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It started with a letter I found in the great 19th century edition of Latin documents, the Monumenta Germaniae Historica, while I was working on my thesis for an M.A. in history. Sometime in the 530s C.E., Abbess Caesaria of the women‚s monastery in Arles sent a letter of advice on the monastic life to Queen Radegund, wife of Clothar, who was founding a monastery of her own in Poitiers. I was curious about Caesaria and her monastery, for whom this letter and a brief mention in the Vita of her uncle, Bishop Caesarius, are the only contemporary sources. What was the monastery like, who lived in it, and what happened to it? I was intrigued to learn that the monastery had existed all through the Middle Ages, but was completely destroyed during the French Revolution. After the Revolution, however, public libraries were established in many of the towns of France with collections of books and manuscripts that had been confiscated from monastic and other religious institutions. Discovering what kinds of sources for local monastic history could be found in the library in Arles and how scholars could be made aware of them became the subject of my application for the Coutts-Nijhoff travel grant.
The first step was to consult a census of manuscripts in the libraries outside Paris, the Catalogue général des manuscrits des bibliothèques publiques de France. Départements, that has been compiled since 1886. The entries for each manuscript list the title on the document or a constructed title indicating the contents for items without a title. Many of the documents at the library in Arles (now called the Mediathèque d'Arles ) consist of a number of manuscript items that were bound together in one or more volumes; in these cases a listing of the titles of the individual manuscripts and how many pages they comprise is also included, as well as a date, or at least a century. These listings allow the scholar to discover in advance what manuscripts might be useful to look at before traveling to the library. The titles can be fairly brief and cryptic, however, obscuring a document that turns out to be more significant than the listing initially would lead one to believe. For example, one of the documents is listed as a miscellaneous collection, has the vague title "Relations of several curious events that happened at Arles in Provence" and is dated to the 17th and 18th centuries. Within this collection, one of the manuscripts has the title "Recital of what happened at the Monastery of St. Césaire of Arles the 10 January 1519 and the following days." [i] This is still not very helpful, although it is now apparent that the events being described are from the 16th, not the 17th or 18th centuries.
The document actually contains a fascinating narration of a conflict that occurred when an abbess died. Her successor was elected by the community as usual, but the king chose to appoint someone from outside the community and sent one of his councillors to enforce her installation as abbess. Several armed men, including (presumably) the brother or father of the woman originally elected, entered the monastery to defend it and were arrested. The councillor and his supporters ended up breaking down the door to the abbess‚ room with a hatchet and the elected woman left the monastery for her family‚s house. There then follows an inventory of the important and valuable relics of the monastery which the Commissaire of the Parlement, who had been sent to adjudicate the issue, ordered written to make sure that the woman had not taken any of the relics with her. So not only does this document contain an interesting incident in the history of the monastery and its struggle with the king over the appointment of abbesses, it also includes an inventory of relics and reliquaries (mostly of silver), of which there is no hint in the listing for this manuscript.
This is just one example of the fascinating documents I found during my two weeks in Arles. Others included a manuscript volume that had assets, rents and other information for each of the monastic houses in Arles from before the Revolution and then what happened to them during the Revolution. This is where I discovered that the buildings of Caesaria‚s monastery had been sold to an Arlesien citizen, who resold the building materials to workmen: they tore the monastery down stone by stone. There were land records of the holdings of the monasteries, letters from the abbesses to popes and emperors, and documents they sent in reply. Using the documents was much easier than in large national libraries; I merely signed a register for the document I wanted and it was paged for me in a matter of minutes. The curator, Mlle. Martin, was very helpful and friendly, and after we had discussed what my research was about, she showed me some land records she was just in the process of cataloging.
In two weeks I was able only to gain an overview of what was available and to look in detail at a few documents, but what I saw confirmed my impression that there are a great many valuable historical resources even in relatively small libraries such as the one in Arles.
[i] Bibl. Mun. Arles, Ms. 424. Document titles are the author's translations from the French.
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