In his book Library: an Unquiet History Matthew Battles describes an extraordinarily far-ranging history of books, book collections, libraries and librarians. It would unfair of me to criticize him for omitting my personal favorites (but he did, ok?!). He concludes his history with a brief discussion of the future of the library and the place of “digital objects” in our collections, and I wish he had discussed some of the opportunities that The Digital brings to the study of long-dispersed libraries and collections.
Battles only fleetingly mentions the Bibliotheque Nationale de France. The library traces its roots back to the reign of Charles V (1364-1380). Charles greatly expanded the royal library and employed a steward, Giles Malet, whose sole responsibilities were to maintain the library and actively seek out more volumes to add to the collection (collections development!). While Battles credits the Medicis with having the first “public” library in 1440, Charles’ collection at the Louvre was open to all the members of court in the 1360s. Medieval poet, single mom, and all-round badass Christine de Pisan wrote about using the library at the Louvre in her 1404 work, Le livre des fait et bonnes moeurs du sage roy Charles V. At the time of Charles’ death in 1380, the library held at least 1200 volumes – not too shabby.
I like to think of the Louvre library as “public” not just because it was open to all members of court but because Charles also had a “private” library. He kept a collection of fifty-six manuscripts at his palace at Vincennes – then a royal hunting lodge, now the suburbs of Paris. Vincennes was a much more private residence away from court. It served more as a family retreat and a place to bring privileged guests. In addition to being kept at a private residence, the books were stored in Charles’ private chambers. These rooms would have been accessible to an extremely limited number of people.
The fifty-six manuscripts in his private collection were listed in an inventory taken in 1380 and describe some of the most lavishly decorated and extensively illustrated Gothic manuscripts (of ALL TIME). Only ten of the manuscripts listed and one fragment are known to manuscript historians today.* And those ten manuscripts are the most well-researched, most-published, and most-often displayed Gothic manuscripts. They are all insanely beautiful and expensive. Period. End of story. Charles was a surrrrious collector. And these manuscripts never appear together, as a collection, after Charles’ death. No collector was able to amass such a high profile collection of Gothic illuminated manuscripts ever again.
The ironic part of the story is that the individual manuscripts that were in Charles’ collection have generated much more published research than the collection as a whole. In fact, apart from the inventories themselves, the collection has been discussed in scholarly work exactly once – at an historical conference that took place at Vincennes in 1994. This is a classic case of not seeing the forest for the trees. It is not unusual for art historical research, especially manuscripts studies. In general, the scholarship in this area has focused on discovering the authors, the scribal hand, the names of the illustrators and illuminators, essentially a discovery of a book’s origins. I have no problem with origin stories, but by focusing on how and when the book was made we miss out on all the different and exciting ways these manuscripts have been interpreted over the course of centuries. Centuries.
I have a lot of ideas about why the books were kept at Vincennes, and why these books and not others and how Charles might have used them. Today these manuscripts are in libraries and museums France, the UK, and the United States. They are dispersed, in different states of preservation, and there are no plans to get the old gang back together any time soon. However, because these manuscripts are so well researched digital scans of the pages already exist for many of them. It would not be impossible to re-create (at least a teensy portion) of Charles’ collection in a digital space. It would be the first time since 1380 that anyone would be able to have a reading experience that even comes close to what Charles created at Vincennes. What would that teach us?
*List of the existing Manuscripts (in the interest of full-disclosure):
Ingeborg Psalter (Chantilly, Musée Condé ms. lat.1695);
Saint Louis Psalter (Paris, Bibliothèque nationale de France ms. lat. 10525);
Psalter of Isabelle of France (Cambridge, Fitzwilliam Museum ms. 300);
Breviary of Philippe le Bel (Paris, Bibliothèque nationale de France ms. lat. 1023);
a royal manuscript of unknown ownership (Paris, Bibliothèque nationale de France ms. lat. 13233);
Belleville Breviary (Paris, Bibliothèque nationale de France ms. lat. 10483);
Hours of Jeanne d’Evreux (New York, Metropolitan Museum of Art, The Cloisters ms. 54.1.2);
Breviary of Jeanne d’Evreux (Chantilly, Museé Condé ms. 51);
Hours of Yolande de Flandres (London, British Library, Yates Thompson 27);
Savoy Hours (New Haven, Yale University, Beinecke Rare Book and Manuscript Library ms. 390);
Breviary of Charles V of France (Paris, Bibliothèque nationale de France ms. lat. 1052).