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14 November 2013

The Chapter Library of the Cathedral at Bayeux

The Chapter Library of the Cathedral at Bayeux.

In 2013 the two cathedral libraries in the twinned regions of Devon and Calvados have been revitalised: Exeter Cathedral Library and the Chapter Library of the Cathedral in Bayeux. The Bayeux library is an extremely rare example in France of a library which remains in its original medieval building - Noyon is the only other such library. On the occasion of the reopening after more than ten years of work three events took place:

  • An exhibition of manuscripts was inaugurated in the Musée d'art et d'histoire Baron Gérard in Bayeux which will run until 5 January 2014.
  • The publication of an excellent book giving the history of the library: La bibliothèque du chapitre de la Cathedral Notre-Dame de Bayeux : histoire du bâtiment et de ses collections (In-Quarto, 2013, 64 pages : ill. ISBN 978-2-84769-514-4 : €9.50).
  • A conference, organised by DRAC (Direction régionale des affaires culturelles de Basse-Normandie) together with the municipality of Bayeux.
The proceedings of the conference will be published but an outline, together with some background information, is given here.

La bibliothèque du chapitre de Bayeux : colloque des 7 et 8 novembre 2013.

The conference was opened by Kléber Arhoul, the regional director of DRAC, which is part of the Ministry of Culture and Communication and introduced by François Arnaud (responsible for books and reading in the DRAC de Basse-Normandie), Sylvette Lemagnen (director of the Médiathèque municipale de Bayeux) and François Neveux (emeritus professor of medieval history at the Université de Caen Basse-Normandie), who is also vice-president of the Friends of the Cathedral of Bayeux.

Le contexte historique de la construction de la bibliothèque (XIII° - XV° siècles). François Neveux, presented the first paper which showed how the construction of the present library building in 1429 was directly lined to political and military events at the close of the Middle ages. The Cathedral had 48 canons, the second largest number in Normandy after Rouen, all of them potential users of books. No manuscripts are known from a scriptorium in Bayeux prior to the building of the library but the massive 13th century wooden cupboard (armarium) in the treasury is thought to have contained archives and manuscripts. In the first half of the 14th century the construction of side chapels along the north aisle of the Cathedral had entailed the destruction of one wing of the cloister where some of the chapter books were kept. It was therefore necessary to construct a new building. However these works were delayed by the Hundred Years War. It was necessary to wait for a pause in the combats under the episcopate of Nicolas Habart for the construction to happen, during the English occupation. The new library on the first floor of the building and and the scriptorium below it are linked to the foundation of the University of Caen by the English occupying powers and their Norman partners in 1436.

Le contenu d’une bibliothèque médiévale. Pierre Bouet (maître de conférence honoraire à l'université de Caen) in his paper underlined the fact that the library and scriptorium are two fundamental parts of a Benedictine monastery in the Middle Ages. He showed how it is possible to reconstruct the contents of a typical Benedictine library as it evolved following the changing requirements of the community, using evidence from surviving manuscripts and catalogues compiled either at the time or in the course of following centuries as well as from other documents which shed light on works which have now disappeared. Examples were largely taken from libraries in Normandy and show the type of works which would also have been represented in a chapter library at that time. One problem is that inventories often mention only the first work in a volume, as is the case for Avranches. In addition works were often scattered around the abbey, as in Fécamp. Inventories often show few works by classical or lay writers and reveal a closed world concentrated on theology, liturgy and Biblical commentaries. Overall there are perhaps 15% of "pagan" works, notably Aristotle. Often theirs works are contained in carefully selected extracts (flores) to give examples of rhetorical style.

Un exemple de Bible portative du XIII° siècle : le manuscrit 49 déposé à la médiathèque municipale de Bayeux. Cécile Fouquet-Arnal (docteur en histoire de l'art à l'IRHIS – Lille 3) in her paper examined in more detail a 13th century manuscript now in the public library in Bayeux, a small format Bible with 1034 pages, one of many Bibles produced in the 13th century. In this period the Bible underwent profound changes in format, calligraphy, page layout, revision of the text, the arrangement of the books included and in ornamentation. In addition the rise of universities and the appearance of preaching orders encouraged the production of Bibles in one single volume. Ms. 49 of the Médiathèque de Bayeux bears witness to these changes. Small in size, easily portable, as was the norm for this type of work, this Bible passed from hand to hand before arriving at the Chapter Library in Bayeux. It is a collective work, undertaken by a lay workshop, probably in Paris, perhaps in the Mathurin workshop in the period 1240/1250. In the 13th century workshops in Paris were responsible for many small-format bibles.

Historique et description architecturale du bâtiment de la bibliothèque du chapitre de Bayeux. Jérôme Beaunay (architecte des bâtiments de France – DRAC de Basse-Normandie, conservateur de la cathédrale de Bayeux) and Frédéric Henriot (conservateur régional des monuments historiques – DRAC de Basse-Normandie) jointly presented a paper on the library buildings. The library of the chapter of Bayeux cathedral was built in about 1429, in the centre of the former cloister located to the north of the nave. On the ground floor was a scriptorium and on the first floor the library itself. The building was modified a few years later, after 1464, particularly in terms of internal arrangement and access. Large windows were inserted in the first floor in the eighteenth century, and finally the building took its final form in the middle of the nineteenth century with the refurnished library upstairs and a museum of sculpture on the ground floor. Now restored, the current building is a gem worthy of the collections it contains.

