Archives Lost: The French Revolution and the Destruction of Medieval French Manuscripts

“Revolutionary Material Culture Series”

This series examines the Age of Revolutions through its material markers, reminding us that materials themselves reflected and shaped political cultures around the revolutionary Atlantic and World.

By Thomas Lecaque

There is a moment, while contemplating gaps in the archival record as a medievalist, when we are then tempted to focus on the “bibliocide” of the past, to mourn the death of records that would have offered insight into our narrow, chosen fields. For French medievalists like myself, the French Revolution represents at once a fundamental shift towards modernity and an irrevocable loss of medieval materiality. Mobs burst into the monastery, cathedral, parish church, castle, or palace, dragged the manuscripts out of the armoires where they had been stored for centuries, piled them in a mound in a public place, and lit the patrimony of the nation on fire. From the ashes, modernity arose, but at a cost.

The French Revolution is famous for its rapid and violent destruction of feudalism and “secularization.” The nationalization of churches, monasteries, properties owned by clergy, and wealth, as well as the suppression of the aristocracy and clerical system that dominated the country as of 1790 was fairly complete.[1] This “nationalization” was not a staid, controlled affair; priests were removed from their property, monasteries were turned into stables for animals that shat in the space medieval altars once occupied, filth coated frescoes made centuries before, and crowds in the grips of a secular iconoclasm tore down and burned religious items. Sooner than later, the Notre Dame de Paris, like many other churches, would be turned into temples of Reason under the Terror.

The nationalization of goods in the provinces included all of their manuscripts, too, and if the burning in the north was curtailed by the creation of the National Archives in 1790—with a decree to centralize all documents appearing four years later and a law mandating it only in 1796—it took longer to stop in the southern regions. The destruction of medieval texts was part of a well-established pattern of destruction of title deeds, charters, and other business records that established land controls and rents, with notable documents stretching from the high Middle Ages on. By burning genealogies, cartularies, title papers, and registers, revolutionary officials and mobs of local citizens dispossessed the nobility and removed legal cases against the actual inhabitants of the land, while simultaneously destroying some of the richest sources for the political, social, and economic histories of medieval France.[2] Seen individually, it is a shame. Writ large, however, the estimate is that during the French Revolution, more than FOUR MILLION VOLUMES were burnt from suppressed monasteries, of which 25,000 were medieval manuscripts.[3] This total is for all of France, not just the south; we do not, unfortunately, have clear totals for the losses in individual regions. What it means overall, though, is that manuscripts from the eleventh and early 12th centuries—my own period of research—which survived recycling, minor local disasters, six hundred years of wear-and-tear, the Albigensian Crusade in the 13th century, the Wars of Religion, and everything else, were tossed like garbage into piles in city squares and burned while the mob cheered.

The damage done by the French Revolution to southern French history in particular is incalculable. Centralization of archives in Paris protected documents; even as revolutionaries were tearing down the monarch, they protected the royal library. In the south, even in the cities, mobs destroyed manuscripts at their liberty. The modern region of the Bouches-du-Rhône, for example, suffered extensively during the Revolution. Not only private citizens but the revolutionary officials of the cities confiscated and burned medieval document regularly, or collected them to be shredded and repurposed in order to produce rifle cartridges. In Marseilles, for example, there was a mass burning of old papers and documents in the place Saint-Victor in November 1792, “in the presence of the conseil général of the commune and the citizens”—an event repeated in Arles in January 1793.[4] In fact, the same groups from whom the Marseillaise gets its name were prodigious in the torching of their past. Across the Rhône from Arles, the district centered on Beaucaire responded to the various resolutions of seizure and destruction, and the resolutions on confiscation for manufacturing, with an unfortunately “efficient zeal”—this may be why so little remains of the archives of Saint-André de Villeneuve-lès-Avignon, which appear on the original registers of the Revolution and then disappeared between 1790 and 1794.[5] I am lucky that the district centered on Nîmes was less zealous, as a result of which substantial holdings survive from the abbeys of Saint-Gilles and Psalmodi, and substantial manuscripts from the cathedral, churches and monasteries of Nîmes itself.

