November 15, 2004 issue. This file presents an archive copy of the issue of the FYI France ejournal, ISSN 1071-5916, which was distributed via email on November 15, 2004.
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The library of the venerable Mont St. Michel, "going digital"...
Across the bay, at Avranches, the bibliothèque municipale there has assembled the excellent ancient manuscripts formerly housed on the Mont: restoring them, preserving them, and now describing them -- for the first time in the long history of the Mont -- to readers everywhere, including those not able to make the long flight to France, and the trek out on the causeway at low tide, and the narrow passage up the steep hill to the "Merveille".
Avranches now displays, proudly, and on behalf of all of France:
LE FONDS ANCIEN
Une bibliothèque patrimoniale rénovée et climatisée
La bibliothèque patrimoniale
-- and they explain, that, (tr. JK)
In 1791, by the decision of the Revolutionary authorities, the city of Avranches, the main city in the district, was given responsibility for the care of significant book collections of the religious institutions of the Avranchin area: of these the cathedral chapter, the bishopric of Avranches, and the abbeys of Montmorel, la Lucerne, and the Mont St. Michel were among the most important..."
The premises housing and presenting this recently were renovated: Avranches carefully, and proudly, warns summer visitors to be prepared for a little unexpected coolness inside -- "un peu de fraîcheur (autour de 20°C et 55% d'humidité relative)" -- in this new "belle 'cathédrale' de livres anciens."
Consider what the old medieval monks might have thought, about this, "autour de 20°C et 55% d'humidité relative"...
If there is a library site anywhere in Europe which embodies the grim discipline, and devotion, which the monastic communities of the Middle Ages gave to their precious books, it must be the Mont St. Michel. As anyone who has visited the place in the wintertime can tell you... "un peu de fraîcheur"... what some of those old monks would have given, to have been able to have enjoyed that, while they read... in any season, parked in their drafty perch up there high above La Manche... think "frozen fingers"...
The surprizes, for the monks, would not end with the modern air conditioning, though. For also now, at the Avranches website, are online Internet exhibits of the treasures of their old books:
A brief introduction to the collection: plus a couple of images of damaged ancient books, to rend the heart of any bibliophile --
Written by hand on parchment (two on paper), 203 manuscripts -- including 200 from the Middle Ages, from the 8th to the 15th centuries -- form the collection of the ancient monastery of the Mont St. Michel, which was deposited at Avranches in 1791. These manuscripts testify to the spiritual, intellectual, and artistic life of this community of Benedictine monks...
Fires, which were frequent at the Mont, periodic cave-ins of the delicate mountaintop foundations, indelicate borrowers ["emprunts indélicats", as wonderfully-rendered in the French], and thefts, all have eroded a collection which nevertheless remains one of the most beautiful in Normandy and in all of France, particularly for the Romanesque era.
Visitors always are greatly moved to read the ownership mark, the 'exlibris' used by the monks of the Congregation of Saint-Maur during the 17th century:
'Ex monasterio Sancti Michaelis in periculo maris'
'From the monastery of St. Michel-in-peril-of-the-sea'
This website section offers a clear and interesting timeline of
the history of the Mont's scriptorium, from the founding of the
abbey in 708 AD to the decline of the scriptorium in 1204:
Totals: 7 manuscripts produced by the abbey, 129 of
Aubert's installation, on the Mont, of a community of monks
(No evidence of a scriptorium)
(3 manuscripts from others survive from this period)
Installation of a Benedictine community at the abbey
(Birth of the abbey scriptorium: 13 manuscripts survive)
(36 manuscripts from others, 966-1204)
William the Conqueror, Duke of Normandy
(Scriptorium apogee, Golden Age 1050-1075: 33 manuscripts)
Crisis, and renewal of the abbey by Robert de Torigni 1154-1186
(Abbey scriptorium: 14 manuscripts)
Re-attachment of Normandy to France, the Mont's own "collège" at Paris
(Decline of the abbey scriptorium: 10 manuscripts, 13th-15th c.)
(90 manuscripts from others, 13th-15th c.: lay workshops in Paris, Ile de France, Italy)
Totals: 7 manuscripts produced by the abbey, 129 of other provenance...
