E (for example Ego Guillelmus). The scribes were not always the illuminators any more. Itinerant lay artists were sometimes hired to add the illuminations.

The late twelfth century foreshadowed the Gothic period. The illuminations were now often included in the middle of a section – and not at the beginning anymore – as a way to teach the reader through images, and to give more power to the story. The style of illuminations was also changing, with inspiration brought by life in the outside world, and historiated letters containing small vivid scenes. Unlike Romanesque art, that liked to find its inspiration outside from reality, Gothic art was directly inspired from reality.

The manuscripts over time

Whereas the tenth-century Mont Saint-Michel Library fitted in a cabinet, over the years it became one of the finest ecclesiastical libraries in medieval Europe, attracting both scholars and literati. It also suffered natural disasters and political vicissitudes, with fires, damaged buildings and war looting, as well as theft and carelessness. The number of 700 or 800 manuscripts given at the end of the Middle Ages was probably a fanciful number, unless the library was decimated by a particular misfortune during the Great Plague or the Hundred Years’ War.

In the sixteenth century, the library included its first printed books, a new type of book invented in 1455 by Johann Gutenberg, who printed his first Bible in 180 copies in Mainz, Germany.

In the seventeenth century, the library was reorganized by the Maurists, monks from the Congregation of Saint-Maur, who settled in Mont Saint-Michel in 1622 to replace the failing Benedictine community. They wrote a catalogue describing the 280 manuscripts that were the property of the abbey in October 1639. They also opened each printed book to stick the bookplate Ex monasterio Sancti Michaelis in periculo maris (From the monastery of St. Michael’s at the peril of the sea) on the first page, as an equivalent to our modern stamping. This would prove very useful in the early 21st century, to find the books of this library now disseminated among other religious funds in the Rare Book Library of Avranches, for the purpose of a future Virtual Mont Saint-Michel Library.

During the French Revolution, following a decree of the Constituent Assembly in 1790, the libraries of the clergy and the nobility were confiscated to create the first public funds, ancestors of our public libraries, and religious communities were dissolved. The revolutionary authorities ordered the transfer of manuscripts and books from Mont Saint-Michel to Avranches, the main city of the department (a new territorial unit that had just been created).

In 1791, the 3,550 books of the religious library – including the 299 manuscripts – painfully journeyed in carts through the sand strands of the bay to be transferred to the mainland. According to one legend, some books were even crammed into barrels. All these books were then stored in a damp hall housing the “literary deposit” gained from the dissolved religious communities. The “literary deposit” included not only the Mont Saint-Michel Library but also the libraries of the Diocese and of the Cathedral Chapter of Avranches, the libraries of the Lucerne Abbey and the Abbey of Montmorel, and other smaller ecclesiastical funds. In this “literary deposit” were prevailing disorder, negligence and theft. 255 manuscripts were still recorded in 1795, and 199 manuscripts were recorded in 1850 when the “literary deposit” moved to a more suitable place for such treasures.

After the Société d’archéologie d’Avranches (Archaeological Society in Avranches) was created in 1835 by ten notables of the city, one of them, Eugene Castillon de Saint-Victor, wrote the first catalogue of the Heritage Fund, with a full description of its manuscripts, incunabula and printed works (bound or not).

The new City Hall built in 1850 by François Cheftel included a beautiful hall (eighteen meters long, nine meters wide and seven meters high) on the second floor for the 14,000 books of the Heritage Fund. The rare books were lined up on the shelves from top to bottom, and finally completed the difficult journey they had begun in 1791, including a long wait during sixty years. In this hall, two spiral staircases give access to the gallery housing the upper shelves.

Printed books from the sixteenth to the nineteenth centuries were classified according to the Debure classification and sorted by size, with larger books on lower shelves. One of them is the first edition (1751-72) of the Encyclopédie by Diderot, with 17 volumes of text (18,000 pages, 21.7 million words) and 11 volumes of plates, and 72,000 articles written by 140 contributors (Diderot, d’Alembert, Voltaire, Rousseau, Marmontel, d’Holbach, Turgot, and others). Designed to collect and disseminate the entire knowledge of the time, the Encyclopédie was a reflection of the intellectual and social currents of the Enlightenment, and contributed to disseminate novel ideas that would inspire the French Revolution in 1789.

