Reconstructing the Sorbonne Library in the Bibale Database: New Paths through Old Matter

By Antoine Brix, PhD [1]

The rise of the digital age has prompted new ideas and new challenges in the humanities. It has generated new aspirations shared by a generation of historians, and among them many are medievalists. The full and comprehensive reconstruction of libraries from the past and dispersed book collections stands out as one of these new aspirations of medievalists in the digital era. Sure enough, there is a rich bibliography to remind one that Gutenberg-era scholars did try their hand at writing the history of long-gone libraries. Yet previously one did not endeavour to describe all aspects of such libraries, from book acquisitions to losses, from bequests to loans, from what texts these books preserved to what material they were made of, from how books were read to how books were referred to, and so forth. In other words, scholars in the print era had no ambition of considering everything, simply because the heterogeneous results of such a multi-faceted inquiry would not fit all at once in a single printed monography; there was no satisfying way of displaying rich and diverse data so that readers would really find their way into it, and benefit from such a reading.

Databases such as Bibale intend to meet the challenge that is historical library digital reconstruction. Bibale is an online, freely-available, relational database for describing books, collections and collectors. It is maintained and managed at the Institut de recherche et d’histoire des textes (IRHT) in Paris. Bibale currently describes, among other objects, short of 12,000 books – mainly manuscripts –, 10,000 persons or institutions involved with the production, the circulation and the preservation of these books, 10,000 provenance marks and 2,000 book collections, former or present, personal or institutional. Such numbers are constantly growing.

Studies on the Sorbonne library have flourished for a long time at the IRHT. As IRHT members of the Mapping Manuscript Migrations project (Digging Into Data Challenge, Trans-Atlantic Platform), Synnøve Myking and I have continued the tradition and entered in the database records of books, collections and actors related to the Sorbonne manuscripts from the 13th-century to the present day. In the scope of our enterprise about the Sorbonne, we entered in Bibale roughly 2,300 records of extant manuscripts, 450 records of attested manuscripts–either lost or unidentified, 350 records of provenance marks, 100 records of donators or legators, 170 records of readers and members. Surely the number of threads between all such records and with other records in the database would provide a more significant figure, but the relational nature of Bibale makes it somewhat artificial to pinpoint where a particular dossier ends and the next begins: there are many threads linking records of manuscripts or actors of the Sorbonne library with records of other corpora previously entered in the database.

The library of the Sorbonne

A theologian from North-Eastern France, Robert de Sorbon founded the university college that bears his name in Paris in the mid-13th century.

19th-century artist portrait of Robert de Sorbon

Originally, it was merely a modest building on the southern bank of the Seine, meant to house lay students of the close-by faculty of theology at the University of Paris. Indeed, with the total number of graduates increasing, housing concerns became more and more common among Parisian students–hence the pauperi magistri of the Sorbonne, the poor masters. At the Sorbonne college, grant-holders would share meals and go over their courses together, each having a sleeping room to himself.

Distribution of books in the Parisian college of Hubant. Source: Pierrefitte-sur-Seine, Archives nationales, AE II 408, f. 10v (see on Archim)

Rather rapidly, the college itself turned into a centre of knowledge where students would attend disputes and lectures, its collection of books growing into one of the richest libraries in all of France at a dizzying pace. Bequests of books by members played a major part in the fast and permanent enrichment of the book collection. There were more than 1,000 books in the library as early as 1290, less than forty years after the foundation of the college. By 1338 this number exceeded 1,700. The Sorbonne went on to become the most prominent college of the University of Paris, so much so that its name ended up being used to refer to the university itself.

In the 17th century, the Cardinal of Richelieu decided to rebuild the college so that the building itself would live up to the reputation of the college. It closed after the French Revolution; the rich library taken away and held in public repositories. Napoleon created the University of Paris in 1808, and several faculties took their quarters in the Sorbonne buildings.


Three main sources were used in order to enter data about the Sorbonne library in Bibale. The first and most obvious source to mine for one working at the IRHT is the internal documentation, unedited, produced by members of this research unit over the last eight decades. Manuscript scholars familiar with the IRHT in Paris may have encountered the awe-inspiring card catalogue locally known as the fichier codicologique: across short of 300 drawers, it contains roughly 350,000 typewritten cards on medieval and modern provenance of medieval manuscripts. A whole drawer regards the Sorbonne manuscripts. Information from the fichier codicologique was complemented with more recent and largely available data, in particular printed and online catalogues of the Bibliothèque nationale de France, where nowadays almost all of the Sorbonne manuscripts are preserved. Person records were also created, whether donators or legators of the manuscripts described.

