What to do with a heap of old manuscripts?

From the letter of the conservatory of the Bibliothèque nationale to the minister of the interior, May 18th, 1798

Friday No. 7, November 16th, 2018

Close your eyes, and imagine that among your worldly possessions there is a heap of old manuscripts inherited from your maternal great-uncle who died almost 80 years ago. A rather large heap of old manuscripts, by the way. Now imagine that you belong to a noble lineage, and that you want to get rid of these manuscripts. Done? Good. Now imagine that you are negotiating a settlement between you and the national library about the destination of these writings. Still comfortable? Good. Now imagine that it is the year 6 of the French Republic, you are negotiating with the Directoire Government, and you are dead set to barter your manuscripts against books, not to sell them. Now I’ve overdone it, right?

Bartering for books, first round

But I haven’t. This is what actually happened in 1798/99. The family in question – that’s you! don’t forget to imagine – really had something extraordinary in their hands, as the director of the French national library stated:

“There is no person who doesn’t know the reputation the late Eusebe Renaudot enjoyed within the Republic of Letters. Equally accomplished in the knowledge of the most difficult and most ancient oriental languages and in the study of Greek and Latin, and moreover very apt in handling worldly affairs; this savant has left at his death a large collection of manuscript treatises other than the works published in his name during his lifetime; its existence was known throughout all of Learned Europe, and through succession it now has passed into the possession of the Menou family, related by marriage to that of Verneuil, the heir of Eusebe Renaudot.”[1]

The manuscripts in question were those of the abbé Eusèbe Renaudot (1646–1720), Oratorian, member of the Academie française and the Academie des Inscriptions since 1689, specialist for the early history of the Eastern churches and for languages such as Arabic and Aramaic. At his death, Renaudot had bequeathed his considerable library to the monastery of Saint-Germain-des-Prés, but a part of his collections – perhaps not really just “a small number which was of no use to them”[2] – had gone to the executor of his testament, his nephew Eusèbe Jacques Chaspoux de Verneuil (1695–1747), “Secrétaire de la chambre et du cabinet du Roi”, who was the son of Renaudot’s younger sister Anne-Claude Claire (1664–1720). Chaspoux de Verneuil had left the manuscripts to his son, Eusèbe Félix Chaspoux de Verneuil (1720-1791), and Eusèbe Félix in turn to his daughter Anne Michèle Isabelle Chaspoux de Verneuil (1751-1829) who had married René-Louis-Charles de Menou (1746-c.1820) in 1769. René-Louis-Charles’ father had been “Maréchal-de-champ” of Louis XV,[3] and his younger brother was the notorious Jacques-François Abdallah de Menou (1750–1810) who in 1798 was fighting with Napoleon in Egypt and would soon convert to Islam to marry an Egyptian woman. These were the “citoyens Menou” who now owned 94 of Eusèbe Renaudot’s manuscripts, and had offered them to the Bibliothèque nationale in exchange for printed books. They didn’t want money, they wanted books.  So they submitted a wish list to the director of the national library, but it turned out to be a bit more complicated than that.

Bartering for books, second round

The director of the Bibliothèque nationale was either not capable or not comfortable deciding such an issue on its own, and thus forwarded the request to the minister of the interior, who already six days later approved of the exchange.[4] But now it happened to be the case that the books the citoyens Menou had wished for were not all found in the “dépôts littéraires”, and the negotiations entered a second stage. Because, as the next report to the minister of the interior stated on June 1st, 1798, “The curators of manuscripts at the Bibliothèque nationale have thoroughly examined this collection and found it to be of major importance and utility“,[5] he was urgently advised to stay with his decision to approve of the exchange nevertheless and to let the citoyens Menou make another selection from the holdings of the “dépôts littéraires”. Only that finding another suitable set of books for the exchange seems to have been somewhat more difficult than thought of. It took its time at least. When the conservatory of the Bibliothèque nationale addressed the issue to the minister the next time, half a year had gone by.[6]