From 1924 onwards, the Mont Saint-Michel manuscripts were presented to the public in a cabinet of curiosities. During the Second World War, the manuscripts were transferred in the Castle of Ussé-Rigny, in Touraine, a quieter region in Central France. Half of the city of Avranches was destroyed in July 1944 during the week-long battles that followed D-Day, but the Rare Book Library survived, unlike the 3,000 handwritten and print Mont Saint-Michel Archives stored in the Manche Departmental Archives (Manche being its department) in Saint-Lô, that were entirely destroyed by fire in June 1944, on the day following D-Day.

Until 1963, the manuscripts were on display during the whole summer in the Rare Book Library of Avranches, on the second floor of the City Hall. But the conditions were not adequate, first because of the natural light pouring in through the large windows of the library, and then because of the summer temperature that, even in Normandy, was too warm for such old documents. When they were not displayed, the manuscripts were stored in a damp closet, like so many closets in this coastal region.

From 1963 onwards, the most beautiful manuscripts were on display during the whole summer at the City Museum, housed in another building near the City Hall. This time, they were away from natural light, but the humidity level was still too high, and the heat from incandescent lamps was excessive.

In 1982, some mildew was apparent on a few rare books and manuscripts. Even with the recent books moving to a new building on Place St. Gervais for the launch of a modern lending library, which meant more space for the rare books, they went on deteriorating from saltpetre, mildew, beetles (insects) and active fungi, causing widespread concern at the local, regional and national level.

In 1986 was launched a major renovation project for the manuscripts, the rare books and the library hall itself. The manuscripts were sent to the Versailles Annex of the French National Library (in the Paris region) to be desinfected, before being transferred to Orleans (in North Central France) to be filmed and photographed by the IRHT (Institut de Recherche et d’Histoire des Textes – Institute for Research and History on Texts). Photographs were taken – a colour slide for each illumination – to provide alternative documents for researchers, and handle the original manuscripts only when necessary.

A vault was built in June 1987 to receive the manuscripts on their return. This vault (of sixteen square meters) can hold one thousand volumes on wooden shelves, “a material capable of absorbing excess moisture, and to give it back if the documents become too dry” (Monique Dosdat). The air-conditioned library finally provided appropriate storage conditions, i.e. a temperature of eighteen degrees Celsius and a humidity level of 55%. The hall of the Rare Book Library was also renovated with a false ceiling, indirect lighting, and anti-ultraviolet filters on the large windows. The rare books were disinfected on site and reclassified. The Rare Book Library recovered its past beauty in late 1988, and the renovated library was inaugurated in May 1989.

From 1989 to 2005, summer exhibitions were organized each summer for four months, between June and September. Various events were organized during the Journées du Patrimoine (Heritage Days, a week-end in September every year throughout the country) with the collaboration of artists and students.

The Avranches Scriptorial, a museum on the manuscripts

In 2005, the city of Avranches launched the project of a museum on the Mont Saint-Michel manuscripts, named the Scriptorial. Housed in a new contemporary building leaning against the medieval city wall, the Scriptorial opened in August 2006 to celebrate the spiritual, intellectual and artistic memory of the Benedictine community. During excavations prior to the construction of the new building, a thirteenth-century cellar was found, and later included into the architecture of the early 21st century to be part of the museum tour.

Since the opening of the Scriptorial, fifteen manuscripts have been permanently displayed in a round room, built for them as the treasure of the museum. These manuscripts are replaced every three months, to avoid the damages from light, even subdued. The Scriptorial also chronicles the rich history of Avranches over time, with a number of objects and documents. Founded by the Celts in the 9th century BC, Avranches was a Gallo-Roman capital for three centuries, before becoming the seat of the Bishop for many centuries (with a hiatus during the French Revolution). Avranches was also a powerful citadel after the Avranchin (the Avranches region) joined the Duchy of Normandy in 933, and a royal city after Normandy was annexed to France in 1204, before experiencing the ravages of the Hundred Years’ War.

