Rare Book Monthly

Articles - May - 2018 Issue

The Incredible Manuscripts of Mont Saint-Michel

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Writing and musical notation form the Mont Saint-Michel manuscript.

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?

 

T. Ehrengardt

Rare Book Monthly

  • <b>Chiswick Auctions: Autographs & Memorabilia. February 28, 2019</b>
    <b>Chiswick Auctions, Feb 28:</b> Autograph album featuring signatures by prominent actors, politicians, musicians and authors, including Rudolph Valentino. £1,000 to £1,500
    <b>Chiswick Auctions, Feb 28:</b> An extremely rare working radio script for Crazy People No 29, the first series of <i>The Goon Show.</i> £600 to £800
    <b>Chiswick Auctions, Feb 28:</b> Manuscript prayer book, in German. 8vo, 1755 £800 to £1,200
    <b>Chiswick Auctions, Feb 28:</b> Italian Manuscript on Geometry, with diagrams, 18th century. £500 to £700
    <b>Chiswick Auctions: Ornithology, Zoology & Voyages. February 27, 2019</b>
    <b>Chiswick Auctions, Feb 27:</b> Thorburn (Archibald). Sparrowhawk, original watercolour & gouache, signed & dated lower right, 1917. £1,500 to £2,000
    <b>Chiswick Auctions, Feb 27:</b> Burton (Sir Richard Francis). <i>Personal Narrative of a Pilgrimage to El-Medinah and Meccah.</i> 3 vol., FIRST EDITION, 1855-56. £1,000 to £1,500
    <b>Chiswick Auctions, Feb 27:</b> [Mount (Richard) & Page (Thomas)]. <i>The English Pilot. Describing the Sea-Coasts…</i> 31 engraved maps, W. & J. Mount, T. Page, 1756 £4000 to £6000
    <b>Chiswick Auctions: Ornithology, Zoology & Voyages. February 27, 2019</b>
    <b>Chiswick Auctions, Feb 27:</b> D’apres De Mannevillette (Jean-Baptiste Nicolas Denis). <i>Le Neptune Oriental.</i> Paris & Brest, [1775 – 1781]. £10,000 to £15,000
    <b>Chiswick Auctions, Feb 27:</b> Loring (Josiah). Terrestrial Globe Containing all the Late Discoveries and Geographical Improvements. Boston, Gilman Joslin, 1846, £800 to £1,200
    <b>Chiswick Auctions, Feb 27:</b> Shelley (G. E., Capt.). <i>A Monograph of the Nectariniidae, or Family of Sun-birds,</i> FIRST EDITION, by the Author, 1876-80. £4,000 to £6,000
  • <b>Bonhams: Treasures from the Eric C. Caren Collection: How History Unfolds on Paper, Part VII (Online). March 6-14, 2019</b>
    <b>Bonhams, Mar 6-14:</b> Albert Einstein A remarkable letter on God in English, one of his most eloquent and quoted, 1 p, July 2, 1945. $100,000 to $150,000.
    <b>Bonhams, Mar 6-14:</b> Benjamin Lincoln's commission as Major General in the Continental Army, February 19th, 1777. $60,000 to $90,000.
    <b>Bonhams, Mar 6-14:</b> Broadside. A Poem Upon the Bloody Engagement That Was Fought on Bunker's-Hill. 1775. $15,000 to $25,000.
    <b>Bonhams, Mar 6-14:</b> Early, full printing of the Star-Spangled Banner in The Yankee, October 7, 1814. $8,000 to $12,000.
    <b>Bonhams, Mar 6-14:</b> Paul Revere. Engraving, “The Boston Massacre Perpetrated on March 5, 1770," in <i>Massachusett's Calendar 1772.</i> $8,000 to $12,000.
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    <b>Bonhams, Mar 6-14:</b> Earliest known newspaper coverage of Babe Ruth, "a St Mary's schoolboy," Baltimore, April 4, 1914. $6,000 to $9,000
    <b>Bonhams, Mar 6-14:</b> Franklin, Benjamin. <i>The Independent Whig.</i> First Magazine Published in America, Philadelphia: Keimer, 1723-4. $15,000 to $20,000
