French Renaissance Paleography


Ognolles,[1] 1251-1267 (copy ca. 1280)
Cartulaire de l’Abbaye-aux-Bois
Chicago, Newberry Library, VAULT Case MS 20.1


In the forest of Picardy, near Compiègne and Noyon, stood the Abbaye-aux-Bois, a monastery of Cistercian nuns, from 1202 to 1661. After a fire burnt the abbey down, the small community moved to Paris and continued its mission until 1907, when the Paris convent was destroyed in the expansion of the Rue de Sèvres. Amazingly, a large portion of the archives of the community survived, including this cartulary from the 13th and 14th centuries, which found its way to Chicago.

This cartulary is a collection of 247 charters dated 1202 to 1279 and mostly related to the possessions of the monastery.[2] While Latin dominates, French is the language of the seven charters presented here and of 45 more charters written from 1251 onwards. A first part of the cartulary was complete by 1243 (fol. 13r-42v), and a second part, ca. 1280. Further additions were made in 1296 and in 1314. Finally, a table akin to a user’s guide was created in 1341 (fol. 1-8).

In modern times the monastery is known as Abbaye-aux-Bois, but in the Middle Ages it was most commonly called Libera Abbatia/Franche-Abbaye or Libera Abbatia juxta Bellum Locum/Franche Abbaye delez Beaulieu, as it was tied to the village of Beaulieu-les-Fontaines.[3] In the sample presented here, we find the words “Franche Abie de(les) Biauliu” in five charters, and “Franke Abbeie du Bos en costé Biaulieu” in two others.

The cartulary opens with the foundation charter of April 1202. Jean II, seigneur de Nesle _and châtelain de Bruges_ (1197-1239) appears to have founded the abbey in the interval between taking a crusade vow in 1200 and departing for the Fourth Crusade in 1203. A large number of charters pertain to him and his family, including the charter on fol. 72v, which is the first one written in French. Here Jean de Nelse, lord of Falvy and nephew of Jean II de Nesle, pledges to pay one muid of wheat to the monastery every year when his vassal Gautier le Maçon or Gautier’s heirs are unable to do so (see the transcription here).

This cartulary is the earliest document in this website’s collection. For an example of a much later cartulary (1693), see Contracts, charters, financial records of the St. Lambert’s Cathedral in Liège.