The Scriptorial explains in detail how manuscripts were produced, with the treatment of sheepskin (or goatskin or calfskin) for it to become parchment or vellum, the making of inks and pigments, the trimming of goose feathers, the copy of texts, the scripts, the decoration, the illumination, and finally the binding.

The Scriptorial is intended for all audiences. Children visit the museum in the company of Titivillus, an interactive imp offering explanations and games, as well as palaeography initiation and virtual object manipulation. Adults can leaf through digitized rare books on the screen, and enlarge (magnifying glass effect) the pages of two manuscripts, a Bible (Ms 2) and a collection of scientific and technical texts (Ms 235). Some videos show old postcards of Mont Saint-Michel, old prints, engravings, watercolour drawings by Emile Sagot, a nineteenth-century illustrator and typographer, or the famous “Carnets” (Notebooks) by Canon Pigeon, a nineteenth-century historian.

The Rare Book Library in the City Hall of Avranches

bibliotheque_2 While the Scriptorial is essential to publicize the manuscripts and the history of Avranches and Mont Saint-Michel, the conservation of the Heritage Fund has many other aspects: dusting and restoration of manuscripts and books, cataloguing (including for the Norman union catalogue and the French union catalogue – only 3,000 books have been catalogued so far in October 2015), digitalization, visits for all audiences (children, adults, historians, artists, etc.), organization of exhibitions, collaboration to various publications, etc.

For scholars to get direct access to the manuscripts and rare books, Jean-Luc Leservoisier, curator of the Rare Book Library (until he retired in summer 2012), opened the library twice a week – on Tuesdays and Thursdays from 10:00 to 12:00 – and by appointment. Every year, scholars coming from Normandy, from France, from the U.K., from Italy, from the U.S. and elsewere requested direct access to one hundred manuscripts on average.

Who were these scholars? In the Bulletin Municipal d’Avranches (City Magazine of Avranches), Jean-Luc Leservoisier explained in late 2011: “At the end of August, two Italian university professors chose Avranches as a holiday destination for them and their families. Antonio Ciaralli, a professor of palaeography in Perugia, Central Italy, and Vittorio Formentin, a specialist in Antique languages and dialects, came to the Rare Book Library to study during five days a single cover page of a thirteenth-century manuscript, in order to decipher its mysteries. They had brought a Wood’s lamp, meaning a special lamp [with ultraviolet rays] permitting to read the scripts whose ink had faded. They were able to ‘piece together’ a very rare document, the [financial] accounts written by Italian merchants from Tuscany who were pawnbrokers in Bologna, the European capital of law study in the Middle Ages. Manuscripts travelled over time, and this manuscript, produced in Bologna, arrived in Paris circa 1300, before being acquired by William of Brécé [or Brécey, 30 kilometers from Mont Saint-Michel], who offered it to the Mont Saint-Michel Abbey, until this manuscript came to Avranches in 1791.”

Jean-Luc Leservoisier also related another visit, the visit of Thomas Bisson, an American researcher with a Norman surname who is a professor of medieval history at Harvard. In 2011, he visited the Rare Book Library of Avranches for the third time to see the original version of La Chronique de Robert de Torigni, who was the Abbot of Mont Saint-Michel from 1154 to 1186, for the purpose of a new translation of this twelfth-century manuscript.

The Rare Book Library is not only open to university historians, but also to any person who is passionate about history and art, for example a local historian or a calligrapher. The general public is also welcome, and Jean-Luc Leservoisier regularly organized guided tours, including for schools. To his eyes, contributing to the cultural life of the city is as important as contributing to numerous publications.

Some recent publications

The Mont Saint-Michel manuscripts are an endless resource for beautiful publications, including in recent times. Here are three examples: (a) a major book on Romanesque illumination, with a first edition published in 1991, and a second edition published in 2006; (b) a facsimile of the Cartulaire du Mont Saint-Michel published in 2005 after the restoration of the original cartulary; and (c) a multimedia publication of the founding texts of Mont Saint-Michel published in 2009 by the Presses Universitaires de Caen.

