The Amazing and Unique Library at Saint Omer

Written by on August 22, 2014 in Book Reviews And Interviews, Nord-Pas de Calais

st omer library

When you enter the modern doorway of the municipal library in Saint Omer, Nord-Pas de Calais, you will think it just like any other library in any other town in France – but you would be wrong. This library houses a secret, a room that is home to some of the oldest books in the world…

The Bibliotheque de Saint Omer is tucked away down a side street off the main square in the town. Most of us would not look twice.  There is nothing unusual about its modern glass doors and tiled walls – it is a library, no different from thousands of libraries you’ll find in towns and cities all over France.

This library though has a stunning secret. A surprise that will have book lovers the world over astounded.

The centuries old books in the library at Saint Omer

Saint Omer libary

Mount the stairs to the first floor and the book lending section and turn to the right down a short corridor and there you will find a long wood-panelled room, known as the Salle Aubin, part of the old Jesuit College of St Omer. Inside there are 35,000 books including some of the oldest books in the world dating back to the 7th Century.

It is a unique collection, put together over centuries by the monks of the Saint Bertin Monastery that was once one of the Gothic wonders of France. Founded by monks in the 7th Century, this was where St Thomas à Becket sought refuge in 1165. It is almost certain he would have sat and read some of the books that were there at that time. St Bertin was largely destroyed during the French Revolution but the ruins remain, testament to its former glory. The prized book collection was miraculously saved when it was confiscated during the French Revolution. The books became public property and they still are.

st omer jesuit collegeThe Jesuit College which houses the collection today, dates back to the beginning of the 16th Century and after being abandoned for many years is undergoing a restoration programme.

The 35,000 books and manuscripts in the special collection are available to read on request (via the administrators, see below). Or, like me, you can just look at them on their shelves and admire these aged tomes. Leather bound books, huge books, many in Latin, some in old French, others old English, some are mere fragments that are more than 1500 years old. Books that were lovingly collected and cared for by the monks from the 7th Century to the 18th Century. Today they are in astonishingly good condition, some from the 9th Century look almost new, cared for by the dedicated library staff.

Amongst the collection is a Gutenberg Bible dating back to around 1450. Only 21 complete copies survive, and they are considered to be among the most valuable books in the world. I asked Monsieur Cordonnier, who is one of the knowledgeable staff at the library if I could see it. He laughed and told me “at 60 million Euros value, that book is locked away in a vault”.

st omer library old booksHundreds of the books are being scanned and stored digitally for all to see, the Director of the library Madame Ducroquet told me around 600 of the precious books have been earmarked for the first phase. In Medieval times, those books were considered amongst the most important of the day. At that time Saint Omer was called “La Ville aux Beaux Cloches” (The village of the beautiful bells) and was one of the 10 most important cities in Europe.

Although there are other remarkable book collections in the north of France, all but one or two of them are behind closed doors – this collection is there for all to see and it is quite astonishing.

If you want to see one of the books up close – you’ll need to contact the staff via the website below and request permission, but I recommend if you visit the town, that you simply pop in and admire the heaving bookshelves and the regular exhibitions held there.

Read how a rare copy of Shakespeare’s plays dated 1623, on the shelf for 4 centuries was discovered in 2014. 

Visit this unique library at 40 rue Gambetta, 62500 Saint-Omer (approximately 30 minutes from Calais port).

Opening hours: Tuesday, Wednesday, Friday and Saturday 9am-12am and 13h-18h

Website: www.bibliotheque-agglo-stomer.fr

Tags: ,

Related Articles

Cambrai Tank 1917 Museum Cambrai France

From Lille to Cambrai is just a short trip. Go in time for lunch at Cambrai’s Brasserie Beatus in the Avenue de Paris and you’re in for a real treat.  Peter Jones travelled there to discover more about a World War I tank called Deborah. Not any old tank, but the only one that survives from […]

Continue Reading

What to see and do in Abbeville, northern France

If you head off roughly westbound towards Normandy from the Calais ferry port, you will almost certainly bump into a town called Abbeville. It’s a good place to stop for a break and reflect on the past. Abbeville’s historic architecture You might see the Belfry poking its nose above the horizon, it is amongst the […]

Continue Reading

Review of Minced, Marinated and Murdered by Noël Balen and Vanessa Barrot

What do you get when you have two authors, Noël Balen a writer and musician with over thirty mystery books to his name, and his corporate lawyer wife Vanessa Barrot who originates from a family of Parisian restaurant owners? The answer is: a great murder mystery story set in Lyon, the second largest city in […]

Continue Reading

A day with Marie-Antoinette book review

Marie-Antoinette, that’s all you have to say and most people will know immediately that you’re talking of the Queen of France who lost her head. She is a legend more than 200 years after her death. Famous for her fashion and her farmhouse at the Chateau of Versailles. Famous for her scented gloves and silk […]

Continue Reading

Le Touquet Paris-Plage bags of charm at the seaside

Le Touquet is a small seaside town with around 5000 inhabitants though in summer months, that number swells to a whopping 100,000 as this place is hugely popular with Parisians – hence it’s full name Le Touquet Paris-Plage, the Paris beach. An all year-round resort, at Christmas visitors flock to enjoy the lights, the market […]

Continue Reading

Subscribe

If you enjoyed this article, subscribe now to receive more just like it.

Subscribe via RSS Feed

Comments are closed.

Top