Working in the Archives – 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

What Lies Beneath: The Reliability of Watermarks as a Method for Telling Time

Rijksarchief te Gent K91 1r.

As a child of the 1990s, I remember well when US currency turned into a magic trick to show your other classmates in school: hold a bill up to the light and a president’s face would stare back at you. This “trick” was simply a watermark. In the late 1990s, American bills began to be printed with watermarks, those presidents’ faces, to deter counterfeiters. The watermark is not a modern innovation, nor was it created to prevent counterfeiting. It was a medieval creation, one used primarily to show the maker of the paper, but also the place in which the paper was made, and (less often) when the paper was made.

For this blog, I would like to discuss the risks of this third purpose of medieval watermarking- using watermarking as a means to date paper. I will rely upon two manuscript collections of the Rijksarchief te Gent, numbers K91 and K98, to demonstrate the uncertainty of watermark dating. Holding K98 is a “verzameling watermerken”- a collection of medieval watermarks beginning in 1386 and ending around 1500. The watermarks come from the Abbey of Saint Bavo’s in Gent, a prominent and powerful abbey within the medieval city.

The watermark collection is indeed just that- a bundle of loose leaves of paper, that for the most part, are not medieval at all. In examining the bundle of paper, one sees watermarks with an assigned date of the mark in the top left corner of the page, ranging from the late fourteenth to the late fifteenth century. However, most of the paper upon which these watermarks are imprinted or drawn are from the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, with some drawings added later on carbon paper in the twentieth century.

Rijksarchief te Gent K98 1386.

As one can see below, the watermarks have been impressed on the paper, with the top sheet having an outline of the watermark done in pencil, and later sheets having only the watermark itself.

Rijksarchief te Gent 1389.
Rijksarchief te Gent 1389-1.
Rijksarchief te Gent 1390.
Rijksarchief te Gent 1390-1.


The archival inventory reads as if this collection of watermarks has been consistently compiled from the late fourteenth century by St. Bavo’s monks as a means to keep up with the numerous watermarks employed by the abbey.  Instead, the collection is a later, early modern creation used a means of dating the watermarks used in earlier centuries. But how effective and accurate are these watermark dates? Thankfully for our purpose here, the manuscript K91 helps to answer this issue. K91 contains the yearly accounts of St. Bavo’s from the late 1300s to the late 1400s, allowing us to see how well these watermarks, dated by year, correspond to yearly entries in other documents from St. Bavo’s in the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries.

Rijksarchief te Gent 1480.

Above, I have included the watermark for the year from 1480. It is the letter “P,” with a cross attached to the top of the letter and a bifurcated descender. According to the watermarking dating system of St. Bavo’s, this letter should only appear after 1480. However, in consulting the K91 account book (1384-1417), I found something quite different. The “P” first arises in the year 1402 of the accounts, a whole 78 years before it appears in the watermark compilation.

Rijksarchief te Gent K91 32r.
Rijksarchief te Gent K91 35r.

The clearest example is the “P” on the opening page of the account for the year 1403, the image K91 35r. just above. Perhaps this “P” is an exception? A dating oversight by the monks? In fact, it is the rule. Throughout the years for which account books survive, (1384-1417 & 1461-1498), very rarely do the accounts line up with the prescribed watermarks for that year. One watermark nearly hits the collection date, the watermark of 1395, the bow. The bow does not occur in 1395, but it does show up three years later in 1398, a much more reasonable margin of error.

Rijksarchief te Gent K98 1395.
Rijksarchief te Gent K91 23r.

The explanation for the inconsistency of the bow watermark is quite simple and known to many medievalists already. The monks of St. Bavo’s bought paper from a particular paper maker and they used that paper for many years. This is evident in the appearance of multiple watermarks in the same year of accounts (see the year 1403 in K91). The problematic example of the letter “P” presents a larger issue because the watermark appears far earlier than it should. It is not the only example of this phenomenon either- the watermark of 1410, a crown with a cross, first appears in the account books in 1407.

Rijksarchief te Gent K98 1410.
Rijksarchief te Gent K91 60r.

Based on the examples above, the efforts of the monks of St. Bavo’s were misguided in their attempt to coherently construct a means of dating their earlier documents. We know the monks were not papermakers themselves, so they did not have access to the wire frames with watermark outlines. These monks used their own watermarked documents to create their dating system, but they certainly did not rely upon the account books. If they had done so, they could not have drawn the conclusions they did. Perhaps they used a no-longer extant corpus of charters, but even in that case, the medieval monks of St. Bavo’s did not use watermarked paper in such a systematic and chronologically coherent way. They used the paper when they needed it- sometimes this was paper from decades earlier, sometimes this was new paper.

Further Reading-

Brown, Michelle P. Understanding Illuminated Manuscripts: A Guide to Technical Terms. Los Angeles: Getty Publications, 1994.

Briquest Online-


What’s in a name?

Titular Confusion in the Economic Records of Late Medieval Burgundy

Queen Elizabeth II. The Earl of Grantham. The King in the North. Rank and titles from popular television shows like The Crown, Downton Abbey, and Game of Thrones capture the modern imagination with images of conniving courts, opulent balls, and fancy dinners. But what did rank and title signify to the medieval mind? This question has provided the backdrop for some of the most prominent works of medieval scholarship, and the question has continued to interest and influence current work. One medieval society, in particular, had a healthy respect for, and perhaps an unhealthy obsession with, titles and status: late medieval Burgundy, the Grand Duchy of the West.