The so-called fichier codicologique at the IRHT

Institutions drawer nr. 63 in the fichier codicologique, IRHT

The second main source takes the form of a medieval catalogue. In 1338, an inventory of the Sorbonne library was drawn up. Fortunately, this document is preserved. Its precise characterization of books enables us to identify extant manuscripts with their 14th-century descriptions. 720 extant manuscripts are identified in the 1338 catalogue. Additionally, 447 records of attested manuscripts have been created, because they provide information about their acquisition by the Sorbonne, or because they can be matched with mentions in a later medieval source about the Sorbonne library.

1338 library catalogue of the Sorbonne in MS Paris, BnF, nouv. acq. lat. 99, f. 1r. Source: Gallica

This third source is the 15th-century register of loans extant in MS 3323 of the Bibliothèque Mazarine in Paris. It records book loans consented to 170 readers ranging from the early 15th to the early 16th century. More than 4,000 of these individual loans were entered in Bibale, taking the form of a specific link between the book lent and the borrower. They are loans of manuscripts that are either extant today, or that can be identified with books described in the 1338 catalogue. This amounts to a total of around 630 manuscripts, of which 245 are solely identified in the 14th-century catalogue. These links between the borrowers and the attested manuscripts borrowed are not extant in the edition of the register of loans; hence Bibale is first in bringing together such threads of information that were previously scattered.

2000 edition of the 15th-century register of loans by Jeanne Vielliard et al.

Browsing the Sorbonne data in Bibale: Some examples

What does this virtual reconstruction of the Sorbonne library allow for, which simply flipping through the three main sources just mentioned would not enable? Bibale gathers if not everything, at least a lot about the Sorbonne, in a single tool, including hardly-accessible documentation extant at the IRHT. More significantly, the circulation between what used to be little pockets of knowledge with little in common with one another, allows for new paths in browsing, new threads of going through the data. Bibale is much more a database to browse than it is a database to query. Hopping from one record to another using the links between records, one constantly accesses related data, and ideally there are no dead-ends: one is always presented with news ways to explore, without ever going back. Some records can be put forward as examples of what relational databases built on pre-existing research results, such as Bibale, can offer a book historian in the digital era.

Let us for example select manuscript lat. 16155 of the Bibliothèque nationale, a very random 13th-century university manuscript.

MS Paris, BnF, lat. 16155, f. 1r. Source: Gallica

A brief traditional description is followed by a list of links to other records in the database, such as the legator, the various collections the book went through, the 14th-century catalogue it was described in, and its ex-libris mark.

Some of the associations linking the MS lat. 16155 Bibale record with other records in the database

This provenance mark is indeed described separately; and from here one can also access the record about the legator, for his name, Gérard d’Abbeville, is mentioned in the ex-libris mark.

Provenance record about the ex-libris mark in MS lat. 16155

One can then see whether all books bequeathed by this particular actor mentioned in ex-libris formulae were simultaneously marked as being part of the Sorbonne library. If for instance one considers three other manuscripts bequeathed by Gérard d’Abbeville (lat. 16380, lat. 16397, and lat. 16544), one can notice, thanks to the illustrations provided, that the same person wrote the first two ex-libris marks, while the third one is clearly from another hand – attesting to different uses of manuscripts coming from one single bequest.

Ex-libris mark in MS Paris, BnF, lat. 16380. Source: Gallica

Ex-libris mark in MS Paris, BnF, lat. 16397. Source: Gallica

Ex-libris mark in MS Paris, BnF, lat. 16544. Source: Gallica

After browsing from a single manuscript, let us look at a collection. Surely, one of the most effective features of the collection record is the date that comes with the links to manuscripts. In the record describing the collection of Gérard d’Abbeville, by far one of the most significant benefactors of the early years of the Sorbonne, one is able to see at a glance the stages in the constitution of the collection. Gérard himself inherited the library of Richard de Fournival, who died in 1260. Therefore, it is known that a large part of the library he bequeathed to the Sorbonne college was not his before 1260. The collection record displays which of the manuscripts come from Richard, and researchers can discriminate at a glance between different layers of Gérard’s collection.

Examples of manuscripts once part of Gérard d’Abbeville’s collection. Notice the different date ranges.

