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AGS Records Management

Great names in the history of archiving: Jean Mabillon, the father of diplomacy

A Benedictine monk from the reformed Benedictine congregation of Saint-Maur, this intellectual played a decisive role in the dissemination of knowledge and the preservation of archives.

Posted in: Corporate News
Published Date: 08 April 2024

Jean Mabillon's historical contribution to archiving

Born on 23 November 1632, Jean Mabillon came from a peasant family. Nevertheless, his superiors quickly recognised his talent for learning as he sojourned at successive abbeys following his communion.

In 1664, the Benedictine monk joined the Abbey of Saint-Germain-des-Prés, where he helped Dom Luc d’Achery with the abbey library. He travelled extensively, with the aim of copying the manuscripts preserved in other European abbeys.

From these travels he drew inspiration for his best-known work, the Re Diplomatica (1681). In it, he established the principles for determining the authenticity and dates of medieval manuscripts and in so doing founded the science of diplomatics – the critical study of the formal sources of history.


The diplomatic revolution

The historian’s work formulated the rules for sorting and classifying ancient charters. It also detailed how to distinguish authentic documents from falsified testimonies based on material criteria or knowledge of specific legal procedures. A true revolution in the field of archiving.

By introducing a “discourse on method” on document analysis for the first time, Re Diplomatica became a reference for historians and chartists alike. Historian Marc Bloch considers its publication to be no less than “a great milestone in the history of the human mind”.

Concerned with the accurate transmission of historical knowledge between the Middle Ages and modern times, Mabillon left behind a method and the image of a model scholar. A protégé of Colbert and Louis XIV, he was the first of his congregation to enter the fledgling Académie Royale des Inscriptions et Belles Lettres in 1701, and to introduce historical scholarship.


An illustrious Saint-Maur

Frontal view of Saint-Germain-des-Pres church in Paris, France

His name is also inextricably linked to the Saint-Maur congregation. Created with French First Minister Richelieu’s support to provide France with a “workshop for historical research”, the congregation pioneered research into French ecclesiastical antiquities. This archival effort lasted for a century and a half, until the French Revolution.

Jean Mabillon was one of the most illustrious members of this congregation. He ardently defended the scholarship and the intellectual work of men of the church, writing the Traité des études monastiques (A Treatise on Monastic Studies) in 1691. By the time of his death in 1707, the Saint-Maur congregation numbered 2,200.

During his lifetime, the monk also wrote a number of reference works, essential sources for all historians because of the accuracy of the information they contain. These include Les Oeuvres complètes de saint Bernard (The Complete Works of Saint Bernard) (1677) and Les Actes des saints bénédictins (The Acts of the Benedictine Saints) (1668-1701, 2 vols.), as well as Brèves réflexions sur quelques règles de l’histoire (Brief Reflections on a Few Rules of History).

Today, Jean Mabillon’s remains rest with those of Descartes under a tombstone in the Abbey of Saint-Germain-des-Prés. For in the 19th century, the historian and the philosopher were equally revered.

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