This destruction was not limited to the coastal regions of southern France—the Massif Central region experienced similar destruction. Le Puy, one of the centers of my research on the First Crusade, also suffered heavily from the Revolution. In Le Puy, the memoirs of Antoine-Alexis Duranson, a bridge engineer who wrote of his experience in the Haute-Loire during the Revolution, detail the destruction of manuscripts and religious artifacts.[6] Le Puy was a site of the destruction of a number of archives from the region—the archives of the monastery of Monastier-Saint-Chaffre, for example, were transported there on August 12, 1791, and most of them must have been destroyed alongside other regional troves in the revolutionary fervor to cleanse France of “feudal” documents—certainly by the time we get the Preuves de la maison de Polignac list of October 4, 1792, the only archives left in the city were those of the bishopric and cathedral chapter of Le Puy and those of the University of Saint-Mayol.[7] Those surviving archives did not last long thereafter. As Duranson writes, “The statue of Notre-Dame of Puy, which in early times attracted many foreigners, among whom were illustrious kings, and which considerably favored the economy of the town, was ripped from the main altar of the cathedral on the 30 Nivose of year II of the Republic (January 19 1794), and transported into the archives of the cathedral.”[8] From there the statue, the famous “Black Madonna” of the cathedral, was stripped of its jewels and left inside. The statue and the archives shared a similar fate: on June 8th, Pentecost of 1794, soldiers, police, the revolutionary head of the Haute-Loire, the mayor, and others took the statue and put it into a fire in front of the hôtel-de-ville, alongside “a quantity of papers called ‘feudals’ and others remembering ancient events. This operation was done to cries of “Long live the Republic!”[9] Thus ended the archives of the cathedral alongside its central relic.

Why did these documents, this particular incarnation of the past, these ‘feudals’ have to die? Book burning, with all of the modern baggage attached to it, is not a simple act of wanton destruction, it is a purposeful reshaping of intellectual, cultural, and historical thought and life for concrete purpose. The documents called “feudals” were a particular form of medieval legal control undertaken by the aristocracy, clergy, and monasteries, and for centuries, since the Middle Ages themselves, rebelling groups of peasants and townsfolk had assaulted archives, “not [as] the revenge of a residually oral culture against the appurtenances of a literacy that was threatening because [it was] alien and mysterious,” but rather a “precise targeting of legal instruments.”[10] Wat Tyler’s rebellion in England in 1381 specifically targeted documents, with rebels breaking into houses, castles, and government offices; then they “burnt the Rolls touching the Crown of our Lord the King, and the Rolls of the office of Receiver of Green wax from the county of Kent,” or the “charters, writings, and divers muniments there found.”[11] If Froissart’s description of the 1358 Jacquerie does not contain similar tales of the burning of documents in the midst of massacres of the nobility, the torching of castles and manor houses would have achieved the same effect.[12] These documents were the legal justification of the privileged to rule over the peasantry and urban underclass, and when rebels burned them they were using similar intellectual justification to Tyler Durden’s plot in Fight Club: a destruction of the debt and the control over their lives through a sudden, cataclysmic violence against the records. The Revolution was the greatest of these, though there were near-contemporary preambles in the south. In the 1780s, rioters in the Cevennes, Vivarais, and the Gévaudan all broke into law courts and the homes of notaries and attorneys and attempted to burn the deeds and contracts—a decade later their attempts would be sanctioned by the revolutionary regime.[13]

There is a particular aftereffect to book burning—it is the destruction of cultural memory, of the records of the past and the freedom to reconstruct it as one wills. When the revolutionaries fanned themselves in the glow of the torching of the Middle Ages, they were cleansing themselves of aristocratic oppression; but for southern French historians, it was the last of the great destructions of our region’s past. In 1209, Pope Innocent III launched the Albigensian Crusade against the Counts of Toulouse, and by the time the dust settled twenty years later, castles, villages, monasteries, cathedrals, and some entire cities had been put to the torch, their manuscripts with them. Southern France was forcibly annexed to the Kingdom of France in the aftermath. In the thirty-odd years of the French Wars of Religion in the 16th century, not only did an estimated three million people die, but mobs assaulted churches and monasteries across southern France, with noted urban violence in Cahors, Carcassonne, Valence, Lyon, Toulouse, Orange, and Aurillac, in addition to repeated military campaigns in the lower Rhone Valley and across the Languedoc. The war against the Camisards from 1702-1710 led to further destruction of sites in the Massif Central, and thus by the time of the Revolution, there had been at least three religious wars in southern France targeting the institutional repositories of medieval texts, i.e., monasteries and churches. When the French Revolution engaged in its own orgiastic book burnings, they were destroying survivors of an already lengthy series of manmade calamities for the medieval patrimony of the region.