As one moves on to what starting from the Bibale record about an actor who was involved with the Sorbonne manuscripts can offer the researcher, the case of Ursinus Tibout is striking. Ursinus Tibout is one of the numerous records, in Bibale, where several corpora, several networks, meet. 150 links point to this record, which is effectively a node. One reads that Tibout was a member of the Sorbonne in the 15th century, that he borrowed manuscripts from the college library, that he bequeathed manuscripts to it, but also to the University of Caen, in Normandy; additionally, he commissioned the copy of several volumes. One of the manuscripts in his collection, today MS 30 of the Bibliothèque municipale in Caen, was bought, as indicated by a provenance mark, from another member of the Sorbonne, who himself borrowed more than fifty books to the library. Tibout later bequeathed that very book to the University of Caen, where the legator was duly acknowledged. This manuscript record is furthermore linked to the record of the literary work the book contains, here Thomas Aquinas’ Summa, which provides yet another way to browse Bibale data across different corpora. Once again, it is not about new data, but really about browsing more effectively pre-existing data, exploring results in an efficient, iterative way.

Finally, one may want to take a look at a source record, that of the register of loans of the Sorbonne in the 15th century. Here are listed all manuscripts mentioned in the register and which can be identified with either an extant volume or with one described in the 1338 catalogue. The extreme dates of such mentions are recorded; the loans register is the latest source in which many of the attested manuscripts appear, and it therefore provides a terminus post quem for the destruction or the loss of such books, a valuable piece of historical information.

Entry and exit (or last known evidence) dates of several manuscripts, both extant and attested, mentioned in the register of loans

Suggestions for future visualization tools

Surely the virtual reconstruction of the Sorbonne library offers new insight into the history of this institution and its network of users and benefactors. Yet I wish to mention two visualisation tools whose implementation would improve Bibale collection records.

The date ranges specifying the presence of a manuscript in a collection would better be used if one could effectively sort manuscripts on that basis. Hopefully, at some point a chronological tool like a slider may be implemented in Bibale, so that one could display the exact contents of a library at any specific point in time. The most significant single acquisition for the collection was that of the cardinal of Richelieu’s library, which entered the Sorbonne in 1660. Around six hundred manuscripts in many languages entered the library at that point, and changed forever the features of the collection. Scholars have sometimes deplored that reconstructing what the Sorbonne was prior to Richelieu’s bequest proved difficult or almost impossible, because there was no easy way of sorting the 2,300 extant manuscripts. Bibale now enables one to do so, thanks to the entry dates of manuscripts in the Sorbonne collection record. A slider that would exclude from the list books that were not part of the collection before 1660, would prove even more useful. The Mapping Manuscript Migrations user interface, in development since 2018, will most likely offer such a feature in the near future. It will enable one to effectively sort the books listed in Bibale collection records according to their entry and exit dates.

Another interesting feature that would improve the collection record would be to select different orderings of the books listed. Four shelf marks are entered for (almost) every manuscript of the Sorbonne, each corresponding to one of the four inventories put up between the early 17th and the mid-19th century. This last campaign generated the shelf-marks currently in use at the Bibliothèque nationale.

Former shelf-marks of current MS Paris, BnF, lat. 15347

This ordering creates a certain outlook of the collection, which is arbitrary, and by no means reflects previous settings. That is why the four mentioned shelf marks have been entered for most of the manuscripts, even though there is no way, as of yet, to use them to generate a new order in the list. Such a feature would be useful to historians of the early modern book culture: every campaign of shelf marking attributed a new position in the collection to each book, and the variations no doubt reflect the evolution of library practices of organising knowledge. For now, the collection invariably appears in the alphabetical order of the present shelf marks.

Looking ahead

It is the nature of digital tools to offer no natural boundary; in the digital realm, unlike the printed world where physical books necessarily put an end to any historical enterprise, however unfinished it may seem, no railing keeps one from falling off the cliff of entering data forevermore. Hence, there is no one route to follow if one is to further what Synnøve Myking and I have achieved regarding the Sorbonne manuscripts. Bibale was developed to theoretically host all information useful in reconstructing the universal network of the written word, from as far back as documentation allows all the way down to the present day, covering all parts of the world, with no conditions of language or alphabet, without regard to the notability of persons involved, the type of written material they owned, or the texts carried. One entering data might follow every thread coming off the Sorbonne data, and in turn every thread coming off that data, each stage more overwhelming than the last. There is virtually no end to the Bibale job.

However, obvious improvements can be made to the description of the Sorbonne library in Bibale, now that the life of its manuscripts is well documented. Entering data about the printed books owned by the Sorbonne college throughout the early modern time would prove valuable. By the late 18th century, the Sorbonne college owned some 30,000 printed volumes. They, too, have a story to tell–one that would most fittingly complement what Bibale already recounts of their manuscript counterparts.

[1] A slightly different version of this paper was delivered at the International Medieval Congress in Leeds (July 1-4, 2019), as part of session 824: “Materiality to Virtuality: The Reconstruction of Manuscript Libraries.” I thank session moderator Hanno Wijsman (IRHT) for suggesting an online publication of my paper on the IRHT-based Libraria blog.

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