Monique Dosdat, archivist palaeographer and former curator of the Heritage Fund at the Caen City Library, is the author of L’Enluminure Romane au Mont Saint-Michel (The Romanesque Illumination at Mont Saint-Michel), whose first edition was published in June 1991 by the Association des Amis de la Bibliothèque Municipale d’Avranches (Association of the Friends of the City Library of Avranches) and Editions Ouest-France, a fascinating book that I read in extenso before writing this article.

The back cover of this book includes this beautiful text: “The book of the Romanesque period is the discreet place of encounter between art and knowledge. The paintings hidden between the sheets of vellum, the well-thought page layouts that organize initials, titles and texts and harmonize inks and colours, do not tell any story, and do not want to reveal anything about the time and place of their creation. They deliver one message only: reading and writing are prayers. Born in the silence of a Benedictine abbey, created to be opened with reverence and kept away from profane eyes, the Mont Saint-Michel manuscripts reveal their splendour today.”

A new expanded edition with fifty additional full-page reproductions was published by Editions Ouest-France in 2006, in collaboration with Jean-Luc Leservoisier, (now former) curator of the Rare Book Library of Avranches.

Jean-Luc Leservoisier is also the author of The Mont Saint-Michel Manuscripts, with a French version and an English version both published by Editions Ouest France in 2006, with many illustrations in its thirty-two pages. The price of this booklet is affordable for every budget.

A significant step was the new edition in 2005 of the Cartulaire du Mont Saint-Michel (Ms 210), a collection of property titles of the abbey. Produced between 1154 and 1158 while Robert of Torigni was the Abbot of the abbey, this cartulary surpasses other contemporary cartularies by the fineness of the parchment used, the beauty of its script in Caroline minuscule, and its rich illustrations, with many illuminated initials and four full-page drawings executed in pen. The cartulary begins with the two founding texts of Mont Saint-Michel, the Revelatio, relating the vision of Aubert, bishop of Avranches, in 708, and Introductio monachorum, relating how Benedictine monks replaced Aubert’s clerics in 966.

The cartularly was then continued for three more centuries to transcribe the charters (acts) of the new properties of the abbey, but without the quality of execution and the richness of ornamentation of the twelfth-century pages. This cartulary is all the more important now that the handwritten and print Mont Saint-Michel Archives stored in the Manche Departmental Archives were entirely destroyed by fire in June 1944 in Saint-Lô (the main city of the department), during the battles that followed D-Day at the end of the Second World War.

To celebrate the restoration of the original cartulary, a beautiful facsimile was published in 2005 by the association Les Amis du Mont Saint-Michel (The Friends of Mont Saint-Michel). This cloth-bound volume includes 304 pages printed front and back with a four-colour process. An introduction by Emmanuel Poulle, former director of the École Nationale des Chartes, Paris, from 1988 to 1993, relates the history of the cartulary and its texts during three centuries. The two literary texts at the beginning of the cartulary were translated from Latin to French by Pierre Bouet and Olivier Desbordes, both lecturers in medieval Latin at the University of Caen, Normandy.

Copublished in 2009 by the Presses Universitaires de Caen (University Presses of Caen) and the Avranches Scriptorial, Les Manuscrits du Mont Saint-Michel: Textes Fondateurs (The Mont Saint-Michel Manuscripts: Founding Texts) gathers all the medieval sources on the origins of the abbey. A critical edition of these texts – original texts, translations, philological and historical commentary – sheds a new light on the history and historiography of the abbey, and highlights the richness of the Heritage Fund of Avranches. This multimedia publication includes a two-volume printed book (for a fee) and a CD-ROM (for a fee), as well as a free online edition, for these medieval sources to be available to everyone. The project was funded by the Contrat de Projet Etat-Region 2007-2013 (Project Contract between the French State and Regions 2007-13), with the help of the Centre Régional des Lettres de Basse-Normandie (Regional Centre for Literature in Lower Normandy).

