Comments on Les Archives départementales du Nord

*This post contributes to the ongoing efforts of the medieval graduate students to offer insight and advice regarding the archives in which they have conducted research. For the first post, see Andrea Castonguay’s post on the Royal Archive in Morocco:

Les Archives Départmentales du Nord

Les Archives Déprtmentales du Nord (ADN) is one of the major state archives of France. The archive is located in Lille, in the northeastern part of France, right next to the Belgian border. ADN houses many of the most important administrative and economic documents of late medieval Burgundy.

Below, I will elaborate on my experience working in the ADN, offering some practical knowledge needed to make an archival visit productive. I will briefly discuss how to get to the Archives du Nord from Paris and Brussels, and then how to get to the archive proper using the metro system in Lille itself. Additionally, I will explain what is needed to access the archive, how to search for material, how to request that material, and how long the material takes to arrive.

How to Get There

There are two ways to get to Lille from the major travel hubs in France and Belgium, Paris and Brussels. In France, there is a direct train from the Paris Nord station to station Lille Europe. A one way ticket costs around 30 euro depending on the time of year in which you choose to travel. In Belgium, there is an indirect train from Brussels Central to Gare de Lille Flandres, with a switch in Tournai. If you are commuting from the Flemish part of Belgium, you will need to switch trains in Kortrijk/Courtrai. There are bus options for both, but if you are commuting daily to Lille from one of these centralized locations, they are prohibitively long in duration to be worth the euros saved.

Once arriving in Lille, your train will take you to either Lille Europe or Gare de Lille Flandres. Both train stations have metro stops on red line below the stations themselves. Lille Flandres also has a stop on the yellow line, which is a slightly faster trip to the archive. If you are going on the red line, go from Lille Europe or Lille Flandres to the stop Porte des Postes or Montebello. At either stop, the archive is less than a ten minute walk from the station. If you take the yellow line from Lille Flandres, get off at the Porte des Postes stop. At any metro stop in Lille, you can purchase a one-way metro card with two charges for 3.60 euro, or an all-day metro card for 5 euro. For your first few trips, I would suggest going with the all-day pass so that you can return to the city center for a nice lunch. The archive resides on the Rue Saint-Bernard.

How to access the archive, Requesting Manuscripts

As with many other archives in Europe, you must present your passport at your first visit to the archive so that you can get a Carte de Lecteur.  The important part of the archival research card is the Reading Number- it is this number that is required to request manuscripts to view.

You can request manuscripts by emailing the archive at, or going in person. In my experience, Les Archives du Nord are a very prompt archive in bringing requested material. They do not fill manuscript requests once per hour as many archives do in Belgium. It takes around fifteen to twenty minutes for the requested manuscripts to arrive. If you email them beforehand, they will have already pulled all of your manuscripts for the day. In terms of manuscript limits, you may only access twelve manuscripts per day. However, you can put in requests for larger amounts of manuscripts for each day of the week and they will oblige you, as long as your desired documents are not requested by another patron.

To search for manuscripts, you can use the online search engine on the Archives’ website, or the printed inventories at the archive. In my experience, the printed inventories are quicker to use, but it is of course dependent upon personal preference or particular material. If you are planning to look at Burgundian economic sources, looking first at the Les sources de l’histoire économique et sociale du Moyen Age. 2 : Les états de la Maison de Bourgogne edited by Robert-Henri Bautier, Janine Sornay, and Francoise Muret is a must. While Les sources includes economic sources from multiple archives, its regional and chronological listings of sources included in the ADN are immensely helpful.

As an important aside, the archive does not have Wi-Fi. The only internet access allowed in the archive is through their computers on the second floor. Furthermore, these computers can only access the archive’s online database, so you will be without internet while there unless you have data on your phone.

Quality of Life

Unfortunately, there are not many cafes near the ADN- many of the nicer cafes and restaurants are on the north side of the city, near the train stations of Lille Europe and Lille Flandres. You can get a nice lunch and drink at one of the breweries outside of Lille Flandres, or walk about half a mile to the town square to enjoy some of the nicest views in Lille.

What I have found to be the most effective is to bring a lunch to the archive- they have a coffee machine and a vending machine, but nothing more. If you finish your work early for the day, I recommend going early to catch your train and grabbing a bite to eat around the stations.  

Sean Sapp
University of Notre Dame

The Book of Sir John Mandeville and William Langland’s Piers Plowman: An Unlikely Pair?

When first “published” in the fourteenth-century, William Langland’s Piers Plowman and the Mandeville-author’s The Book of Sir John Mandeville, each in their own right, went viral. As the number of extant manuscripts for both works suggests,[1] they took the English nation by storm in the early decades of their reception history, not as instantaneous explosions that quickly fizzle out like a modern day cat video, but as longstanding bestsellers that deeply influenced the course of England’s intellectual and social history. The organizers of the 1381 Peasant’s Revolt, for example, cite Piers in the famous Letters of John Ball.[2] A copy of Mandeville, scholars enjoy noting, was consulted by Christopher Columbus before his voyages, and the text served as a source of inspiration for many explorers in the so-called Age of Exploration. Indeed, great minds read, used, and cited these texts to various ends for centuries, but rarely, it seems, together. Except, that is, among their earliest readers, at least some of whom saw a natural affinity between them.

