The treasures of the medieval library of Mont-Saint-Michel

In 1791, more than 4,000 volumes from the monastery of Mont-Saint-Michel were stored in Avranches

The treasures of the medieval library of Mont-Saint-Michel

In 1791, more than 4,000 volumes from the monastery of Mont-Saint-Michel were stored in Avranches. These books which constituted the library of the abbey are the spiritual, intellectual and artistic memory of the Benedictine community, which lived there from 966. There are, in addition to religious and philosophical texts, legal and scientific treatises. But also and above all historical chronicles rich in information on the Norman sanctuary. So many documents, sometimes written at the Mont itself, today presented at the Scriptorial of Avranches... Interview with Bérangère Jéhan, its director.

Le Point: What do we know about the copyists' workshop housed in the abbey?

Do you have any idea how many works were produced there between the 10th and 15th centuries?

Hard to say. Considering that each monk could probably copy one book per year, Mons production evidently amounts to several hundred books over this period. It is often said that a third of the books in medieval libraries have disappeared over time. If 200 books reached us, an estimate of 300 produced on site is not far-fetched.

We are talking here about collections of manuscripts. Because, in total, a thousand medieval texts have come down to us. That's right ?

Yes. The copied manuscripts were bound long after they were written: in the 17th century. Probably on the initiative of the Maurists [the Benedictine monks of Saint-Maur who settled in the abbey in 1622 and undertook numerous redevelopments within the Mont, the most important of which was the division of the large Gothic refectory into three levels, to make a series of cells, Editor's note]. At that time, all the old covers were deposited and the manuscripts redistributed according to an order whose logic still escapes us.

When did manuscripts begin to be collected into notebooks, those famous codices, which replaced the rolled-up parchments of antiquity?

The passage from the roll to the codex is a revolution which predates the creation of the abbey. It takes place around the 5th century of our era. The books then begin to look like ours: instead of being flipped, they now have a slice.

What material are they made of?

The scrolls are in skin. The illustrated pages are, in general, made from calfskin. Those with only text are sheepskin. The bindings are in brown calfskin with a gold strip.

Were these scrolls tanned in place?

Given the smallness of the place, it is unlikely. It takes space to treat skins, because it smells strong. This is work that obviously had to be done somewhere other than the abbey, somewhere with a stream. The Benedictines owned many farms that could house a parchment. There was raised an abundant livestock capable of providing these skins.

The work of illumination of Norman manuscripts is very valuable. Why are those of Mont-Saint-Michel so famous?

Although isolated on its island, the monastic community of the Mount is inspired by ancient practices in this area. There are various influences. Norman copyists are part of a tradition that began under the Merovingians and flourished in the Carolingian era, but they also introduced innovations which, for some, were English. This does not prevent them from affirming their own style which is illustrated in particular by "inhabited foliage".

What is it about ?

The pages are decorated with vegetal volutes taking the form of generous branches that wrap around the body of the texts. There are various motifs: animals (lions, eagles ...), monsters (often dragons because of the Michaelic devotion of the place), but also human beings. The initials are very dense, meticulously drawn.

Are there any less expected designs?

There is a monkey in one 13th-century manuscript, a dromedary in another, but few "grotesques," as comic figures are called. There are also, sometimes, drawings in the margins: scribbles of which it is difficult to know the authors. Some represent knights or a bestiary.

Are any manuscripts signed?

We sometimes find at the end of the manuscript a small colophon [a final note providing information on the work in question, Editor's note]. Some copyist monks have slipped their name, a prayer, or an anathema striking the possible thieves of the book. But it is rare. There are no more than ten.

The abundance of its manuscripts has earned the Mount the nickname "City of Books". How many copyist monks worked there?

The abbey had between 30 and 60 religious depending on the period. But not all were necessarily copyists. Again, it is difficult to accurately assess their number. Moreover, not all the manuscripts of the Mount were written on site. Some have been found dating back to the 8th century that came from other scriptoria.

The collection of the abbey includes not only religious books but also many secular works. For what ?

The corpus of the Mont-Saint-Michel library includes 70% of liturgical works, 12% of legal texts (mainly in canon law), 8% of historical treatises and 7% of scientific books... Centers of interest monks of the time were varied.

Can we say that this library was one of the most important in the Middle Ages?

No. The universities of Bologna in Italy or the Sorbonne in Paris, but also large abbeys, such as Cluny, had to have more extensive libraries. Nevertheless, the presence of certain great texts from antiquity - philosophical essays, treatises on Roman law - but also musical scores testify to the intellectual effervescence of the Norman monastery.

A very valuable heritage fund

Consult our file: The secrets of Mont Saint-Michel