The first volume, entitled Chroniques Latines du Mont Saint-Michel (Latin Chronicles of Mont Saint-Michel), was edited by Pierre Bouet and Olivier Desbordes. This corpus of Latin texts with translations and commentaries includes the texts of two major manuscripts. The first text is Revelatio ecclesiae sancti Michaelis Archangeli in Monte Tumba, a ninth-century text relating the foundation of the first sanctuary by Aubert in 708. The second text is De miraculis in Monte sancti Michaelis patratis, an eleventh-century work including three accounts: a) Introductio monachorum, relating how Richard I, Duke of Normandy, sent off Benedictine monks on Mont Saint-Michel in 966; b) De translatione and miraculis beati Autberti, relating how Aubert’s bones and perforated skull were discovered; and (c) Miracula Sancti Michaelis , relating the prodigies attributed to Archangel St. Michel from the origins of the abbey until 1050. The two documents in the Annex are Liber de apparitione of Mont Gargan and De scuto and gladio by Baudri de Dol. In the free online edition of the Chroniques latines, the texts translated by Pierre Bouet and Olivier Desbordes face the digitized original texts on the screen.

The second volume, entitled Le Roman du Mont Saint-Michel de Guillaume de Saint-Pair (The History of Mont Saint-Michel by William of Saint-Pair), was edited by Catherine Bougy, lecturer in medieval French at the University of Caen. The original manuscript (in three parts) was written circa 1170 by William of Saint-Pair, a young monk of the abbey who was a native from Saint-Pair-en-Cotentin and a contemporary of Robert of Torigni, Abbot of Mont Saint-Michel at the time. The original manuscript (Ms 10289) now belongs to the British Library.

This long octosyllabic poem included 3,781 verses, with a fragment missing at the end. Its three parts are: (a) the building of an oratory on Mont Tombe in 708 by Aubert, Bishop of Avranches; (b) the settling down of Benedictine monks in 966 on the orders of the Duke of Normandy Richard I; and (c) the several miracles accomplished by Archangel St. Michel. A talented poet and storyteller, William of Saint-Pair wrote in (Old) French, in a clear style peppered with Norman dialectalisms. He passionately defended the independence of his religious community against the power of Henry II Plantagenet, Duke of Normandy and King of England. Over the centuries, the monks at Mont Saint-Michel would always struggle to remain independent from political power, and he was one of them.

This account is all the more important as the first account written in French by a monk living at Mont Saint-Michel, with the intent to make the history of the abbey accessible to pilgrims who did not know Latin. The free online edition also fulfils the author’s wishes at the digital age, with the translated texts facing the digitized original texts, a brief presentation (which is a summarized introduction of the print version), many notes and an interactive glossary.

The manuscripts at the digital age

The digitization of the Mont Saint-Michel manuscripts was a step-by-step project. Before being digitized, the manuscripts were microfilmed and photographed by the IRHT (Institut de Recherche et d’Histoire des Textes – Institute for Research and History on Texts). They were microfilmed first, which a copy of the microfilm sent on request. They were photographed then, with a collection of 800 colour slides (24 x 36 mm) for all illuminated manuscripts. Photograph negatives and their prints – classified in chronological order and by scriptorium – were also available in Avranches.

Fifty manuscripts (texts and decoration) were digitized in 2005 prior to the opening of the Scriptorial. Seventy-one manuscripts were digitized and microfilmed from 2005 to 2010. Jean-Luc Leservoisier explained in 2010 in a paper for the DRAC (Direction Régionale des Affaires Culturelles – Regional Directorate for Cultural Affairs): “Fourty-nine Mont Saint-Michel manuscripts considered as prioritary were digitized before the opening of the Scriptorial, as well as a manuscript named Le Livre Vert, Cartulaire de l’Église d’Avranches (The Green Book, Cartulary of the Church of Avranches), i.e. a total of fifty manuscripts (18,509 pages) digitized in image mode with a resolution of 300 DPI. In December 2008 and January 2009, seventy-one more manuscripts were digitized by the IRHT, as part of its microfilming and digitization project of the manuscripts of Lower Normandy. (…)

The priority was given (a) to manuscripts relating to Mont Saint-Michel itself, i.e. the accounts of its foundation, its history in general, and its liturgical traditions (missals, books for religious services); (b) to the productions of the monastic scriptorium, known from the research work led by François Avril and Jonathan Alexander, among others, and estimated at about seventy manuscripts; and (c) to the main manuscripts used at Mont Saint-Michel for study, for example Aristotle, Boethius and Cicero for Antique works. The Heritage Fund of Avranches is certainly one of the most studied, best known and best publicized rare funds in France (with TV shows, radio progammes, etc.). The ‘dematerialization’ of the manuscripts, as a result of digitization, allows researchers to work in their university or at home, and the Scriptorial can send them the images [for a fee] on a CD or by email.”

