Feature Archive

Feature Archive: La Bibliothèque royale de Belgique

Each month, a postgraduate student or an early career researcher shares their experiences of using a particular archive. The overall aim of this section is to create a database of the different archives available to those working on French and Francophone studies that will be of help particularly to students just starting out in research

Vanessa Wright is a PhD student at the University of Leeds. Here she talks about her research at the Bibliothèque royale de Belgique.

My PhD project explores the motif of cross-dressing in medieval French literature with emphasis on how cross-dressing is represented visually in manuscript illuminations. As part of this research, I took a two-week research trip to Paris, Brussels, and The Hague to examine twenty-one medieval manuscripts.

I spent four days working at the Bibliothèque royale de Belgique (BRB) consulting various manuscripts of Old French saints’ lives and prose romances. The library has an extensive collection of manuscripts, incunabula, and rare books, many of which were owned by the dukes of Burgundy. Consequently, this collection would be of considerable interest to those working on the Burgundian Netherlands, medieval book production, and the later Middle Ages more generally but the library’s holdings are not limited to medieval material. None of the manuscripts I consulted were digitised, therefore, I was not sure what to expect but I found some fascinating codices with unusual programmes of illumination.

Bibliothèque royale de belgique ©Bibliothèque royale de Belgique

The BRB is located in central Brussels and is very easy to find; on arrival at the Mont des Arts entrance, make your way to the bank of computers in front of the reception desk to complete a registration form. After this, head to the reception to pay the fee (15 euro for an annual card for students but day passes are also available). Remember to check the website to see what documents you need to present.

It is important to contact the appropriate curator in advance of your trip with details of the items that you wish to consult. Although I was able to request additional items on site, the curator needed to approve these requests and therefore there was a wait to receive the requested items.

Special Collections is on the ground floor (there are lockers to store your belongings). There is a front desk where you sign in and fill in a form to request your items. A form must be filled in per item but the only information you need in advance is the shelf mark. As with many archives, there can be a wait to receive your first item so make sure you take something to keep yourself amused (Wi-Fi is available). You can only consult one item at a time but one of the great things about Special Collections at the BRB is that you can keep other items on hand. There is a designated trolley for items on hold that allows you to return to items without having to wait for them to be collected from the stacks.

Special Collections closes at lunchtime for an hour and all readers are required to leave the reading room. There is a café on site, open from 9-4, Monday-Friday, and there are also vending machines and areas to eat a packed lunch. As the library is very central, there are restaurants, cafés, and shops nearby as well as museums, art galleries, and a park.

One drawback to this library is the limitations on photographs. At least for medieval manuscripts, you can only take fifteen photographs per shelf mark. A form must be completed detailing the folios/pages that you would like to photograph, which will then be passed onto the relevant curator for their approval. The form will not be returned to you so make sure that you note down the list of pages for your own reference (I learnt this the hard way!). All of my requests were approved.

I found all the staff very happy to help and all additional items/photograph requests were dealt with quickly. It was a great library to work in and I look forward to visiting again.

Vanessa Wright is a PhD Candidate at the Institute for Medieval Studies at the University of Leeds. Her PhD project examines medieval French cross-dressing literature and her work explores gender, sexuality, and late medieval book culture. She is Editor (volume 4) of Cerae: An Australasian Journal of Medieval and Early Modern Studies.

Many thanks for this, Vanessa!

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