A Canadian Goes to France: Researching Manuscripts at a Municipal Library

By Jenny Weston

“Je suis une Canadienne, mais, mon Français est horrible: pouvez-vous parler plus lentement?” I practiced this phrase multiple times on the train from Leiden to Normandy in preparation for my first encounters with the French. It was February 2011 and I was on my first research trip to the Bibliothèque Municipal de Rouen, where hundreds of eleventh- and twelfth-century Norman manuscripts lay preserved in oddly shaped boxes. Besides an accidental midnight detour to Paris and being greeted at the hotel door by a receptionist not wearing any trousers, I arrived safely in the small Norman town of Rouen (famously remembered as the place where Joan of Arc met her fiery demise).

My first day at the municipal archives was both terrifying and exciting: would they understand my Canadian-French? Would my authorization letter be accepted at the library? Were the manuscripts going to be as spectacular as I had imagined? Would this trip help propel my doctoral thesis into new innovative territory? Would I accidentally throw-up from the excitement and ruin the only surviving copy of a famous book?

When I arrived at the library I was instructed to sit at a table directly in front of the librarian’s desk and to put on a pair of white gloves, designed to fit the hands of an obese man. I felt very official—despite the fact I looked more like Mickey Mouse than Neil Ker. The next few hours involved the tentative exploration of a few twelfth-century manuscripts: a book of psalms in Irish minuscule, a liturgical calendar from the abbey of Fécamp, a copy of Gregory’s Dialogues from Jumiéges. As the day went on, my confidence grew—I was becoming an official researcher, a detective of history, an investigator of truth, an archive superhero. I spent the following days carefully examining bindings, measuring parchment, noting script, inhaling centuries of book dust, and most importantly, taking photos (snapping almost 3,000 digital images over the course of the week). My photo-logging came with some setbacks, as each photo had to be “signed off,” with a promise not to publish the images. By the end of the week my hand-writing had reverted to the ridiculous scribbles of a six-year old child, exhaustively documenting each picture I had taken: “Folios 4v, 6r, 17rv, 100r, 101r…will not publish, yes, I am Jenny Weston, it is February [insert illegible signature here].” I empathized with the medieval scribes who copied books for months at a time, signing off their work with a relieved colophon: “I am Scribe X, thank the Lord this work is done.”

By the end of the week I had filled my laptop’s database with all kinds of facts and figures about ‘my’ manuscripts (yes, I had bonded with them all). I noted the presence of paragraph marks, rubrics, columns, glosses, height, width, content, author, language, script, provenance, and any other remarkable details. I had amassed a beautiful new corpus of manuscripts, many of which had not been examined in decades; I had categorized genres, examined minims, pondered provenance, photographed evidence; I had spoken French; I had traveled.

While I may have entered the municipal Archives of Rouen a mere novice, terrified and overflowing with anticipation, I left the city as a confident and (very official) “researcher of medieval manuscripts.”

(Epilogue: I returned to Rouen a few months later for a second trip. This time my train arrived on time and the receptionist at the hotel wore trousers).

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