The website makes the excellent point that quality counts, in these things, as well as quantity:
Incessant research work, undertaken over 40 years by specialists and academics, for the most part French and Anglo-saxon [sic], has made this one of the best-known and most-appreciated rare book collections. This work has made possible both the retracing of the history of one of the most productive monastic workshops of Medieval Europe, and the evaluation of the role of the Mont's library in the diffusion, and for that matter the development, of movements in the thought and in the sciences of its times.
The subject matter is rich, and the copies often are of excellent quality. Holy Writ and its commentaries, Patristics (80 manuscripts), and liturgical works form the basic structure ["ossature", a wonderfully - untranslatable French word] of the collection. But one also may find histories, and chronicles, and books of science (music, astronomy, medicine), and law treaties, university texts and student manuals, and the great texts of Antiquity and of the Middle Ages: Cicero, Plato, Boethius, Seneca, Peter Abelard. Both theology and philosophy find important places, here..."
The copyists of the Mont, fifteen of whom we know from the 10th and 11th centuries, transcribed thousands of pages. They mastered the arts of calligraphy, and of the design of writing: Carolingian miniscule, capitals roman and uncial, rustica..."
During the era in which William the Conqueror enforced the peace in Normandy, 1050-1080, the monastic scriptorium achieved its Golden Age. The community never exceeded 40 monks, but they were eminent intellectuals and they included expert copyists and artists of talent..."
I first saw the Mont, myself, in 1967: courtesy of a French cousin, who treated us to the wonderful omelettes at "La Mère Poularde", and then bought us trinkets as we wound our way up the hill to the summit and the gloriously-warm summertime view. That was the tourist's usual "Mont St. Michel", and it is a version of same well worth experiencing, and remembering.
But my second trip to the Mont was made on a very cold and wet day -- motorcycling, so I was really cold -- a couple of years later. By then I knew a little more of the history, having been inspired by that initial visit to read a bit about old Bishop Aubert and his monks, and the "Merveille", and the reasons why medieval abbeys had to be "fortified".
The wind was fierce, and at the top of the mountain that wind literally howled, and there was no way of using a mere rain poncho and Levi jacket to keep the wet out. So I got a pretty good idea, that day, of what "life on the Mont" might have been like, for the monks who lived there year-round, year after year after year: penance, I thought...
And on the way back down the hill I tried to read a book, sitting in the little restaurant, with the wind howling outside and everything everywhere really wet and really cold: first priority always is the fingers, in "northern" winters, and blowing on them just makes them damp, and stiff -- and turning the fragile pages of precious manuscripts, in such conditions, becomes a tenuous and dangerous process, spilling not only the moisture of the rain but also the hot drink being used for hand-warming -- and just try doing all of that by constantly-flickering candlelight.
True devotion, that was, on the part of those old monks. And we are indeed very lucky to have what few exemplaires of the monastic "book" life have survived, currently at Avranches.
Here's hoping, then, that Avranches now can do even more to share the treasures with us. How nice it would be, to be able to see those wonderful images, already installed online, in higher resolution and more readable online formats... And how hopeful we might be, to see complete texts and images there someday: so that we might read them as the monks once did on the Mont, turning the pages and savoring the beauty of what those old monks have left to us. The Mont St. Michel "digital library" can bring us that.
Without the cold, and the wet, and the wind, though... but nor the omelettes... nor the "Merveille"... nor the snug if sometimes chilly new air-conditioning of the renovated bibliothèque municipale at Avranches... For all of these, and really to understand these manuscripts and their histories, we all still need to go to / get to go to, France.
FYI France (sm)(tm) e-journal ISSN 1071-5916 * | FYI France (sm)(tm) is a monthly electronic | journal published since 1992 as a small-scale, | personal experiment, in the creation of large- | scale "information overload", by Jack Kessler. / \ Any material written by me which appears in ----- FYI France may be copied and used by anyone for // \\ any good purpose, so long as, a) they give me --------- credit and show my email address, and, b) it // \\ isn't going to make them money: if it is going to make them money, they must get my permission in advance, and share some of the money which they get with me. Use of material written by others requires their permission. FYI France archives may be found at http://infolib.berkeley.edu (search fyifrance), or http://email@example.com/ (BIBLIO-FR archive), or http://listserv.uh.edu/archives/pacs-l.html (PACS-L archive) or http://www.fyifrance.com . Suggestions, reactions, criticisms, praise, and poison-pen letters all will be gratefully received at firstname.lastname@example.org . Copyright 1992- , by Jack Kessler, all rights reserved except as indicated above.
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