16.05.08, Bell, The Library of the Abbey of La Trappe

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William Duba

The Medieval Review 16.05.08

Bell, David N. The Library of the Abbey of La Trappe: A Study of its History from the Twelfth Century to the French Revolution, with an Annotated Edition of the 1752 Catalogue. Medieval Church Studies, 32 and Cîteaux: Studia et Documenta, 15. Turnhout:Brepols, 2014. pp. vi, 643. ISBN: 9782503545714 and 978-2-9600647-2-8 (hardback).

Reviewed by:

William Duba
Radboud Universiteit

The title expresses this study's promise and payload. Reconstructing the history of a monastic library promises a unique perspective on the relationship between a monastic community, particularly its spiritual and worldly dimensions, and the body of texts that served both to define that community and to express it. La Trappe traces its origins to a chapel consecrated in 1122, and was established as an abbey by 1140, subsequently being incorporated into the Cistercian Order with the other Savigniac houses in 1147. The scope of the work appears truly ambitious, spanning six centuries. The payload, the centerpiece, of this book is the edition of the 1752 Catalogue of the over 4000 volumes contained by the monastery, spanning 486 pages, with another 24 pages of indices.

The author's discussion of the medieval history of La Trappe, distilled from the general historiographical tradition, underscores the depredations of the Hundred Years' War, including incidents of the monks heading to periods of extended exile following the pillage of the abbey in 1361, 1376, and 1417, the last case leading to a 32-year exodus. Twenty years after the monks returned, "the abbey was vandalized yet again" (5). Unsurprisingly, "[o]f surviving manuscripts, eleven date from the twelfth to the fifteenth century, but whether they formed part of the library in the twelfth to the fifteenth century is another question" (11). Adding another three other medieval manuscripts mentioned in a 1794/95 inventory of the library and since then lost, at some point fourteen medieval books belonged to the monastery, although the author cannot definitively state that the monastery had more than four of them in the Middle Ages (13). In short, "the nature, content, size, and dispersal of the medieval book-collection of La Trappe remains, for the most part, shrouded in obscurity" (14). Readers interested in a more detailed treatment of the medieval manuscripts are referred to the author's article, "The Manuscripts of La Trappe", Cîteaux 55 (2004): 881153.

The remainder of the study focuses on the post-medieval library. The library itself largely comes from the reformation of the abbey according to the Strict Observance in the 1660s, a reformation coinciding with the entry into the Order of La Trappe's then-commendatory abbot, the courtier and man of letters Armand-Jean Le Bouthillier de Rancé (1626-1700), and the author dedicates a chapter to "Rancé and his books". The subsequent chapter details how Rancé, after having brought to the abbey the bulk of his library, then sold some part of it, and how, when the library was moved, the 1752 catalogue, was composed (chapter 3). The dissolution of the monastery during the French revolution led to a series of inventories and catalogues in the 1790s: 5456 volumes in 1790, 4318 in 1791, an account that described the layout of the library as well, 772 "more valuable" volumes (382 titles), which were for that reason not yet sold off in December 1794 or January 1795, and the 79 titles that entered the library of Alençon in 1799 (chapter 4). Given the history of the library, where the majority of documents come from Rancé, the author's analysis of library expresses it as one fundamentally of the seventeenth-century and (over 80%) religious in its selection (chapter 5), which the author tries to put in perspective with Cistercian houses as a whole (chapter 6).

The edition constitutes the biggest part of the work. It is divided into two parts: by subject and by alphabetical order (of author, or, for works without author's name, of the title). The editor has cross-referenced the subject index to the alphabetical index, which, when possible, identifies the work, the edition, and the author, often including a brief biographical summary and occasionally adding some additional notes, e.g., on Étienne Baluze, "A year after his death, Baluze's magnificent collection of books and manuscripts was acquired for the Bibliothèque du roi for the sum of 30,000 pounds. Three letters from Rancé to Baluze survive" (312).

This book constitutes an excellent edition of an eighteenth-century library catalogue. Its introduction places the 1752 snapshot of the library in the context of its development, particularly as the expression of the life and spirituality of one of the most influential figures in the history of the Cistercian Order. The careful work of the edition follows a clear methodology, succinctly laid out (118-119), and well executed.

The book, of course, does not live up to the promise of its title, namely a study of the library's history, spanning some six and a half centuries. A medievalist will understandably be disappointed that the author's presentation of the medieval monastery of La Trappe is reduced to summaries of a largely nineteenth-century historiographical tradition and the admission that much is unknown. Indeed, it would be more accurate to characterize this volume as an edition of the 1752 catalogue (in French and Latin) with an historical introduction. Nevertheless, this work clearly targets an academic audience, and such an audience should have the familiarity with reading titles backwards, understanding the import of the work to lie in the subordinate clause.

The book is elegantly set out and the text is relatively free of typographic errors. The notes have a few more problems, e.g. (37, n. 20): "The smaller one to the west is the the carpentry shop, the 'Mensuiserie de dehors'." manages to commit two errors in one line. The references can be misleading. For example, the author states (24, n. 25): "I am here using the terms Strict and Common Observance for the sake of simplicity, even though anachronistically. See n. 29 below." The note in question (25, n. 29) says: "All these controversies are discussed in Bell, Understanding Rancé." Moreover, one of the major sources for the author's biography of Rancé is Louis Dubois, Histoire de l'abbé de Rancé et de sa réforme..., Paris: Ambroise Bray, 1866 [First Edition], 1869 [Second Edition]. The author states: "Unless otherwise indicated, reference is to the second edition". Yet, at least in chapter 2, the chapter dedicated to Rancé's biography, the opposite is the case: all references are to the first edition.

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