2018 September Le Cabinet de la Bibliotheque de Sainte Geneviève

Cabinet de la Bibliotheque de Sainte Geneviève


Claude du Molinet, Le Cabinet de la Bibliotheque de Sainte Geneviève (Paris, 1692), Title Page.


The Cabinet of the Library of Sainte Geneviève was an incredible collection of curious and fascinating items curated by Claude du Molinet (1620-1687), during his twelve-year tenure as librarian. After the creation of a space for a proper library at Sainte Geneviève in 1675, Molinet, a Regular Canon of the abbey, was placed in charge of directing and maintaining the collection of texts.[1] He decided that he would ‘accompany it [the library] with a Cabinet of rare and curious pieces, which looked upon the Study, and which can serve.’[2] Molinet assembled an array of items to accompany the library, including antiquities of the religions of the Christians, Egyptians, and Romans, items representing the burial practices of ancient societies, weights, medals, monnoyes, engraved antique stones, minerals, talismans, lamps, foreign fruits, exquisite plants, shells, and unusual animals. He focused on collecting objects not based on their ability to instill wonder, but rather based on whether they would be useful to the subjects Molinet deemed important: the sciences, mathematics, astronomy, optics, geometry, and above all, history.


Not to be confused with the resplendent Library of Sainte Geneviève of modern Paris, the library in Molinet’s charge was that of the Saint Genevieve abbey. The library and the abbey’s history in the century just before Claude du Molinet’s tenure there was tumultuous. During the sixteenth century, the abbey became involved with the political factions contending for the French crown, at first siding with the Catholic League and then with Henry of Navarre (1553-1610).[3] In doing so, the abbey disregarded its monastic rules and religious vocation. At the same time, the library began to gradually disappear, with some of it being sold and the rest of it being lost to our modern historical records. When the abbot died in 1619, the library of the Saint Genevieve abbey had been entirely emptied of its manuscripts and books.[4] Soon after in 1624, Cardinal Richelieu (1585-1642) appointed François de la Rochefoucauld (1613-1680) to carry out a reform of the abbey.[5] Having noticed the abbey’s lack of a library, Rochefoucauld donated six hundred volumes from his personal collection to fill the vacancy.[6] This donation was the beginning of the Library of Sainte Geneviève as it is known today.


Claude du Molinet, Le Cabinet de la Bibliotheque de Sainte Geneviève (Paris, 1692), Plate 1.


Claude du Molinet, one of the first few librarians after the reformation of the abbey, believed that if the new library was being reconstituted as a seventeenth-century scholarly collection, it should possess an assemblage of items that might also be used for intellectual research. Molinet pieced together a ‘cabinet of curiosities’ or a small collection of objects thought to be extraordinary and unique by the individual gathering the items. These cabinets, also called ‘wonder rooms’ or ‘Wunderkammer,’ were early predecessors of our modern-day museums. The act of collecting was a vital social practice during the early modern period because it served as a junction for a wide range of cultural forces and practices.[7] The study and collection of items could be a display of aristocratic standing, the result of a broad interest in rarities and wonders, or the fruits of an individual’s travels. Nevertheless, each individual motivation for collecting shared the fundamental desire to harness wonder as a form of political and social asset.[8] Curiosity was considered an important attribute for an accomplished gentleman to possess and the acquisition of awe-inspiring objects was a physical manifestation of an individual’s curiosity.[9] By possessing a cabinet of curiosities or by familiarizing one’s self with a catalogue of such a collection, an individual could bolster their conversation with important figures to win friends and influence.


Claude du Molinet, Le Cabinet de la Bibliotheque de Sainte Geneviève (Paris, 1692), Plate 14, Roman Monnoyes.


At first it may seem strange that a Regular Canon of an abbey would be so invested in the creation of a collection of curiosities, particularly when he was charged with the maintenance and expansion of the Library of Sainte Geneviève. However, in the time period in which the abbey was reformed and the library reestablished, Europe was in the throes of the Catholic Counter Reformation.[10] It was important for strongholds of the Catholic faith to not only be pure and devoted in their duties, but to have the academic resources to become the intellectual arms in the fight against heresy.[11] While books, manuscripts, and other texts would have been valuable resources, a collection of tangible objects would have equally beneficial, particularly the cabinet’s assortment of Christian antiquities, Papal medals, and coins depicting the chronology of Popes.


The cabinet of the library of Sainte Geneviève would have also been of great value to the abbey in the sense that it would have attracted ‘curiosi’ to their library. Curiosi were aristocrats, gentlemen, and aspiring gentlemen dispersed throughout Europe that often converged for society meetings or to view the collections and cabinets of their fellow gentry members.[12] The members of the Sainte Geneviève abbey would have appreciated any influence and authority granted to them by prominent visitors and patrons, especially during a time when the Catholic church was reasserting its dominance in the eastern hemisphere. An interest in natural history and the sciences during this time period was not necessarily seen as heretical, but rather as a means to an end. The political and religious worlds were very closely intertwined. Citation of authority and proof of precedence, particularly with the reserves of a library or a cabinet of curiosities would have carried great weight in a war of words against those who opposed Catholicism. Therefore, curiosity in the seventeenth century and indulgence in the pursuit of knowledge was allowed to ‘play the same role as would the sublime in the eighteenth century: it was the standard of appreciation and art.’[13]


Claude du Molinet, Le Cabinet de la Bibliotheque de Sainte Geneviève (Paris, 1692), Plate 41, Unusual Animals.