Bibliocide is one of the tragic legacies of the Revolution in the Midi. The subject reminds us once more that books carry power—the power to reveal the history of southern France during the Middle Ages, or as the revolutionaries saw it, feudal power. The Revolution attacked the aristocracy and occupied ecclesiastical and noble property, freeing themselves of feudal tyranny and brutalizing the past in the process, enacting again the destruction of the Middle Ages upon its surviving texts.

Thomas Lecaque is an Assistant Professor of History at Grand View University in Des Moines, Iowa. His research focuses on religion and violence in southern France in the 10th through 12th centuries and the early Crusades. He is currently finishing edits on his biography of Raymond of Saint-Gilles, a First Crusade leader who ruled most of southern France by the end of the 11th century, under contract with Routledge. You can find him on Twitter @tlecaque.

Title image: Pedro Berruguete, St. Dominic de Guzmán and the Albigenses, 1499.

Further Readings:

Carl Lokke. “Archives and the French Revolution.” The American Archivist 31:1 (January 1968): 23-31.

Steven Justice, Writing and Rebellion: England in 1381. Berkeley, Los Angeles and London: University of California Press, 1994.

James M. O’Toole, “Between Veneration and Loathing: Loving and Hating Documents,” in Archives, Documentation, and Institutions of Social Memory: Essays from the Sawyer Seminar, eds Francis X. BLouin and William G. Rosenberg. Ann Arbor: The University of Michigan Press, 2007. 43-53.

Jennifer Tsien, « Diderot’s Battle against Books : Books as Objects during the Enlightenment and Revolution », Belphégor [En ligne], 13-1 | 2015, mis en ligne le 01 juin 2015. ; DOI : 10.4000/belphegor.609


[1] Pierre Santoni. Les archives au miroir de la Révolution. Marseille, revue municipale, Ville de Marseille, 1994, pp.106-111. ; p 2-3.

[2]  For a particularly good example of this, see Steven Justice, Writing and Rebellion: England in 1381 (Berkeley, Los Angeles and London: University of California Press, 1994), Chapter 1.

[3] Eltjo Buringh, Medieval Manuscript Production in the Latin West: Explorations with a Global Database (Leiden: Brill, 2011), p. 208-9

[4]  Santoni, 3.

[5] Alain Venturini, “Les archives de l’abbaye Saint-André, des inventaires révolutionnaires à nos jours. Essai sur un désastre patrimonial, » in L’abbaye Saint-André de Villeneauve-lès-Avignon : histoire, archéologie, rayonnement, eds Guy Barruol, Roseline Bacou and Alain Girard (Mane, Haute-Provence : Les Alpes de Lumière, 2001), 422.

[6]  “Mémoire de Antoine-Alexis Duranson, Ingénieur des Ponts et Chaussées, sur le Département de la Haute-Loire,” in Société Agricole & Scientifique de la Haute-Loire, Mémoires et Procès-Verbaux 12 (1902-1903) : 47-111

[7]  Martin de Framond, “Notes sur les Archives du Monastier (Abbaye, Prieurés de Haite-Loire, Ardèche et Lozère),” in Les bénédictins de Saint-Chaffre du Monasteir : Histoire et archéologie d’une congrégation. Actes du Colloque des 7, 8 et 9 novembre 1997 (Le Monasteir-sur-Gazeille : Mémoires de la Jeune Loire et du Mézenc, 1998), 409.

[8]  “Mémoire,” 80.

[9]  “Mémoire,” 82-3.

[10]   Justice, 41.

[11]  Ibid.

[12] G. C. Macauly, ed., The Chronicles of Froissart, Lord Berners, trans. (London: Macmillan and Co., 1904), pp. 136-137, from “Jean Froissart: on the Jacquerie, 1358.”

[13] Pëtr Kropotkin, The Great French Revolution 1789-1793, tr N.F. Dryhurst (New York: Vanguard Printings, 1927), p. 36.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s