About the library: to know its challenges and its operations

The website of the Digital Library of the Mont Saint-Michel gives access to the descriptive notes and the fac similes of the works, manuscripts or printed volumes, that can be identified, at one moment of their History, as having been owned by the Abbey of Mont Saint-Michel.

A laboratory for the historian

An old book is a documentary source that can be approached from multiple angles. It's a physical object that involves both the history of technology and the history of arts: materials used, layout, decoration, illustration, binding, accessment... it is a written source, and so a valuable witness for the history of texts, not only because an ancient book enables to know the content of the works of which it is the support, but also because it witnesses the condition of production, reception and diffusion. It is finally an object that has its own story of which it has records (when is it produced? For whom? Who was in possession of it? Who has read it?...). The listed books in the digital library of the Mont Saint-Michel can be accessed from multiple angles, thus constituting a field of study far from exhausted.

Ongoing research

The sum of the Millénaire monastique du Mont Saint-Michel has generated a genuine renewal of the studies of the Mont. Its two primary volumes, Histoire et vie monastique de l’abbaye (1967) and Vie montoise et rayonnement intellectuel (1967), form a substantial reference for the history of the monastic library. However, while the preserved documents range from the 8th century to the French Revolution, the historians focus their attention especially on the work of the medieval scriptorium of the 11th and 12th centuries: the work of J.J.G Alexander, Norman Illumination at Mont St Michel, 966-1100 (1970) should be strongly emphasized here. The subsequent centuries did not receive the same extensive studies and at the present stage, many areas of both the history of the library of the Mont Saint-Michel, and its assumed intellectual life remain in the shadows.

Many intiatives have been taken and recent works renew the approaches of the books of the Mont: for example, the study of reading marks left on the manuscripts (B. Pohl, 2014), the impact of the confraternity network on the movement of the books and the texts (St. Lecouteux, 2015) and the analysis of a mass of documentation left by the Congregation of Saint-Maur (M. Bisson, 2015)… Related directly to the digital library, the digital edition of the old inventary of the Mont Saint-Michel and that of the Revolution period catalog (M.Bisson) to be published in 2017, enable to value the state of the library just before the confiscations. Several ongoing thesis can be added to these works, for example, the study of « Commentaire d’Avranches » à l’Éthique à Nicomaque, preserved in Avranches BM, 232, ff. 90-123 (V. Cervera Novo, « L’utilisation du corpus aristotélicien dans l’interprétation médiévale de l’“Éthique à Nicomaque” : le cas de la Lectura anonyma abrincensis in Ethicam ueterem (circa 1230) », dir. Cl. Lafleur, Université Laval, Québec) or the edition of Anglo-Norman liturgical Ordinairies of the Mont Saint-Michel, Avranches BM, 46 et Avranches BM, 226 (L. Chevalier, « De antiquis Benedictinorum ritibus : la liturgie bénédictine en Normandie (XIe-XVe siècles). Étude comparative des ordinaires liturgiques anglo-normands », dir. V. Gazeau, C. Jacquemard, Université de Caen Normandie).

Identification of a book of the Mont Saint-Michel

SSigns of belonging or of reading found on an old volume helps to know to whom the book belonged to or in whose hands it circulated: signs of copyists, signs of holders, armorial bearings, notes of readers, library marks (ex-dono, ex-libris, old shelf-marks...). External sources (registers, account books, inventories or old catalogs...) can help to identify a volume and to trace the stages of its history. But it often happens that these witnesses, either poor or difficult to analyse, go wrong. When there is a possibility of identification of the signs of belonging or reading in a work, the catalog records of the digital library mentions it.

Documentation of the works described in the digital library relies on the research carried out in situ in the Heritage library of Avranches, but also on the compilation of the specialised bibliography and on the consultation of catalogs and inventories of the physical libraries, specifically, the two main cataloging instruments: CGM (Catalogue général des manuscrits des bibliothèques publiques de France) and the CMD (Catalogue des manuscrits datés).

The Heritage library of Avranches

Almost all the surviving books of the Mont Saint-Michel are found in Avranches as a result of a series of events that, from 1789 to 1811, ended up in the creation of a public library under the responsibility of the town : nationalisation of the libraries of the religious congregations ; deposit of books in the litterary trusts of the district ; creation of central school librairies ; and finally creation of municipal librairies. After their nationalisation, the works coming from the Mont Saint-Michel were thus redistributed among the new library emerged from the confiscations during the French Revolution, whereas the printed volumes and the manuscripts have experienced a fate very different.