    <b>Bonhams, Mar 6-14:</b> Smith, Joseph. <i>The Book of Mormon.</i> Palmyra: Printed by E.B. Grandin for the Author, 1830. First printing. $40,000 to $60,000
    <b>Bonhams, Mar 6-14:</b> Last Words of Joseph Smith. Autograph Letter Signed from a Mormon disciple, conveying a contemporary account of the Prophet's final words, Nauvoo, July 27, 1844. $10,000 to $15,000
    <b>Bonhams, Mar 6-14:</b> John Brown's Body. Autograph Letter Signed from the daughter of John Brown attempting to arrange the return of her father's body, North Elba, Essex Co, NY, November 29, 1859. $4,000 to $6,000
    <b>Bonhams, Mar 6-14:</b> Powell Expedition. Autograph diary of Rhodes C. Allen kept during the Powell Expedition of 1868, June 29, 1868 - November 16, 1868. $20,000 to $40,000
  • <b>Bonhams, Mar 12:</b> Walt Whitman. <i>Leaves of Grass.</i> First edition, first issue, SIGNED in block letters by Whitman. 1855. $200,000 to $300,000
    <b>Bonhams, Mar 12:</b> Isaac Newton's copy of John Greave's <i>Pyramidographia,</i> London, 1646. $50,000 to $70,000
    <b>Bonhams, Mar 12:</b> Colonel John Mosby. Robert E. Lee's autograph letter to Samuel Cooper reporting on Mosby's exploits, with Cooper's autograph note ordering his appointment to Major.
    <b>Bonhams, Mar 12:</b> Gyula Halasz Brassai. Large archive of autograph and typed letters, over 260, to his family including his wife Gilberte, 1947-1978. $40,000 to $60,000
    <b>Bonhams, Mar 12:</b> Archive of drawings and letters from Harper Lee to Charles Carruth, including an inscribed first edition of <i>To Kill a Mockingbird.</i> $20,000 to $30,000
    <b>Bonhams, Mar 11:</b> VESALIUS, ANDREAS. 1514-1564. <i>De humani corporis fabrica libri septem.</i> Basel: Johannes Oporinus, June 1543. $300,000 to $500,000
    <b>Bonhams, Mar 11:</b> HARVEY, WILLIAM. 1578-1657. <i>De motu cordis & sanguinis in animalibus Anatomica Exercitatio.</i> Leiden: Joannis Maire, 1639. $25,000 to $35,000
    <b>Bonhams, Mar 11:</b> BERENGARIO DA CARPI, GIACOMO. 1460-1530. <i>Isagogae breves perlucide ac uberrimae in Anatomiam humani corporis.</i> Bologna: Benedictus Hectoris, 15 July 1523. $15,000 to $25,000
    <b>Bonhams NY, Mar 11:</b> FRANKLIN, BENJAMIN. 1706-1790. <i>Experiments and Observations on Electricity, made at Philadelphia in America…</i> London, 1769. $10,000 to $15,000
    <b>Bonhams NY, Mar 11:</b> BENIVIENI, ANTONIO. 1443-1502. <i>De abditis nonnullis ac mirandis morborum et sanationum causis.</i>Florence: Filippo Giunta, 1507. $8,000 to $12,000
  • <b>Swann Auction Galleries, Mar 7:</b> Miguel de Cervantes Saavedra, <i>El Ingenioso Hildalgo Don Quixote de la Mancha . . . Nueva Edición,</i> first Ibarra edition, Madrid, 1780. $8,000 to $12,000.
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    <b>Swann Auction Galleries, Mar 7:</b> Illuminated Book of Hours in Latin, France, mid-15th century. $15,000 to $20,000.
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    <b>Swann Auction Galleries, Mar 7:</b> Michel de Nostradamus, <i>The True Prophecies or Prognostications,</i> first complete edition in English, London, 1672. $2,500 to $3,500.
    <b>Swann Auction Galleries, Mar 7:</b> Pseudo-Methodius, <i>De revelatione facta . . . beato Methodio,</i> Basel, 1504. $2,500 to $3,500.
    <b>Swann Auction Galleries, Mar 7:</b> Hrabanus Maurus, <i>De laudibus sancte crucis opus,</i> Pforzheim, 1503. $1,000 to $2,000.

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