The decoration of the manuscripts was digitized while bearing in mind the museum spaces of the Scriptorial. As explained by Jean-Luc Leservoisier: “Because it was part of another digitization programme, the decoration of the manuscripts had already been previously digitized, meaning 830 images (inhabited initials, historiated initials, illuminations, border ornaments) scanned this time in 600 DPI, and some of them even in 1,200 DPI for the musuem exhibit signage and the large promotional images of the Scriptorial. We can see these images in the wall friezes, combined with texts and graphics, to offer museum paths that are both fun and educational. (…) To illustrate the difficult topic of the content of these manuscripts, and avoid the usual facsimiles of pages of manuscripts, our choice – not planned from the start – was a corpus of images scrolling across a large screen with the possibility to ‘catch’ them and enlarge them. 700 digitized images, grouped into eight themes, make up this image wall, which is a creation of the company Art et Patrimoine Graphique (Arts and Graphic Heritage) and the Institut de l’Image (Image Institute) of Châlons-sur-Saône. This is a great educational tool and a source of wonder for our visitors.”

The digitized images of the illuminations were also used to create postcards, bookmarks and other objects that are now sold in the Scriptorial bookstore. These images are also requested by many publishers. Commercial publishers pay image rights to re-use the images in their own publications. Requests for non-commercial use are considered on a case-by-case basis, for permission and payment of a fee (or not). The Scriptorial also sends a CD-ROM (for a fee) holding all the digitized manuscripts on request.

In 2015, the Mont Saint-Michel manuscripts now have their own virtual library (please select “Avranches”) within the French BMVV (Bibliothèque Virtuelle des Manuscrits Médiévaux – Virtual Library of Medieval Manuscripts), with free access to the 199 manuscripts and their different texts, with several works in a single bound volume.

A project for a Virtual Mont Saint-Michel Library

manuscrit_19 The final stage would be a Virtual Mont Saint-Michel Library (Bibliothèque Virtuelle du Mont Saint-Michel), meaning the digital reconstitution of the Mont Saint-Michel Library like it was in 1791 before being transferred to Avranches. This project was launched in October 2011 by Pierre Bouet, former lecturer of medieval Latin at the University of Caen.

Jean-Luc Leservoisier explained in 2010 in a paper for the DRAC: “As part of the retrospective conversion of the catalogue of the Rare Book Library of Avranches, a project supported by the Centre Régional des Lettres (Regional Centre for Literature), we have been able to open all the books since three years, with the help of students from the University of Caen. We have identified 1,267 books from the Mont Saint-Michel Abbey, dispersed on the shelves, thanks to their famous bookplate Ex monasterio sancti Michaelis in periculo maris.”

The project of a virtual library started in 2012. Jean-Luc Leservoisier explained in April 2012: “The project of a Virtual Library of the Mont Saint-Michel Abbey, led by the University of Caen and the City of Avranches, and supported by the French Ministry of Culture, has just started this year. This should be a tree-year project, with a scientific description of all the Mont Saint-Michel manuscripts preserved in Avranches and elsewhere, as well as a description of all 1,255 surviving printed books, without counting the lost printed books that could be replaced with their digital version. All these documents will be freely available to the general public through an ambitious distance learning programme developed by the IT team of the University of Caen.” To this intent, a group of trainees worked in the Rare Book Library of Avranches for six weeks in April and May 2012. If the manuscripts now have their own virtual library, this new project would give access to the whole Mont Saint-Michel Library, with the assets of a free online version.

Please see also other articles and books on medieval art.

Copyright © 2015-2017 Marie Lebert
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Written by marielebert

2015/10/25 at 16:35

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