Among the 254 manuscripts preserved in the Heritage library of Avranches, 205 are identified as coming from the Mont Saint-Michel: the manuscripts shelf-marked 1 to 39, 41 to 169, 209 to 217, 220 to 224 and 248. Recent studies led by M. Bisson on the library of Mont Saint-Michel through the mauristes writings have enabled the observation and the analysis of the old shelf-marks and the signs of belonging still noticeable on the works of the Mont : 66 manuscripts have a ex-libris of the Mont, 129 have a shelfmark Anselme Le Michel, 166 have the classmark, 173 have the shelfmark of Montfaucon. These datas are complementary to the informations provided by the inventory of the mauristes and that of the Revolution period. Mainly, the Bibliotheca bibliothecarum manuscriptorum nova, led by Montfaucon et published in 1739[=1738], provides a precious list of the manuscripts present in the Mont Saint-Michel (Bibliotheca bibliothecarum manuscriptorum nova, vol. 2, p. 1356-1361).

Since the 19th century, the Bibliotheca bibliothecarum manuscriptorum nova was compared with the remaining documents. This work of collation enabled to confirm the origin of the manuscripts without ex-libris. The catalogs of the manuscripts of Avranches built by Taranne et Delisle (CGM, série in-4°, vol. IV, Paris, 1872, p. 427-563) then by Omont (CGM, série in-8°, vol. X, Paris, 1889, p. 1-125) contain already the tables of concordances (respectively, p. 557-558 and p. 5-6) which relate the manuscripts of Avranches to the items of the Bibliotheca bibliothecarum manuscriptorum nova.)

Printed Works

The successive librarians, throughout the 19th century, in Avranches, were always aware of the historical value of their collection of manuscripts and were concerned to preserve its integrity. However, the printed volumes coming from the Mont Saint-Michel have not been subject to any particular treatment or reporting during the processes, such as, inventory, arrangement (often according to size), classification or elimination of duplicates... The listing-out of the printed works from the Mont Saint-Michel was thus a prerequisite for the creation of the digital library. Identification of 1254 printed volumes, as coming from the Mont Saint-Michel, out of 23 000 works preserved in the Heritage Library of Avranches and few other works preserved today in the Institute Notre Dame de la Providence, was enabled by the observation of the signs of belonging on the copies and by the collation of the surviving documents with the help of the list provided by the revolution period catalog (manuscrit Avranches BM, 246, ff. 105r-139v, relevé de Bournhonet, bibliothécaire du dépôt littéraire du district d'Avranches en 1795). This verification also allowed to estimate the losses sustained since the Revolution : half of the printed volumes listed in the Revolution period inventory (2518 volumes) seems to be lost.

Works scattered, from New York et Figeac...

Various manuscripts preserved in other institutions and identified as coming from the Mont Saint-Michel , either by the signs of belonging, notes of the copyist, or because of their style factors should be added to the works preserved in Avranches. Among them, the manuscript New York, Pierpont Morgan Library 641 et Rouen, BM, suppl. 116 (mm 15), a 11th century sacramentary, important for the knowledge of the Mont's liturgy, or the Vatican manuscripts, BAV, Reg. Lat. 2043 (Macrobe, Saturnales), Paris, BNF, Latin 8070 (Juvénal, Satires), Paris, BNF, Latin 8055 (Stace, Thébaïde ; Perse, Satires) which, with the manuscript Avranches BM, 240 (Martianus Capella, Les Noces de Mercure et de Philologie), witness the reading of the latin classic in the 11th century. Bible of the 13th century, owned for the prayer Sébastien Ernault of the 16th century, preserved in Figeac (Figeac, Musée Champollion, 03.25.1) should also be mentioned.

The present listing-out is to be continued, in particular, for the modern manuscripts, much less well known than the medieval manuscripts; verifications besides the collection stored in Avranches, would perhaps allow to find the printed volumes having a ex-libris of the Mont. But the absence of inventories before the 17th century, for the manuscripts, and before the revolution, for the printed works makes the approach problematic.

Physical library(ies), digital library(ies), restored library(ies)

The works coming from the library of the Mont Saint-Michel are thus dispersed today in several custodial institutions, particularly within the Heritage library of Avranches where many of them are preserved. If this corpus reports the surviving and available documents, it no longer corresponds to a single physical collection. Organisation of the digital library, firstly by the present places of conservation, respects this basic information.

