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  • Francisque Michel: médiéviste, bibliomane romantique par Didier Barrière
  • R. Howard Bloch
Francisque Michel: médiéviste, bibliomane romantique. Par Didier Barrière. (Gens singuliers.) Bassac: Plein Chant, 2014. 176 pp., ill.

Francisque Michel, a pioneering medievalist and one of the most prolific writers and editors of the nineteenth century, produced some fifty-three works between 1830 and 1873 on topics as varied as L’Histoire des races maudites de la France et de l’Espagne (Paris: Franck, 1847), Recherches sur le commerce, la fabrication et l’usage des étoffes de soie, d’or et d’argent en Occident pendant le moyen âge (Paris: Imprimerie de Crapelet, 1852–1854), and Le Pays Basque, sa population, sa langue, ses mœurs, sa littérature et sa musique (Paris: Firmin Didot, 1857). He is best known, of course, for his trip to England at age twenty-four, in search of Old French manuscripts in British libraries, and for his discovery in Oxford’s Bodleian Library of the MS Digby 23, La Chanson de Roland. He published the first edition of France’s national epic in 1837. Didier Barrière’s book on Michel traces the story of his childhood in Lyon, his parents’ broken marriage, his move to Paris where he enrolled in the École des chartes and managed to fail the competition for a scholarship. An inveterate researcher with a passion for the Middle Ages, Michel set out as an independent scholar. He sought out such early medievalists as Gervais de La Rue, François Raynouard, and Pierre Danou. He frequented the salon of Charles Nodier, Director of the Bibliothèque de l’Arsenal, a great bibliophile and source of books, the subject of two earlier books by Barrière. Michel was indefatigable, unstoppable: ‘This toad of a Michel’, exclaimed the orientalist Eugène Burnouf, ‘he just won’t die’ (qtd on p. 9). Eventually, Michel had published so many of the texts of national patrimony sought by the manuscript-hungry July Men of 1830 — François Guizot, Charles Fauriel — that the government granted him a teaching post at the Université de Bordeaux. There, Michel’s courses attracted so few students that university officials reacted favourably to his requests to absent himself in search of more texts to edit, and eventually forced him into early retirement. Like many of Michel’s books, which are documentary compilations, the [End Page 236] present volume consists of some of his fictional writings, an essay on the epic and one on the British Library, a bibliography of his writings and of writings about him, letters to the Minister of Education, and reproductions of the frontispieces of some of the typographically fascinating books that the bibliomane produced. In its narrative parts, this book is somewhat unbalanced: we learn more about the famous case of Michel’s arrest and trial in London for harassing a chambermaid in a London hotel than we do about his discovery of La Chanson de Roland, which is little more than mentioned in passing. But then again, much of Michel’s story has already been told in essays and chapters by Claudine Wilson, William Roach, Gerald Brault, Keith Busby, Michel Espagne, and Mark Burde; and so Barrière’s Francisque Michel has the virtue of being the first volume devoted exclusively to this incredibly accomplished, visionary, courageous medievalist of the founding decades of the discipline.

R. Howard Bloch
Yale University


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