The Library of Charles V and Family

A paradigm for princely libraries reconstructed

“... Est biau tresor a un roy avoir grant multitude de livres” (Songe du Vergier, Book I, chapter 34). So ends the debate at the court of Charles V of France, reported in 1378, which argues for the need of a royal library replete with books both old and new, for “books are a rampart against tyranny”.

The library assembled by Charles V and lodged in the Falconry Tower at the Louvre was more than a fabulous collection of books (over 900 volumes in 1380) put at the disposal of the king and his counsellors. It was quite extraordinary for its time in having nearly 2500 texts in French, thus illustrating the promotion of French as the language of learning and government. The library was a sign of royal authority, a prerogative of the king of France, and was, in this sense, already a State library. The frontispiece of the French translation of John of Salisbury's Policraticus, where the wise king is seated before a revolving bookstand, is emblematic of this authority (BNF MSS Français 24287, f. 2).

The king had smaller libraries in his residences at the Hôtel Saint-Pol, Melun, Saint-Germain and especially at Vincennes, where the most precious books were kept, some fifty exquisite psalters, books of hours and paraliturgical texts.

Two sources allow us to picture the library of Charles V in the fourteenth century:

  • a series of six inventories written in 1380, 1411, 1413 and 1424, which give information on the topographical organisation of the library, its contents and the market value of the books
  • at least 120 manuscripts (the number is not definitive) have been identified in thirty institutions around the world, of which 69 are in the BnF, 7 in other French libraries and 44 in libraries outside of France. Many of these have been studied by Leopold Delisle (Recherches sur la Librairie de Charles V, Paris 1907, 2 volumes), by François Avril (La Librairie de Charles V, exhibition at the National Library of France, 1968), as well as other scholars.

The library began to deteriorate bit by bit after it was inherited by Charles VI in 1380. It was eventually sold to the Duke of Bedford, then regent of France, for next to nothing. The Duke had the library transferred to Rouen and, upon his death in 1435, the collection was sent to London where it was broken up.

Modern technology will allow for the virtual reconstruction of the first French royal library, based on information in the 1380 inventory.

Three manuscripts are already fully accessible on the internet:

  • the French version of the Miroir des dames by Durand de Champagne, dedicated to Jeanne de Navarre, wife of Philip le Bel: manuscript Corpus Christi College 324, Cambridge
  • the Miracles de Notre-Dame by Gautier de Coincy, painted by Pucelle for Jeanne de Bourgogne, wife of Philip VI de Valois: manuscript NAF 24541, BNF
  • one volume of Saint Augustine's Cité de Dieu, translated by Raoul de Presles: manuscript Typ 201, Houghton Library of Harvard

Nearly 80% of this prestigious library will be reconstructed by the Europeana Regia project through the digitisation and scientific cataloguing of 76 manuscripts in French libraries, 10 manuscripts in the Royal Library of Belgium and 12 manuscripts in the British Library in London.

The library of Charles V became a model for royal and aristocratic libraries in the 15th century, as will be illustrated by a digitised selection of some sixty manuscripts drawn mainly from the libraries of Louis d’Orléans and Jean, duc de Berry, both renowned bibliophiles who played significant roles in the management of royal affairs in the late 14th and early 15th centuries.

Library of Charles V and Family

London, British Library, Cotton MS Tiberius B VIII, f. 35r
Pontifical (ff. 3-34, 81-197). The Coronation Book of Charles V, king of France (1364–1380) (ff. 35-80)
London British Library Cotton MS Tiberius B VIII
Paris BNF - Bibliothèque de l'Arsenal Ms. 3693 - f. 1r.
Livy: Ab Urbe condita [first Decade of Titus Livus], French translation [Histoire romaine] by Pierre Bersuire
Paris BNF - Bibliothèque de l'Arsenal Ms. 3693
Paris Bibliothèque nationale de France MSS Français 495 - f. 1r.
Justinian: Digeste vielle, anonymous French translation
Paris Bibliothèque nationale de France MSS Français 495