A corpus of documents capable of reporting reliably the condition of the library of the Mont Saint-Michel just before the Revolution exists: works preserved in Avranches, inventories of the 17th and the 18th century, records of the verification works led by the monks of the Congregation of Saint-Maur on the litterary and historical sources preserved in the abbey (writings of Jean Huynes, of Thomas Le Roy, de Louis De Camps...). However, necessary precautionary measures must be taken to avoid all extrapolation to gain valuable informations on the content of the library in the previous periods. The events that have affected the library, whether it be the losses (theft, borrow or material devastations...) or enrichments (donations, acquisitions...) are almost ignored over time, as neither a library record, nor an inventory before the 17th century remains today. It must therefore be recognized that our knowledge about the library of the Mont Saint-Michel is subject to an important degree of uncertainty and one of the challenges of the digital library is to contribute to its evaluation.

A manuscript in the digital library

A manuscript of the Mont Saint-Michel in the digital library, is a catalog record associated with a digital fac-simile.

Exhaustive analysis of a manuscript, material description and extraction of the texts, is a difficult and time-consuming task. According to the level of complexity of the work, it may take several weeks (or more!) of work. The publication requirements and the pursued objectives impose to weigh the elements taken into account (a manuscript, is it used to document a research on the history of arts and of technology? On the reception and the movement of the texts? Does it enter into a work of critical edition? Of cataloging a collection or a corpus ?).

One of the primary aims of the digital library is to provide the researchers and the public, a complete collection of the digital fac similes of the manuscripts of the Mont preserved in Avranches (resulting from 3 digitalization campaigns: 2004, 2009 andt 2016-2017). This collection is accompagnied with the catalog records which facilitates the visualisation. We have thus published short catalog records, compatible with the online publication of the website in 2017, as a result of the last digitalization campaign.

The catalog records includes the informations resulting from direct observations (manuscripts preserved in Avranches) and the datas taken from the scientific bibliography. The catalog records, being verified, is accompanied by a special mention.

The standards and conditions of the different digitilization campaigns, that enabled the creation of the digital library, are detailled in the section Methodology.

A printed volume in the digital library

The creation of the digital library has been an occasion to lead an identification work, never been done before, on the printed volumes coming from the library of the Mont Saint-Michel. The publication of the catalog of printed volumes preserved in Avranches offers therefore a new research instrument to understand the History of the Abbey under the Congregation of Saint-Maur in its cultural and intellectual aspects, and in the material management of the monastic library. The inquiry played a vital role in the analysis of the Revolution period catalog started by Pino-Cocherie (manuscritAvranches BM, 246, ff. 105r-139v, relevé de Bournhonet).

The catalog records of the printed volumes gather publication informations and notes on the specificities of the copy.

Index, database of authorities, bases of knowledge

The digital library project was accompagnied by a considerable work of indexation carried out on the names of the persons (authors, translators, commentators, scribes, holders, sponsors, donors), the descriptive titles of the manuscripts, the work titles (manuscript and printed ones), the titles (naming of the text as it appears on the manuscript), the incipits, the ex-libris, the catagorisation of the typology of documents, the terms of scriptorium.

If the indexes are primarily the thematic entry points to navigate in the digital library, they also enable to build a data directory that can be shared with or linked to other information databases. In the case of the digital library, the making up of the index has gone hand in hand with a research on the making-up of thesauri (persons, works, places) interoperable and poolable and on the alignment of the datas of these thesauri with the large autority databases already present, similar to the ones of the BNF.

Upcoming works

The website of the digital library is set to change and to develop, depending on the research developments..

The website opens in april 2017 with the online publication of the documentation concerning the books of the old Abbey of the Mont Saint-Michel preserved in the Heritage library of Avranches : entire collection of digital manuscript fac-similes (that includes the images of the campaign 2016-2017) ; descriptive notes of the manuscript books (of which a first delivery of 100 updated catalog records) ; records of 1258 printed books identified as belonging to the Mont. The reader may know the digital library through a first temporary exhibition that allows the view of the digital reproduction of the manuscripts displayed in 2017 in the Treasure hall of the Scriptorial of Avranches during the exhibition of winter (febrary and march) and spring (april-june).

The renewal of the temporary exhibitions, that will follow the seasonal basis turnover of the manuscripts displayed at the Scriptorial (generally 12 manuscripts per exhibition), will be an opportunity to develop the website with the updates that will be indicated in the the website with the updates that will be indicated in the section Nouveautés (coming soon).

The upcoming future projects will be oriented towards the following points : may/july 2017, update of the printed catalog preserved in Avranches (standardization of the « short titles » on the set of catalog records) ; 2017-2018, update of the manuscript catalogs preserved in Avranches (finalisation and validation of the 105 catalog records being written) ; 2018-2020, cataloging of the books preserved out of Avranches.




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