Medieval manuscripts blog

Bringing our medieval manuscripts to life

23 June 2016

From the Louvre's Library to the Treasures Gallery

In 1364 the French king, Charles V (b. 1338, d. 1380) set about constructing a new library in the Louvre, which had hitherto been a fortress and was now a royal palace. He chose an old falconry tower, removed the birds and created a splendid library. What was a loss for the birds and their keepers was a gain for the literary culture of France.

The opening page of the second volume of a Bible historiale, France (Paris), 1356-1357, Royal MS 17 E VII, vol. 2, f. 1r. A lion playing with some monkeys is depicted at the bottom of the page. Lions were the favourite animal of Charles V who owned more than ten of them in his menagerie. 

The construction of the library reveals the king’s strategy and shows how Charles differed from the monarchs that preceded him. He was a bibliophile king, as well as a highly political one. A well-furnished library containing splendid illuminated manuscripts could serve a wider political and cultural agenda and the construction of the library was part of a project to promote the French language and to make Paris both a seat of learning and an administrative hub. As in the case of other royal libraries, it is possible to see the luxurious manuscripts produced for him as an expression of the public persona of their owner.

Charles reigned during the period of the Hundred Years War, a time of external threat and instability. In locating his court in Paris, in the newly modernised Louvre, he intended to centralise the workings of the court to better respond to the military threat posed by the English forces. Part of that consolidation was the promotion of the French language.

To fill his library, Charles commissioned the copying of a large number of volumes as well as new translations of particular works. The library was organised on three floors. The most precious manuscripts, mainly in French, and the new translations were kept on the first floor. On the second floor, there were the prose romances, medical books, manuscripts of the Roman de la rose and other poems. Latin books, encyclopaedias, theological books and books of science and astronomy occupied the third floor. The library was open to his counsellors, prestigious visitors and members of the court. In 1380, the library contained over 900 manuscripts and 2500 texts in French.

An apostle preaching, from Royal MS 17 E VII, vol. 2, f. 217v

A beautiful bible, probably owned by Charles V, has recently gone on display in our Sir John Ritblat Treasures Gallery. The manuscript (Royal MS 17 E VII vol 1 and vol 2) is an illustrated, French version of the Bible, known as a Bible historiale. Now bound in two volumes, it was made in 1356-57, either for Charles V or for his father John the Good, king of France (1350-1364).  The Bible historiale was not the first translation of Scriptures in a vernacular language but it was one of the best-sellers of this genre. The Bible historiale was compiled by Guyart des Moulins, canon and dean of St Pierre, Aire-sur-la-Lys Artois, between 1291 and 1297 who blended his own translation of a 12th-century scholastic text, the Historia scholastica by Petrus Comestor, with a translation of the Vulgate.

The Bible historiale was popular in royal and noble collections from the second half of the fourteenth century onwards. Manuscripts of the Bible historiale, like this copy, were expensive to produce because of their size and magnificent decoration. John the Good owned a Bible historiale captured in Poitiers in 1356 (now held at the British Library as Royal MS 19 D II), while his son, Charles V, owned at least seven! 

Royal 19 D II f. 155
Detail of the death of David and the crowning of Solomon, from the Bible historiale of John the Good, France (Paris), c. 1350-1356, Royal MS 19 D II, f. 155r

Though the Bible historiale in the Treasures Gallery is not mentioned in the extant inventories of Charles V’s library, it appears highly likely that he once owned it. The quality of the decoration indicates that these volumes were intended for an aristocratic patron. The miniatures are attributed to the Master of the Bible of Jean de Sy, who worked for both John the Good and Charles V. Each biblical book opens with a large miniature, a decorative border. There are two large one-column miniatures respectively at the beginning of the first volume and second volume: the first volume begins with a preface illustrated by the Trinity and the second volume begins with the Proverbs illustrated by Solomon’s life.

The Trinity surrounded by the authors of the four Gospels: Matthew, Luke, Mark and John, from Royal 17 E VII, vol. 1
, f. 1r

After his death in 1380, Charles V’s library began to be dispersed. In 1424, John, duke of Bedford, regent of France (1389-1435) bought this library for a low price and moved it to Rouen. According to Jenny Stratford, the duke of Bedford acquired this highly symbolic library in order to create a magnificent court and especially to promote the English king’s claim on French crown. When he died in 1435, the library moved to London where it was dispersed another time. However our Bible historiale followed a different path: they were acquired by Thomas Langton, bishop of Winchester (1493-1501) who was sent to France for diplomatic missions in 1467 and 1485. The Bible historiale would become an English royal book under Charles II, three centuries later.

Royal 17 E vii vol1 f 247r David bells
David playing the bells, from Royal 17 E VII, vol. 1, f. 247r

Looking at the remaining books of Charles’ library today-- whether in person in the Treasures Gallery or online on Digitised Manuscripts-- we catch a glimpse of the king himself.  We get a sense of a political strategist and a bookish king who – according to Christine de Pizan –liked to read until dinner in a private study he had created, next to his library.

~Laure Miolo

 Further Reading:

On Charles V’s library, see: Léopold Delisle, Recherches sur la librairie de Charles V, 2 vols (Paris: H. Champion, 1907). François Avril, Jean Lafaurie, Marcel Thomas (eds.), La Librairie de Charles V (Paris, Bibliothèque Nationale, 1968).

Jenny Stratford, The Bedford Inventories. The Worldly Goods of John, Duke of Bedford, Regent of France (London: Society of Antiquaries, 1993), pp. 55-97.