La bibliothèque de Bayeux au XVe siècle, reflet d’une collection capitulaire médiévale. Monique Peyrafort-Huin (ingénieur de recherche au CNRS – IRHT) spoke on the early development of the library. She examined the problem of the sources available to reconstruct the chapter library of Notre-Dame de Bayeux and also the losses suffered by this medieval collection and went on to focus on the inventories of the fifteenth century and later (excluding the inventories of the revolutionary period) and the light they shed on the collections. There are surviving inventories of the library for 1437 (the date of the bull for the founding of Caen university) which lists 192 manuscripts and 1481 which lists 243 manuscripts, giving details of donors and one for the treasury for 1476 which mentions 98 of the more valuable manuscripts, mainly decorated service books. After examining the nature of a chapter library, she showed how gifts and bequests by canons helped develop the collections during the fifteenth century. Seven canons can be identified with some certainty and also several bishops, particularly Louis d'Harcourt. Some Bayeux canons are also known to have given books to other foundations. Consideration was also given to how the collection might have been organised. In the 15th century it seems to have fourteen desks in two rows.

Les bibliothèques des chapitres cathédraux de Normandie sous l'Ancien Régime. Nicolas Trottin (member of the Société des Antiquaires de Normandie) undertook a comparative study of chapter libraries before the revolution. He stated that in the early modern period, the chapter libraries of the province of Rouen had mixed fortunes. At the dawn of the Renaissance, the cathedral chapters possessed rich libraries whose catalogues are monuments of learning. However, after this rich flowering, supported by book-loving prelates, aware of the importance of learning, the momentum slowed gradually, in such a way that, although the metropolitan collection in Rouen never knew a period of eclipse, the collections of books in the other chapter libraries in Normandy declined until their final dispersion during the Revolution.

L'édition normande à travers les collections de la bibliothèque du chapitre de Bayeux. Jean-Dominique Mellot (keeper in the Bibliothèque nationale de France, Paris) spoke about the printed collections, particularly items printed in Normandy. Today the collections of the cathedral chapter of Bayeux hold several hundred volumes published in thirteen localities in Normandy, including Bayeux, Rouen and Caen. His study shed light on the development of the library and also the history of publishing in Normandy, especially from the seventeenth to the nineteenth centuries.

The most important Norman centres of printing were

Town16th cent. Imprints17th cent. Imprints

Norman imprints formed only a small minority of the books in Bayeux collections. The 1794 inventory shows:

All imprintsParis 45%Lyon 7.8%Normandy 7.2%Abroad 14.5%
Norman imprintsCaen 53.6%Rouen 39.9%Bayeux 2%

The period between 1650 and 1750 was one of major donations, notable donors being Jean Petit and canon Sebastien Dufour. Liturgical works were mainly printed in Paris and there are few custumals. Mellot suggested that there was some expurgation before the inventories were made, local custumals being judged to be of little relevance. The distribution of imprints by place and century is as follows:

ImprintsNormandyParisLyonOther provincial
17th century3%60%18%4%
18th century3%65%6%6%
19th century11%62%8%14%
20th century38%37%2%13%

There are few Norman editions from the original Chapter Library, most came from other collections after the Revolution, many from the Mission de Bayeux, the Augustinians of Bayeux, the Capucins of Bayeux, the Cordeliers of Bayeux or the Abbey of Saint Martin de Mondaye.

Informer et s’informer : un évêque de Bayeux et les imprimeurs au XVIIIe siècle Ian Maxted (former local studies librarian for Devon) in his presentation showed how the bishops of Bayeux employed during the eighteenth century a succession of printers designated "imprimeur de monseigneur l’évêque", responsible for printing theological and administrative texts to inform the clergy and laity of the diocese. The presentation also examined the collection of approximately 1,500 pamphlets, bound in fifty volumes, from the library of the Congrégation de la mission de Bayeux which show how a bishop of the eighteenth century collected printed items from across France over several decades to inform himself about religious controversies and the administration of his diocese. The full text of this presentation is given on this website.

Simien Despréaux, la commission des Arts et le sort de la bibliothèque du chapitre pendant la Révolution. Geneviève Mauger (president of the Amis de la cathédrale de Bayeux) spoke about the upheavals of the Revolution. After the confiscation of church property in 1789, the chapter library of Bayeux Cathedral became public property before being transformed into a depository of books. The Chapter Library in 1789 had 2,284 works in about 6,000 volumes and in 1793 this formed part of the public library for the district. The study of revolutionary sources allows us to identify the personality and role of Simien Despréaux, episcopal vicar and librarian, a man with a wide range of interests including science and technology, and to evaluate the work of the Commission des arts. The turbulent history of this period obviously had important consequences for the library which was deeply transformed by the events.

