Man reading in a library - from: British Library Harley 4335 Boethius Le Livre de Boece de Consolacion 1477

Medieval Libraries

The Journal “French Studies” published in February 2016 a special issue focusing on “Medieval Libraries, history of the books, and literature”.


French Studies February 21, 2016
Ed. by Luke Sunderland

For some time it has become more and more common to study medieval texts as what they often were: parts of a collection represented in a manuscript characterized by a specific idea. Now, it appears, the time has come to study libraries less as collections of books and more as collections of ideas.

This perspective was explored in a series of workshops sponsored by Durham University and the University of Cambridge, 2012–13 as well as at Kalamazoo in Michigan 2014. Subsequently a series of articles evolving this perspective has been published in a special issue of French Studies (February 2016).  In the articles “Medieval libraries are studied less as collections of books, and much more as collections of ideas.


From: Cambrai, Médiathèque Municipale (olim Bibliothèque Cambrai, Médiathèque Municipale (olim Bibliothèque Municipale) 620 (572)
From: Cambrai 620. In: Médiathèque Municipale/Bibliothèque Cambrai

Introduction: Medieval Libraries, history of the books, and literature
By Luke Sunderland, Durham University

Medieval libraries are studied as collections of books, but much less frequently as collections of ideas. They are somewhat neglected by literary scholars, who tend to define the parameters of their studies in terms of authors, genres, themes, traditions, or movements, rather than library collections. Such critics are interested in where individual texts come from or where they go, and much less in which texts were gathered together in libraries and thus made sense together. Studies have increased awareness of the intertextuality of medieval literature, especially of the interplay between literature and philosophy in the later Middle Ages: medieval literary texts were of course in dialogue with other sorts of knowledge.1 But the potential for using popular literary texts — the incontournables of medieval libraries — to inform an idea of what those libraries symbolized, or how they were conceived or used, remains unexploited. Nor has the medieval library been deployed to make sense of the texts found within it, despite the fact that the meaning of any text is inevitably informed by familiarity with the other works alongside which it is found. Rather, History of the Book has been the main field to tackle medieval libraries.

Imagining Ovis and Chrétien in Fourteenth-Century French Libraries.
By Miranda Griffin.
Popular in French royal and ducal libraries, the Ovide moralisé is the first full-length French translation of Ovid’s Metamorphoses; it introduces pseudo-historical explanations and Christian moralizations. Fusing references to and tales from diverse medieval and classical sources, the Ovide moralisé is a microcosm of the late medieval library, offering a digest of myth and doctrine, and manifesting a reading practice aware of its reliance on, and reassessment of, previous instances of authority. With reference to Foucault’s evocation of the bibliothèque fantastique, this article focuses on two auctores cited by the Ovide moralisé: Ovid and an author referred to as ‘Crestien’. Evidence from Ovide moralisé manuscripts belonging to the libraries of King Philippe VI, his wife, Jeanne de Bourgogne, and their three bibliophile grandsons — King Charles V; Jean, duc de Berry; and Philippe le Hardi, duc de Bourgogne — suggests that the name Crestien, today evocative of Chrétien de Troyes, would likely connote the author of a twelfth-century translation and adaptation of the Metamorphoses’ Philomela episode, which is interpolated into the Ovide moralisé. Focusing on encounters between these authors reveals the medieval library as a space of fantasy in which texts gloss, summon, adapt, and re-imagine one another.

Conceptualizing Medieval Book Collections
By Thomas Hinton, University of Exeter
This article argues for a conceptual distinction between the practices and ideologies of institutional learning on the one hand (whose natural vehicle was Latin, the language of formal education) and those of a vernacular written culture that both challenges and models itself on the former. The garden, used as a figure for the ideal library by Richard de Fournival in the thirteenth century, creates order through the institutionalization of knowledge and the exclusion of undesirable elements. By contrast, the forest is deployed by medieval and modern thinkers to embody a wild, unsorted chaos apparently inimical to learning. And yet the forest in medieval literature functions as a margin always in contact with civilization, whose illicit danger is matched by its attractiveness as a space for unplanned encounters and reconfigurations of hierarchy and authority. As I demonstrate, an analogous concern with the potential for book collections to lead readers to unexpected discoveries is a recurrent theme of vernacular authors from Benoît de Sainte-Maure to Chaucer. This conceptual approach to the function and cultural value of medieval libraries offers a supplementary perspective to more traditional ‘book archaeology’, one which may be especially fruitful for making sense of the often fragmentary and vague records of private ownership.

The Library in Twelfth- and Thirteenth-Century French Literature: Benoît de Sainte_maure’s Roman de Troie, Chrétien de Toryes’s Cligès, and Adenet le Roi’s Berte as Grand Piés.
By Emma Campbell, University of Warwick
The allusion to a real or imaginary source is a commonplace in medieval literature; however, some writers take this reference to sources a stage further and speak about the discovery of a work in a library or book collection, occasionally evoking particular place names or locations. If the library’s depiction in such instances elaborates upon a common motif, it also raises the issue of the imaginative work that this elaboration might perform, inviting reflection on the historical conceptualization of book collections and the relationship to knowledge they connote. To the extent that it features in more modern discussions, the library as a figure or metaphor has usually been thought about in connection with periods subsequent to the Middle Ages, often being associated with the organization or throwing into chaos of systems of knowledge. This article considers how the library as it appears in twelfth- and thirteenth-century francophone literature offers alternative ways of imagining hierarchies of knowledge from those associated with modernity and post-modernity, ways that are less concerned with systems of classification or notions of ordered space than with relationships among writers, readers, and texts.

Self-Portrait in a Library: Charles d’Orléans and his Books.
By Philippe Frieden, University of GenèveLike most cultivated nobles of his time, Charles d’Orléans possessed a large library, partly inherited from his parents, Louis d’Orléans and Valentina Visconti. Charles’s library is fascinating due to its multiple origins: books were received as gifts, or purchased during Charles’s captivity in England, or copied by him or his brother during the same period, or written by him, as in the case of his ‘notebook’. As such, this library represents a lifetime and reflects its collector. Taking into consideration the medieval catalogues of the collection, details held within books made for Charles, and his own book of poetry, this article shows how the figure of the duke as owner or collector appears in a variety of forms. But it also argues that genealogy offers a powerful lens through which to understand the collection’s successive iterations; unity is seen to rest more on a series of social, especially familial, interactions than on the identity of any one individual. The late medieval library can thus be considered the result of a network of genealogical relationships, and a powerful expression of the intimate links connecting manuscripts, medieval libraries, and their owners.


This special issue follows in the footsteps of the recent exhibition of the royal French libraries curated in connection with the anniversary of Francis I.


Bibliothèques médiévales : bibliographie sélective
Jean-Luc Deuffic


From: British Library, Harley 4335. Boethius (anonymous French translation), Le Livre de Boece de Consolacion (Book 1)
France, Central (Bourges); 1477, fol 1.