A User’s Guide to the Paris Archives, pt. 1: The BnF

It occurred to me the other day that, as far as I know, there’s no equivalent of this piece on the National Archives in Kew for their French equivalents, so this is a short stab at producing one for people who might be as unsure of what they’re doing as I was the first time I came.

The Bibliothèque Nationale is, for most purposes, split over two sites: the Francois Mitterand site on the left bank of the Seine, near Gare d’Austerlitz, and the Richelieu site on the right bank, near the Louvre. It is in the latter site that the manuscripts department makes its home, and so that’s what I’ll be focussing on.

To get in, first you need to register. Actually, first you need to go through a security check – make sure your wallet, phone, keys, etc. are in your bag and that your bag is open – but then you need to register. To do this, you need different documents based on whether you’re a student, a member of the public or a professional researcher. Everyone needs proof of identity – bring a passport. Students will need proof of student status – a student card will probably do the trick, but just in case it might be worth getting a formal letter from your institution to the effect that you’re legit. You’ll also need a letter from your supervisor. Members of the public will need, basically, a list of what they need and a good story at the reception desk, the former being critical. It’s easier for professional researchers (I must say, pleasingly so comparing this time to the last time I came here) – all you need is a staff card from your institution (although to be on the safe side I bought a copy of my employment contract as well).

Then, you need to get in to the manuscripts reading room. First, drop your bags off in the locker room. The lockers run on money – you need a 1 or 2 euro coin, which is refundable. If you haven’t got one, ask at the front desk – they give out little tokens which can be used in place of coins; just be sure to return them at the end of the day. Bags, pens and jackets aren’t allowed in the reading room – leave them in the locker. Happily, the BnF provides nifty plastic laptop-holders which make carrying computers around much easier.

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Neat, huh?

To get into the reading room, you first need to pass the front desk by the reading room door. To do this, have your reader’s card to hand. You will have to hand it over. Specify as you do so what kind of material you’re here for – manuscripts, books, or microfilms, and whether or not you’ve already reserved them. Then, you’ll be given a laminated red card with a number on it, and a blue piece of paper which lets you pop out to go to the loo (and things like that). The card is important – that is your place. Sit at that place, and not at any other.

Now you can begin to order the documents you want. (Fun, isn’t it?) There are two main types of form: white and green. The green is for reservations in advance. Various documents can’t be ordered for the same day, and are subject to various seemingly-arbitrary periods of delay – check the website to find out the specifics, but most of them are the regional or erudite collections. The white for is for ordering manuscripts and microfilms. Unless you have a special need to see an actual manuscript, you have to see a microfilm if one is available. Fill it out and hand it in at the desk at the back of the room. Here, you will have to hand over your red laminated card. You will be told to sit at your place. If you ordered a microfilm, they will bring it to you. If it’s a manuscript, you’ll get a little piece of paper which you should bring back up to the front desk.

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The Salle de Lecteur, taken from the issues desk at the back of the room (image source)

As microfilms are, if not exactly self-evident, something the librarians usually explain to how to use, let’s assume for the sake of argument that you’ve ordered some physical manuscripts. Once you have it, be sure to rest it on the cushions at each desk, and don’t use pen while taking notes. If you want to take photos of the manuscripts, you need to seek permission from the head of the reading room. I found they were fairly good-natured about this personally. Taking photos of the microfilms appease to be something you can just do, or maybe the staff simply didn’t catch me at it…

Once you’re done with your manuscript (or microfilm), take it up to the desk at the back of the room and swap it out for the next one. You can order five of each type of document per day. After finishing with all of them, tell the staff you’re done and they’ll give you back your red card. Take both your red card and your blue piece of paper back to the front desk, hand them over to the member of staff there, and your reader’s card will be returned to you.

Congratulations! You have succeeded in seeing manuscripts at the BnF. Once you get used to the system, you learn to roll with it. Most of the staff – despite the horror stories you hear about French librarians – are fairly helpful, and I get the feeling they’re used to dealing with people who don’t speak all that much French and/or understand the system.

The BnF is of course a research library primarily intended for scholarly use. Things are a little different at the Archives Nationales. However, because as of yet I’ve only used the microfilms there, my guide to that will have to wait until later this week once I’ve gone and looked at the physical manuscripts I need to see…

When Arguments Go Wrong: Part 1 of the Tübingen not-conference-report

Having finally had some time in the British Library to brush up on some required reading, here is the first of a couple of posts about the oft-mentioned workshop at Tübingen on The Transformation of The Carolingian World. I’m not going to do a full conference report for a couple of reasons; partly because the papers were explicitly works-in-progress and partly because several of them were in German, which I don’t speak well enough to have followed (relatedly, I would rather shame-facedly like to thank the participants for doing the question-and-answers sessions in English for my sake…). So instead, the plan is to do a few posts on some things which the workshop left me thinking about, some about individual papers and others about wider themes.