Burgundy earned its name of “Grand Duchy,” by the power of its statecraft and economy. At any given point, the Duke had a massive entourage of counselors. For major affairs of state, such as making peace with France, the numbers could go into the hundreds of men (Russell, Congress of Arras). The Duke kept very careful economic records of his payments to his subordinates at court, in what is called the Recette Générale. In studying the Recette, one is immediately struck by the length and structure of the titles of each person receiving payment. Titles mattered to the people of Burgundy. The order in which their titles were listed mattered too:

Archives départementales du Nord série B 1945, f. 330v.

The picture above is a standard entry in the Recette Générale. It reads (translated from middle French) “to the Reverend father in God, the bishop of Bethlehem, counselor and confessor to monseigneur the duke.” The order of the confessor’s titles here is consistent with the economic records in Lille: first came the appellation, here “reverend father in God,” but it could also be something like “sir,” or “my lord.” Following next generally was the name of the individual, which is omitted in this instance. Luckily we do know the name of this confessor was Friar Laurens Pignon from payments in earlier records. After the name came the confirmation of any title held by the payee and the place it was held. Here it is “the bishop of Bethlehem.” Lastly, the record includes the position (if any) the person in the entry held at court: “counselor and confessor of monseigneur the duke.”

With such careful attention placed on the titles, it is especially interesting when the accounts strayed from their standard formula. One mild variation is the exclusion of the episcopal title in payment to the confessor Pignon from two years earlier:

Archives départementales du Nord série B 1942, f. 56r.

As one can see, the expected “reverend father in God, the bishop” is missing. The receiver general has replaced the longer title with an abbreviated “monseigneur of Bethlehem.” Such a title does not indicate his episcopal role, although the normal positions at court are included, “counselor and confessor.” The omission of the first half of the bishop’s title is not especially surprising here. The confessor had appeared multiple times earlier in the accounts with his full title included (f. 27v-29r). In all likelihood, the explanation here is an instance of rushed record keeping. There was only one monsieur of Bethlehem, after all.

A more interesting “error” in the accounts concerning the confessor occurs in only one year of the Burgundian accounts: 1432, the same year that Pignon transferred from his old diocese of Bethlehem to the more prestigious diocese of Auxerre.

Archives départementales du Nord série B 1945, f. 60v.

Here, the title proceeds according to the expected formula: “to the Reverend father in god, the bishop of Auxerre, counselor and confessor of monseigneur the duke.” According to the careful naming conventions of the Recette Générale, the title of Auxerre should be found throughout the rest of the year. In fact, the opposite is true. The title of Auxerre appears one additional time in the accounts of 1432. However, the Duke of Burgundy pays Pignon ten more times in the year, always with the title of “Reverend father in god, the bishop of BETHLEHEM, counselor and confessor of monseigneur the duke.”

Archives départementales du Nord série B 1945, f. 103r.

The reversion by the Recette Générale to Pignon’s old title is undoubtedly an aberration- in the following years until his death in 1449, Pignon is identified as the Bishop of Auxerre. More importantly, the title of Bishop of Bethlehem no longer correctly referred to him- A fellow Dominican by the name of Dominic filled the post in 1433 (Eubel, Hierarchia Catholica vol. 2, 118).

There are a number of explanations for the oversight. The easiest one to dismiss would be the intentional disrespect of Friar Pignon by the Recette Générale by referring to him in a less prestigious way. No surviving evidence suggests that Pignon ever had issues with the Duke’s accountants. Indeed, he even helped them perform their duties in rare instances. Another explanation is that the members of the Recette Générale did not know of Pignon’s promotion- there were many members of the accounting body, sometimes with multiple receiver generals in a year. Perhaps the lower levels of the administration simply did not know of Pignon’s advancement to a higher bishopric. A third possibility is that the Recette Générale knew Pignon too well- again, Pignon shows up in the economic records every year he was in the Duke’s service, from 1412-1449. In 1432, he had been at court for 20 years and had been the Bishop of Bethlehem for almost a decade. To my mind, this is the most sensible and likely explanation.

This example of Laurens Pignon is meant to show something simple about the use of titles in the medieval period. Even a culture highly cognizant of standing, title, and rank made mistakes in this regard. The members of the Recette Générale knew Laurens Pignon, and had known him for many years. To them, he was the Bishop of Bethlehem, the counselor and confessor to the Duke. The promotion to Auxerre undoubtedly felt real to the confessor, but to the rest of court, it perhaps took more time to register.

Further Reading-

Blockmans, Wim, Antheun Janse (eds.). Showing Status: Representation of Social Positions in the Late Middle Ages. Turnhout: Brepols, 1999.

Duby, Georges. The Three Orders: Feudal Society Reimagined. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1982.

Eubel, Konrad. Hierarchia Catholica medii aevi vol. 2. Regensburg: Monasterii Sumptibus et typis librariae Regensbergianae, 1913.

Russell, Joycelyne Gledhill. The Congress of Arras, 1435: A Study in Medieval Diplomacy. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1955.