Given their coterminous popularity in late medieval England, it seems statistically probable that some, and quite possibly many, avid readers of Middle English would encounter, or at least know about both of these texts. While that surmise might sound less than startling, the idea of these two works occupying space in the same book often elicits surprise in conversations about my work. In fact, Piers and Mandeville circulated together in five known manuscript copies. The original discovery of that information by one of my own undergraduate professors, Anne Middleton, effects just such a response as she remarks that Piers’ “most frequent companion must be rather surprising” (105).[3] This discovery forms the basis of my book project, “Reading Beyond the Borders: Literary Geography and the shared reception of Piers Plowman and The Book of Sir John Mandeville,” in which I examine all five manuscripts in order to uncover this textual pairing’s early reception history. For, to the modern reader tied to culturally specific notions of genre and modern methodologies of reading, Piers and Mandeville can indeed appear to make little sense together. However, when read from the perspective of a medieval reader (to the extent that that is possible in 2017), these two works become much more obvious travel companions.

Sir John Mandeville leaving for his journey. This image comes from the only Piers-Mandeville manuscript with a cycle of illustrations. Piers, however, is not illustrated in this book. London, British Library MS Harley 3954, f.1r.

On the surface level, this pairing shares some key narrative features: their narrators, both English, go on pilgrimage with a didactic mission. David Benson also identifies their common purpose as vernacular forms of “public writing” meant to deliver Latinate, clerical learning to a wide lay and religious audience.[4] Dig deeper, and even more thematic connections emerge: both works explore what it means to be English within the large expanse of global Christendom. The very concept of nationhood itself comes under scrutiny as both narrators delve into the ethics of kingship and enter into dialogue with non-Christians.[5] Both works, moreover, present their own progressive and inclusive versions of universal history, apocalypticism, and salvation (with the egregious exception of Mandeville’s severe anti-Semitism). Likewise, because Piers, a dream vision, and Mandeville, a travel narrative, fold innumerable source texts into their own writing, neither one is confined by the constraints of their primary genres. These connections comprise a mere sampling of the many important issues raised when reading Piers and Mandeville in dialogue with each other, rather than as stand alone texts.

Interestingly, medieval scribes and readers themselves brought many of these concerns to my attention. For, in each of the five manuscripts, they repurpose their copies of the Piers-Mandeville pairing according to their own, often polemical, ends. By anthologizing, revising, annotating, editing, illustrating, rubricating, and otherwise designing every detail of their books, they published and/or read their copies of the Piers-Mandeville pairing in unique, individualized manuscript contexts. Additionally, the varied regional, vocational, and personal backgrounds of these readerships color their reader responses, especially in relation to the specific types of political and ecclesiastical corruption they each prioritize. Ultimately, what is perhaps more surprising than the pairing’s codicological companionship is the relevance of its audience’s responses to recent literary studies in the current age of globalization. These readers, in fact, follow the navigation of two English narrators across national and cultural boundaries, interrogating corrupt and stable governments, the value of public institutions, and the need for interfaith dialogue and cultural exchange.

Thus, rather than comprising two unrelated, isolated events in literary history, these two longstanding bestsellers, influencers of major historical events and movements, jointly stimulated the minds of their shared audiences. This book, therefore, demonstrates that these texts’ lasting impacts on social and intellectual history were not exclusive of each other, and neither was their relevance to the medieval readers who read them as ideal companion pieces.

Karrie Fuller
University of Notre Dame/St. Mary’s College

[1] There are nearly sixty manuscripts of Piers Plowman, and, internationally, around three hundred for The Book of Sir John Mandeville. The most popular Middle English version, known as the Defective text, numbers forty-four. A variation of this version is in each of the manuscripts examined for this project.

[2] For just one of many important studies on this topic, see Steven Justice, Writing and Rebellion: England in 1381 (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1996).

[3] Anne Middleton, “The Audience and Public of Piers Plowman,” Middle English Alliterative Poetry and its Literary Background, ed. David Lawton (Cambridge: D.S. Brewer, 1982), 101-123, 147-154.

[4] David Benson, Public Piers Plowman: Modern Scholarship and Late Medieval English Culture (University Park: Pennsylvania State University Press, 2004).

[5] There is a large body of literature on what the concept of “nation” [natio in Latin, “nacioun” in Middle English] meant in the Middle Ages. For an introduction to the subject, see Kathy Lavezzo’s edited volume, Imagining a Medieval English Nation (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2003).

The Colors of the Pearl-Gawain Manuscript: The Questions that Launched a Scientific Analysis

For this school year’s exciting inaugural post, Maidie Hilmo shares her request for a scientific analysis of the Pearl-Gawain manuscript (British Library, MS Cotton Nero A.x), containing the unique copy of the Middle English poems: Pearl, Cleanness, Patience, and Sir Gawain and the Green Knight. It shows the kind of questions that help gain access to the viewing of original manuscripts and can result in a technological investigation of specific details. Bringing together science and art history, Hilmo has uncovered evidence that “the scribe was also the draftsperson of the underdrawings. It appears that the painted layers of the miniatures were added by one or more colorists, while the large flourished initials beginning the text of the poems were executed by someone with a different pigment not used in the miniatures.” The results of this request to the British Library—comprising the detailed report on the pigments by Dr. Paul Garside and a set of enhanced images by Dr. Christina Duffy, the Imaging Scientist — will become available on the Cotton Nero A.x Project website and, selectively, in publications by Hilmo, including: “Did the Scribe Draw the Miniatures in British Library, MS Cotton Nero A.x (The Pearl-Gawain Manuscript)?,” forthcoming in the Journal of the Early Book Society; and “Re-conceptualizing the Poems of the Pearl-Gawain Manuscript,” forthcoming in Manuscript Studies. To learn more, check out her special project here on our site.