Bartering for books, final round

This time, everything seemed settled. The Menous had taken a good look around the depots, had made their list, and the conservatory reported to the minister: “See the list of books the Menou family wishes for: to us they seem acceptable given the material and immaterial worth of the manuscripts.”[7] Now this is indeed interesting because it gives a hint as to how highly the librarians really thought of the manuscripts and their value. What could one get for 94 Renaudot autographs? Well, here’s the list (the links point you to the edition I established as the most probable one to have been meant here):

“Livres demandés pour le Citoyen françois Menou, en Echange des Manuscrits d’Eusebe Renaudot qu’il a remis à la Bibliothéque [sic] Nationale.

Taken together this amounts to 106 volumes in duodecimo; 107 volumes in octavo; and 19 volumes in quarto. Or 232 printed books altogether. Quite impressive I think. It’s amazing what the memory of a long-dead great-uncle can do for you if you want to clean up the house.

I might add that something is clearly wrong with my working strategy: I spent one and a half hour in the archive on the sources, another hour transcribing those documents I photographed, and then more than four hours this morning in identifying those damned editions. And I didn’t even get them all right!


[1] Archives Nationales, Paris, F/17/3468-I, Acquisitions de l’an IV à 1830, an VII: Acquisition des manuscrits d’Eusebe Renaudot. Capperonier to the minister of the interior, 23. Floreal an VI (May 12th, 1798), p.1.

[2] C. Detlef G. Müller: Renaudot, Eusèbe, in: Bautz, Traugott (ed.): Biographisch-Bibliographisches Kirchenlexikon, Vol. 8, Hamm: Bautz 1994, col. 34-44, online version: http://www.bautz.de/bbkl/r/renaudot_e.shtml (11/16/2018): „Eine kleine, für sie nicht brauchbare Anzahl erhielt der Neffe, Herr Verneuil.“

[3] François-Alexandre Aubert de La Chesnaye Des Bois: Dictionnaire de la noblesse, 2nd ed., vol. 10, Paris: Antoine Baudet 1775, p. 46.

[4] Archives Nationales, Paris, F/17/3468-I, Acquisitions de l’an IV à 1830, an VII: Acquisition des manuscrits d’Eusebe Renaudot. Ministre de l’Interieur to the Conservateur de la bibliothèque Nationale, 29. Floreal an 6 (May 18th, 1798).

[5] Archives Nationales, Paris, F/17/3468-I, Acquisitions de l’an IV à 1830, an VII: Acquisition des manuscrits d’Eusebe Renaudot. Rapport présenté au minister a l’interieur, 13. Prairial an 6 (June 1st, 1798): “Les Conservateurs des manuscrits de la Bibliotheque nationale ont éxaminé attentivement cette collection et l’ont trouvée d’une importance et d’une utilité majeure […].”

[6] Archives Nationales, Paris, F/17/3468-I, Acquisitions de l’an IV à 1830, an VII: Acquisition des manuscrits d’Eusebe Renaudot. Conservatoire de la bibliothèque nationale to the ministre de l’interieur, 12. Frimaire an 7 (December 2nd, 1798).

[7] Ibid.

[8] Obviously not the complete edition which was 70 volumes in total.

[9] The only Buffon edition approximately matching this number was the edition linked to, but that is slightly at odds with its printing date. Of course it might be that the books in being rebound had been split, and the original number of volumes was smaller. Anyone a good idea?

[10] Only a selection of the original edition which totalled 125 volumes.

[11] I must confess I don’t know what this is. The only publication Gaillard dedicated to Charles V I have been able to find was the linked “Eloge of 1767, but this is not likely to have been bound as six separate volumes.

[12] Archives Nationales, Paris, F/17/3468-I, Acquisitions de l’an IV à 1830, an VII: Acquisition des manuscrits d’Eusebe Renaudot. Conservatoire de la bibliothèque nationale to the ministre de l’interieur, 12. Frimaire an 7 (December 2nd, 1798).


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