The first thing relates to the very interesting paper given by Warren Pezé, whom I was very pleased to see because he’s always been very friendly but by unfortunate coincidence we have only previously met when I had been in a rather grim mood (the last time, for instance, we were both in the Bibliothèque Nationale in Paris, but I was caught up in staring with mounting frustration at the world’s tiniest and least-legible sixteenth-century copies of medieval charters). The paper was about manuscript evidence of engagement with heresy in the ninth century and its potential application to the eleventh. The reason it’s been on my mind is, well, the method is certainly good as showing what it shows, and the results are definitely interesting; but I thought there’d been a category error somewhere and I’m not sure the problem isn’t on my end.

The question Warren was addressing was this: what can manuscript evidence show us about the heresy of double-predestination, promulgated in the mid-ninth century by Gottschalk of Orbais and viciously attacked by Archbishop Hincmar of Rheims. Hincmar was one of nature’s middle-managers, and Gottschalk appears to have been a person precisely geared to get stuck in his craw: fiercely intelligent, just as stubborn, and prone to attracting trouble. When Gottschalk advanced was – very­ loosely speaking – a doctrine about salvation which stated that God predestined the elect to be saved and the damned to be, well, damned. This was a function of God’s grace, and there wasn’t really a place for good works in it. Personally, I find the actual content of the controversy a bit esoteric, although it’s been keenly scrutinised by people wanting to see Gottschalk as proto-Protestant; for the purposes of this blog post, it’s perhaps best to see it as another iteration of the eternal Christian debate about faith vs works, with Gottschalk in the ‘faith’ corner and Hincmar over by ‘works’.

For the point which is interesting here isn’t so much the content of what Gottschalk was arguing as the response to it. Gottschalk was condemned as a heretic twice, once at Mainz in 848 by Hrabanus Maurus, archbishop of Mainz (who was still holding a grudge against Gottschalk for the lengthy legal case which Gottschalk had inflicted on Hrabanus when he was abbot of Fulda and Gottschalk was trying to get out of being a monk there…) and once again at Quierzy in 849 by Hincmar. However, Gottschalk refused to accept either council’s authority and, despite being canonically condemned, and thus a heretic, continued to argue his point.

As it turns out, the manuscript evidence can show us quite a lot about this – Warren had several examples of patristic texts which had annotations in the margin along the lines of ‘aha, Gottschalk is right!’, or which had been miscopied to sound less friendly to his point, some of which appear to have been produced at a relatively low social level. So, engagement with heresy, right?

This is where I start to raise questions. Despite Gottschalk’s condemnation as a heretic, the reality of his heresy wasn’t completely clear at the time – significant church figures and intellectuals thought he was right. The prominent theologians Ratramnus of Corbie (of dog-headed men fame) and John Scotus Eriugena (‘Irish-Born’) both came down much more on Gottschalk’s side than Hincmar’s, as did Bishop Prudentius of Troyes and (to a significantly lesser extent) Abbot Lupus of Ferrières (who temporised more than coming down on one side or the other).

So for me the question is, how far were the people in Warren’s manuscripts dealing with heresy, and how far was this instead Carolingian debate culture? The debate surrounding double predestination seems to have been very nasty – but this is largely from Hincmar, Hrabanus, and Gottschalk’s perspectives. Lots of things were bound up here, but at least two of them were strong, conflicting personalities, all of which had their personal authority on the line. Outside that particular hothouse, could it be that both sides looked like points which could have been proven right, and debating which was right was not to engage with heresy, but to try and work out a yet-undefined truth?

On the other hand, I worry that later ideas about heresy are swooping in to affect this picture. Gottschalk was condemned, after all. If I’m unwilling to accept double-predestination as a ‘heresy’, have I drunk the twelfth-century Church’s Kool-Aid and so see heresy as a matter of authority and condemnation rather than a rhetorical stance? If I am arguing that Gottschalk wasn’t really a heretic because there were authoritative people who didn’t condemn him, am I drawing too clear cut a line between heresy and not-heresy? I don’t know, but as my research draws dangerously close to 1022 trial of heretics at Orléans (the first executions for heresy in the West for centuries), these questions will only become more acute…