Scriptorial Museum of Avranches

Illumination, Le Mont Saint-Michel, 12th century. Photo and collection information: www.scriptorial.fr

The scriptorium of le Mont Saint-Michel was founded in 966 by Richard I, Duke of Normandy. The production of manuscripts was based on exchanges of books, copyists and artistic influence. The abbey became a major transit point for those travelling to and from England, Scandinavia and southern Italy. The huge number of Benedictine abbeys in Latin Europe enabled extensive travel and meetings between copyists, librarians and commissioners of books. During the Romanesque period, the Norman artists distinguished themselves in the field of illumination by decorating the pages in their books with ornate capitals filled with garlands of foliage.

The monks of the abbey created their own style and their own aesthetics, in particular a scroll filled with people. They took overornamental motifs that were part of Nordic, insular (English) and Irish traditions. Interlacing and dog’s heads, the dragon mask, the palmettes, the garlands of foliage and acanthus. They combined all these elements, filled the foliage with animated beings, human figures, animals. The Romanesque capitals of the abbey can still be admired today. Illumination was an art practiced with great talent, experience and skill during the 11th and 12th centuries, the heydays of the abbeys intellectual and artistic life.

The first sanctuary was founded on Mont Tombe by bishop Aubert in 708. Today, the place is known as le Mont Saint-Michel. One of the secrets is the library. In 1791, more than 4000 books of the monastery were entrusted to the city of Avranches, a town overlooking the Bay of  Mont Saint-Michel. Most of the works were printed books, but the much older medieval collection contains 203 manuscripts of the Benedictine abbey. Today, they are on show or in storage in the scriptorial museum of Avranches. The collection shows books that were vital to the religious and contemplative Benedictine life. The Holy Scriptures,  liturgical works and commentaries are part of the collection.

The library has also a rich collection of ancient Roman and Greek books and medieval secular works however. This is not self-evident, because religious works had priority and pagan (Greek and Roman) books were often destroyed. This collection includes historical works and chronicles,  treaties on Roman and canon law, music, astronomy, medicine and other works of secular  nature. The library contains works of Plato (not common in abbey’s), Cicero, Seneca, Aristotle, Boethius, the great Arab philosopher Averroës, the Norman philosopher Nicole Oresme, the famous Peter Abelard. There are also Original texts, not only those copied by monks.  The librarian catalogued  320  manuscripts in 1639. Around 100 manuscripts are lost as a result of fire, plunder, negligence or other reasons  (Source: J.-L. Leservoisier, The Mont Saint-Michel Manuscripts, Rennes 2007).