A Bespoke Breviary Edition from Provence

By Jamie Cumby

Thanks for your interest in Preserving the World’s Rarest Books, a project where we partner with libraries around the world to discover the importance of their collections. With this blog series, we hope to provide you with glimpses into the treasures of these collections and the importance of preserving our cultural heritage.

The Bibliothèque Méjanes in Aix-en-Provence has a wonderful collection with an extraordinary richness of rare and ephemeral items. Among its rarities is a Latin breviary in octavo, the Breviarium ad usum Montis Majoris USTC 112236, Bibliothèque Méjanes Rés. D. 0101).  A breviary is a type of liturgical book that contained the daily prayers to be said by members of the clergy.  The copy in the Bibliothèque Méjanes is the only copy listed in the USTC from a 1514 edition printed in the Rhône Valley city of Valence for the Montmajeur monastery, located outside Arles. Its printer, Jean Belon, was the first printer in Valance, where he operated a press from 1504 to 1522. He had moved to Valence from Privas, a smaller town in the region. Much of Belon’s work came from printing for nearby religious institutions, which was a popular business model for early printers operating outside of major cities.

Belon’s Montmajour breviary required no additional work by the monks to complete it.  It was printed in red and black, which mimicked the rubrication common in many manuscript breviaries.  Also, unlike some earlier examples of the genre, in this edition there were no spaces to draw initials or supply other decoration.  Instead, Belon included rough decorative woodcut illustrations and woodcut initials, which he reused throughout the text.


French Breviary
Image courtesy of M. Frédéric Prémartin, Bibliothèque Méjanes


These were books in frequent use, particularly small-format copies like this octavo, which clergymen carried with them in the course of their religious work. The Montmajour breviaries were relatively long books of 433 leaves, requiring over 50 sheets of paper each.  However, because they were portable, almost every copy from the edition was likely used to death.  Indeed, we can see signs of heavy use on this copy’s sixteenth-century binding.


French Breviary binding
Image courtesy of M. Frédéric Prémartin, Bibliothèque Méjanes


Another factor that makes this breviary rare is its initial print run.  It was intended for use at the Montmajour monastery, specifically, and the abbot himself would have commissioned its printing.  Unlike some of the standard Roman breviaries printed in Europe’s major cities, the Breviarium ad usum Montis Majoris was a bespoke imprint. Though very few of these contracts survive from the first hundred years of printing, we know that the institution commissioning the print run was also its consumer.  Because the monastery subsidized the cost of the edition, we have little way of knowing the actual size of the print run, which could have been very small.

This particular edition is one example of many similar works printed for bishoprics and religious houses.  These were popular up until the mid-sixteenth century before the Catholic Reformation made them not only obsolete, but heterodox.  In the wake of the Council of Trent, the Holy See issued a reformed breviary in July 1568. The bull Quod a nobis that served as the 1568 liturgy’s preface withdrew approval from any breviary issued in the last 200 years. This meant that almost all local bishoprics and monasteries, Montmajour included, had to exchange their own liturgies for the Papal-sanctioned editions printed by Paolo Manuzio and Christophe Plantin.

The Méjanes’ unique copy of this breviary is an important piece of evidence in the history of provincial printing.  Well-used editions like this one, for which not many copies existed to begin with, can disappear completely.  Where single copies do survive, they shed light not only on the daily routines of religious houses, but also on how small presses like Belon’s tried to sustain themselves.


Jamie Cumby is a PhD student at the University of St Andrews.  She is currently a Senior Editor on Preserving the World’s Rarest Books, and has been affiliated with the USTC project since beginning her PhD in 2014.  Her ongoing work explores the development of the publishing industry in Lyon before the Wars of Religion, with special attention to the Compagnie des libraires.  She is also St Andrews’ contributor to the Material Evidence in Incunabula database. You can follow her on Twitter at @JECumby.

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