The Manuscripts department has its origins in the Royal Library. It houses the greatest collection worldwide of medieval, modern and contemporary manuscripts. It also includes numerous old copies, unica, scientific texts, ornamented and painted manuscripts. These encyclopaedic collections - chansons de geste, Eastern and Western religions, modern and contemporary history, literary manuscripts... - were enriched thanks to donations from authors, politicians or academics, sponsorship or acquisitions.
The collections of original manuscripts are complemented by books and magazines in foreign languages, microforms and fac-similes. The reading room is open to the readers of the Research Library. Certain manuscripts are available on special authorization.
Armenian manuscript. Victory of Alexander’s army over the army of Porus, King of India
The Manuscripts Department’s collections are encyclopedic, encompassing chansons de geste, Arthurian novels, Romance languages, eastern literature, eastern and western religions, ancient history, scientific history, and literary manuscripts: Pascal, Diderot, Apollinaire, Proust, Colette, Sartre, etc. The “Cabinet des titres” and the armorials constitute the main genealogical resources.
Collections are organized:
- either according to language (Greek, Latin, French and other European languages, Arabic, Coptic, Ethiopian, Hebrew, Persian, Turkish, Near- and Middle-Eastern languages, Chinese, Japanese, Tibetan, Sanskrit, Indian languages, Vietnamese, etc.);
- or according to content (learned and bibliophilic, collections of learned materials, Library Archives, genealogical collections, French provinces, Masonic collection, etc.).
The manuscripts collection includes a very large number of ancient copies, unica, scientific texts, decorated and painted manuscripts, and manuscripts using a wide variety of media and forms (including in particular xylography and stamping).
Collections on the following topics are available for consultation in the Manuscripts Department:
Alongside its collections of manuscripts, the department has a collection of books and reviews in all languages and a microform collection.
The department is currently working to gather, classify, and provide public access to the personal archives of French writers.
In conjunction with other institutions, projects to digitize manuscripts are taking shape: Optima (Flaubert’s manuscripts) with the Institute for Modern Texts and Manuscripts (Institut des textes et manuscrits modernes/ITEM) and the French manuscripts of the Roman de la Rose (Mellon foundation).
History of the department
- Louis XII (1498-1515) laid the foundations of a genuinely large-scale royal library. He brought together his manuscripts at the Château de Blois.
- François I established the royal library at Fontainebleau. Influenced by the humanists and with the help of Guillaume Budé, he added Greek manuscripts and the first eastern manuscripts to the library.
- Charles IX and Henri IV: after being transferred to Paris, though it underwent many ups and downs, the library became home to the precious Catherine de Médicis collection.
- Under Colbert, the library was established in Rue Vivienne. In 1720, the Abbey Bignon transferred the library to the Palais Mazarin, where the department is still based to this day.
- 17th and 18th centuries: prestigious collections were added to the king’s library thanks to an acquisition policy that sought to acquire collections from learned persons and great lords in France as well as sending acquisition missions to oriental countries.
- The Revolution: collections from the Sainte-Chapelle, Saint-Germain-des-Prés, Saint-Victor, Notre-Dame, etc., were added as a result of revolutionary confiscations.
- In the 19th and 20th centuries, the library’s collections expanded to include literary manuscripts. They were expanded through scientific missions to oriental countries, including in particular the Pelliot mission, together with a large number of bequests and donations.
- Now and in the future: The department is pursuing a policy of expanding its collections by seeking donations and bequests from contemporary authors, patrons, and key scientific figures. Science fiction has been added to its collections. Digitization is making it possible to access collections remotely, while the BnF “Archives et manuscrits” electronic catalog can be used to remotely search for document references.