Whether it was intentional or not, curiosity proved to be a useful tool for the Catholic church. It was believed that ‘true wonder’ could be felt by Christian curiosi who observed the ‘true Works and wonderful Contrivances of the Supreme Author.’[14] A considerable portion of Molinet’s collection consisted of objects of the natural sciences from all over the world. Christian curiosi could marvel at God’s incredible authority while observing the objects that Molinet had on display. For instance, a unicorn’s horn,* the man-shaped roots of a mandrake plant, or the head of a sea-going creature with enormous tusks protruding from its mouth would have excellent examples of the phenomena given to the Earth by its Creator. The admiration of God’s works was a religious duty and the viewing of natural curiosities led to the appreciation of the wisdom and power of God.[15]


Claude du Molinet, Le Cabinet de la Bibliotheque de Sainte Geneviève (Paris, 1692), Plate 4, The Cabinet. **


Claude du Molinet’s Le Cabinet de la Bibliotheque de Sainte Genevieve is an incredibly unique book in the sense that it depicts the cabinet of a library and a religious abbey, rather than a cabinet of a gentleman, king, or other wealthy individual. It is a compilation of Molinet’s catalogue of his prized cabinet and several illustrations of its contents which was published in 1692. The text itself contains three copperplates of the abbey’s library and four copperplates of the cabinet itself. The book is divided into two parts: The first being a section detailing the collection’s religious antiquities, medals, minerals, and other non-organic specimens while the second is a section detailing the collection’s rare and unusual animals, fruits, and plants. The catalogue, along with the cabinet, was one of Molinet’s most important personal endeavors. The caption beneath his portrait reads ‘Et ce que son portrait n’offre point à vos yeux, vous le découvrirés en lisant cet ouvrage’ or ‘what his portrait does not offer to your eyes, you discover them by reading this book.’[16]


While many of the items collected for the cabinet of the library of Sainte Geneviève no longer reside within the library’s walls, Claude du Molinet’s painstaking efforts to systematize his accumulation of treasures allows modern day readers a glimpse inside the cabinet when it was at its most impressive. Being familiar with the items that were collected by academics and prominent men during the early modern period allows us to better understand the cultures, beliefs, and practices of this era.


Claude du Molinet, Le Cabinet de la Bibliotheque de Sainte Geneviève (Paris, 1692), Portrait of Claude du Molinet.


*For more information about mythical creatures, particularly those featured in books from Edward Worth’s collection, please visit our Mythical Creatures exhibition webpage under the “Exhibitions” tab. This will be launched on 21 September 2018 to mark Culture Night.


**Several items featured in this copperplate are part of the small remaining collection of curiosities at the library of Sainte Geneviève. Photos of these items can be seen on this webpage: https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/Category:Cabinet_of_curiosities_of_Biblioth%C3%A8que_Sainte_Genevi%C3%A8ve

[1] Claude du Molinet, Le Cabinet de la Bibliotheque de Sainte Genevieve (Paris, France: Chez Antoine Dezallier, ruë Saint Jacques, á la Gouronne d’or, 1692): pp. Eloge Due Pere Du Molinet

[2] Ibid: Preface.

[3] E. Stewart Saunders, “University of Paris Libraries: Sainte Genevieve Library,” Purdue E-Pubs Libraries Research Publications, no. 24 (2001): p. 3.

[4] Ibid: p. 3.

[5] Claude du Molinet, Le Cabinet de la Bibliotheque de Sainte Genevieve: Preface.

[6] Saunders, “University of Paris Libraries: Sainte Genevieve Library:” p. 3.

[7] Marjorie Swann, Curiosities and Texts: The Culture of Collecting in Early Modern England (Philadelphia: University of Philadelphia Press, 2001): p. 16.

[8] Ibid: p. 26.

[9] James A. Secord, E. C. Spary, and Nicholas Jardine, eds., “The Culture of Curiosity,” in Cultures of Natural History (Cambridge; New York: Cambridge University Press, 1996): p. 75.

[10] E. Stewart Saunders, “University of Paris Libraries: Sainte Genevieve Library:” p. 4.

[11] Ibid: p. 4.

[12] Secord, Spary, and Jardine, “The Culture of Curiosity:” p. 75.

[13] Ibid: p. 76.

[14] Ibid: p. 81.

[15] Ibid: p. 81-82.

[16] Claude du Molinet, Le Cabinet de la Bibliotheque de Sainte Genevieve: Portrait.


Text: Ms Michelle White, Fourth Year Student, Wake Forest University,

North Carolina, USA.

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