Two weeks ago, the French state opposed the sale of four stunning manuscripts—40 pages bound in one volume—from the XIIth century. Their provenance itself is incredible: they are from the prestigious collection of the Abbey of Mont Saint-Michel! The auctioneer Patrice Biget from Orne Enchères, in Alençon, took all the precautions he could before offering them for sale—yet the state claims them as its property.
Mont Saint-Michel is an extraordinary place in Normandie, France. It is a small and gorgeous community built on a rocky peninsula. Every year, dozens of thousands of tourists visit the place, including the historical Abbey. The cult of Saint Michel was introduced in 708 on the mount, the official website of the Abbey reads, and it became one of the most important sites of pilgrimage in the Middle Age. The Benedictines built the abbey during the Xth century. King Saint Louis himself visited the place, which was turned into a state prison during the French Révolution. In fact, in 1789, a revolutionary decree declared all goods belonging to the Church state properties, including the books and manuscripts of the Abbey of Mont Saint-Michel.
Among them was, apparently, these four incredible manuscripts bound in one volume that were supposed to be sold on May 5. Patrice Biget, the auctioneer, protests. These manuscripts indeed once belonged to the Abbey, as they are listed on the 1639 inventory of Don Anselme Le Michel. In 1739, Dom Bernard de Montfaucon reproduces the same inventory, listing them as well. But the revolutionary commissioner in charge of the collection issued another listing in 1795, giving no reference whatsoever. “There is no mark dating from the revolutionary period on the manuscripts,” Mr Biget declares to the website Actu.fr. “There’s no more trace of any “caviardage” (the coats of arms torn by the revolutionaries)... so we believe it was never in the possession of the commissioner, who only referred to the 1739 inventory, probably without checking whether the manuscripts were actually still in the collection.” He also explains to Ouest France newspaper that “all manuscripts listed in 1795 bear an official stamp—ours don’t!” Furthermore, the 1801 listing of the same collection—missing 30 volumes out of the 175 original ones—doesn’t mention the manuscripts, nor does the 1820 one. At one point, they obviously dropped from the collection—but when, and how ? These are the questions. Unfortunately, the private owners of the manuscripts refused to reveal their identities, which makes things harder.
The manuscripts themselves are gorgeous. One is dedicated to geography—it is a two-page description of the provinces conquered by the Romans. The next one deals with music—it offers some musical scores as well as the ancient codification of music, before notes! The two last ones are poems, a satire of Jean de Hanville against the powerful, and an incredible allegory of Nature wishing to create a perfect creature—a new man—but meeting resistance from Prudence, Reason and Concord. They were declared complete and authentic—and in a very good state of conservation— by a group of experts led by Pascal Guillebaud. Handwritten on vellum during the XIIth and the XIIIth centuries, they are “worthy to enter the greatest collections in the world.” Although the appraisal was of 50,000 euros, no one expected them to be sold for less than several hundred thousand. The volume has no binding but features gorgeous drawings, drop caps and schemes.
Mr Biget wants to appeal the decision of the state, notified to him through a simple registered letter emanating from the Ministry of Culture. Since the manuscript’s trajectory remains dubious, it doesn’t, he says, clearly belongs to the state. If it left the collection before the revolutionary government seized it in 1790, then it is an ordinary object of collection—and, as such, can be sold.
This case is extraordinary. As reminded by Mr Biget, “no other manuscript from Mont Saint-Michel was offered for sale over the past 150 years.” Yet, the decision of the government raises a few questions: are such documents “ordinary objects of collection” anyway? What belongs to the state and what does not? And eventually, is this requisitioning a way to make up the financial deficiency of the state in safeguarding the national heritage?