Matchmaking without a Date: the Survival of a Popular French Romance

By Isabelle Riquet |

Within book history, the Bonfons publishing dynasty is often used as an example for the problems that arise from judging print output on extant copies. Survival bias affects our picture of the Bonfons’ output more than most because they made a name for themselves by printing works aimed toward a popular market, many of which are now lost to us. Despite the lack of surviving copies, auction catalogues have been rich resources for the importance of the Bonfons in the booktrade and the diffusion of their books.

Like many of the great French publishing families, the Bonfons family business started with an advantageous marriage. Jean Bonfons took over his father-in-law Pierre Sergent’s firm in 1547 and his son would later marry into Parisian bookseller Jean Ruelle’s family. As publishers, the men and women of the Bonfons family worked within a rich network of printers and booksellers and would often delegate the production of their books to unnamed printers. It is not just the names of subcontractors that are omitted from Bonfons publications, but often other important bibliographic data, like the date of publication. Given that most of the Bonfons’ editions are not dated, we can assume that it was the publisher’s choice. Perhaps by leaving off the date, the Bonfons family sought to expand the shelf-life of their popular print. While the choice not to date their works may have been a pragmatic business move, it complicates bibliographic studies of this important publishing firm.

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Undated title page from Rennes Bibliothèque Municipale Rés. 15501. Image courtesy of Rennes Bibliothèque Municipale.

Half of the Bonfons’ productions during the 1550s was dedicated to chivalric stories such as Les faits et gestes du noble et vaillant chevalier Bertrand du Guesclin (The deeds and gestures of the noble and valiant knight Bertrand du Guesclin). Bertrand du Guesclin (1320 – 1380) was a Breton knight and the chancellor of the king of France, Charles V. Du Guesclin notably served the King during the Hundred Years’ War and the War of the Breton Succession. From the incunabular period onward, du Guesclin’s noble deeds were continually reprinted, but despite this incredible popularity, the USTC recorded only one copy of Bonfons’ edition. This sole survivor has been held in the ancient library of Rennes since the nineteenth century. Worn and well-read, the book shows how influential the figure of du Guesclin was for the Bretons, and how deeply attached he was to their regional history and cultural identity.

Given du Guesclin’s status in the popular imagination of early modern France, I was curious about the other surviving copies of his story. Surprisingly, I came across another copy of du Guesclin’s story printed by Bonfons in the Bibliothèque nationale de France (BnF), which had been digitized on Gallica. It is conceivable that over their many active decades, the Bonfons printed this popular romance multiple times and the BnF copy is simply another edition. But, after closely comparing the Gallica images to the Rennes copy, it is clear that they are from the same print run. Therefore, Les faits et gestes du noble et vaillant chevalier Bertrand du Guesclin has a match!

Leaf G7v of Rennes Bibliothèque Municipale Rés. 15501 and BnF RES-Y2-625. Image courtesy of Rennes Bibliothèque Municipale and Gallica.

When we compare leaf G7v, for example, it is clear that these two works were both printed with a woodcut showing the same cracks and breaks, but also the uneven inking of the bottom corner of the text hints that they were pulled from the press in quick succession. Most bibliographies are created by compiling and matching long lists of imprint data, meaning that it is the prestigious volumes, which carefully credit and date their work, that are best documented. Thanks to the proliferation of digital facsimiles, projects like the USTC can continue to build and deepen our understanding of the European print market by linking copies that otherwise might not be positively matched.

The addition of a second copy also enriches our understanding of the reception history of Bonfons’ romance. As we can observe at the bottom of the title page of the Parisian copy, this book was owned by ‘Stephanus Baluzius Tutelensis’, or Etienne Baluze (1630-1718). He was a French librarian, historian, teacher and a lawyer under the reign of Louis XIV. Baluze was interested in the history of the Church and of other civil and religious French institutions. His book collection included a great variety of medieval books: Church Fathers and institutional histories, but also biographies of famous French people like du Guesclin. It is noteworthy that this important second copy was preserved in the library of a serious and professional collector. Cheap and entertaining productions, like this one, often do not survive simply because they were not housed in the types of libraries that formed the foundational collections of our current research institutions.

Undated title page from Bibliothèque nationale de France RES-Y2-625. Image courtesy of Gallica.

The quality of the printing also may help to explain why it is difficult to find other surviving copies. The reuse of older illustrations and the uneven inking in both known copies show that Bonfons’ book was intended for the lower end of the market. The only reason for the conservation of these copies is due to scholars who used them to study or for entertainment purposes. Equally, they survive because ancient institutions such as the French royal library or the first municipal library of Rennes became their stewards. While Bonfons remains one of the most mysterious publishing families, digital resources, like Gallica and the USTC, are slowly adding detail to their story. And, at the very least, we now know that matches can be made, even for the undateable.

Isabelle Riquet has just obtained a master’s degree in History at the University of Rennes 2 Haute-Bretagne. As she is preparing another master’s degree in Digital Humanities, she is working on the Sammelbänd15-16 project as a research engineer. She also worked on French provincial imprints of the XVIIth century fort the USTC project during summer 2019.

Sources :

Les faitz et gestes du noble et vaillant chevalier Bertrand du Guesclin (Paris: Jean Bonfons, s.d).

Cuvelier, ​La Chanson de Bertrand du Guesclin​, Arlima <> [accessed November 2019].

Cuvelier, Jehan de Vineel (scribe),Les faits et hystoires du bon chevalier Bertran du Guesclin, en son vivant connestable de France,​ Bibliothèque nationale de France Département des manuscrits, NAF 10402. <> [accessed November 2019].

​Louis de Thuanes, François Villon. Oeuvres. Edition critique avec notice et glossaire. Tome 2 (Paris: A.Picard,  1923) <​> [accessed November 2019].

Renaud Adam, “Les éditions perdues des Bonfons et l’apport de [email protected] au catalogue des éditions parisiennes du XVIe siècle”, Histoire du livre, 09/01/2019. <> [accessed November 2019].

BnF images are available from the Gallica under the Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International Licence. Copyright of Gallica.

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