Histoire et nature du fonds de manuscrits conservé aux Archives départementales du Calvados. Julie Deslondes (director of the Archives départementales du Calvados, conseil général du Calvados) spoke on the nature of the manuscripts now in her care. The well-known 320 manuscripts in the chapter library described by Canon Deslandes in 1886 were declared to be the property of the state under the responsibility of the Director of the Archives of Calvados, following the separation of church and state in 1905. However, only about two-thirds of them were eventually deposited as accession 6G in the Departemental Archives in the 1970s, the non-archival manuscripts being transferred to the Médiathèque de Bayeux. In 1905 they had been left in Bayeux under the supervision of the learned canon Deslandes. The story is complex and well-known and the director concentrated on the history and nature of the collection ultimately retained by the Departmental Archives. The communication highlighted several outstanding documents, and the work undertaken in recent years on the collection by the archive service, particularly in the area of digitisation and the development of a website.

Une histoire millénaire : les bibliothèques de cathédrales en France et en Angleterre. Dominique Varry (professeur des universités – ENSSIB) compared cathedral libraries in France and England over the past millenium. Cathedral libraries are the oldest libraries in Europe today. They appeared in the early days of Christianity and are the main collections of books during the high Middle Ages in Europe. There is evidence of a cathedral library in Lyon in the eighth century and they grew by donations. There is an inventory for Cambray in the tenth century. They were most often associated with a scriptorium and a "cathedral school." However their history remains obscure. There was a great flourishing in the 11th and 12th centuries when libraries in England and Normandy were closely linked. In France, after many vicissitudes during the wars of religion in the 16th century, they disappeared with the Revolution, their contents often transferring to public libraries. Across the Channel, they had to suffer the looting of the Reformation and the English Civil War. Nevertheless they were rebuilt by donations from the later 17th century and have survived until today, and still retain the majority of the oldest and most venerable manuscripts in the United Kingdom. He traced the varying fortunes of cathedral libraries in France and England with examples from many libraries in both countries. In England, Hereford chained library, Salisbury and Exeter figured prominently.

Thierry Claerr (head of the Bureau de la lecture publique au Service du livre et de la lecture – DGMIC – ministère de la culture et de la communication) brought the discussion up to date in: Repenser la numérisation du patrimoine écrit : pour un développement durable des bibliothèques numériques. He looked at the new issues, practices, and services related to digitisation which had developed over the last decade in heritage libraries in France. For these cultural institutions, like archives, it is more important than ever to take into account the pivotal role of digitisation in the conservation and enhancement of written heritage. Three stages were identified:

  • The establishment of a corpus of documents – selection and good cataloguing was essential.
  • Exploration, research involving universities and other institutions.
  • Diffusion to the wider public through digitisation and the internet.
Many examples in France were noted including the digitisation of incunabula in St Geneviève, union catalogues both national and regional, and the developments of digital libraries such as Gallica on the national level and Normannia on the regional level. At the regional level more progress seems to have been made in France than in England.

La bibliothèque sans bibliothécaire ? : l’exposition au public, nouvelle destinée au XXIe siècle. In conclusion François Arnaud (conseiller livre et lecture – DRAC de Basse-Normandie) looked to the future. By retaining its architectural integrity and its collections since its inception in the fifteenth century, the chapter library embodies the spirit of a cathedral library. The library had its periods of growth and development when the office of librarian was filled. Its virtual disappearance into the bibliographical wilderness during the twentieth century is by contrast a telling lesson. The challenge facing this renovated cultural facility today is its opening to the public. Is it just a place to visit? Can such a specialised library without a designated librarian have any relevance for the wider community? What digital facilities can be put in place? Cataloguing and digitisation are essential to its proper exploitation, with attention being paid to provenance to highlight the growth and local relevance of the contents. Only twenty people at a time could be shown round the library and environmental conditions had to be carefully monitored. The project that had just been completed had opened the doors to a number of new challenges.

Marie-Claude Pasquet, an independent librarian who worked on the project to revitalise the Chapter Library, producing a digital catalogue of some 6,500 records, showed the excellent new exhibition that had been put in place on the ground floor of the medieval building where the scriptorium used to be housed. On the first floor the neo-gothic shelves and furnishings of the 1850s and the massive stove in the centre lend a wonderful atmosphere to the room. Also visible after the rearrangement of the stock on the shelves are the unique medieval painted scrolls, showing perhaps the contents of the nearby desks or, more likely, the contents of an ideal library.

The library today contains 48.6% theology, 29.3% history, 9.7% law and jurisprudence, 8.5% science and arts and 3.9% literature.

There was also the opportunity to visit the cathedral treasury which contains the massive 13th century wooden cupboard which has never been relocated. This is thought to have held books and archives before the construction of the library in the 1420s. The treasury also contains the chest in which the Bayeux Tapestry was kept before it was exhibited.

The temporary exhibition Merveilleux manuscrits de la bibliothèque du chapitre displays ten illuminated manuscripts from the medieval chapter library in the Musée d'art et d'histoire Baron Gérard.

Copyright © Ian Maxted 2013
This page last revised 13 November 2013