HomeTraveling manuscripts. Maritime transport and the circulation of manuscripts

HomeTraveling manuscripts. Maritime transport and the circulation of manuscripts

Traveling manuscripts. Maritime transport and the circulation of manuscripts

Manuscrits voyageurs. Transport maritime et circulation des manuscrits à l’époque moderne

Mediterranean Sea and Atlantic Ocean, 16th-18th centuries

Méditerranée et océan Atlantique (XVIe-XVIIIe siècle)

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Published on Thursday, November 03, 2022


According to the countless travelers who reported having seen their papers sunk into the abyss, the transport of manuscripts by sea was not an easy undertaking in early modern times. Still, since the emergence of the great European navies in the 17th century, considerable masses of documents of all kinds have filled European repositories and libraries from faraway places. Some are produced within an institutional framework linked to the maritime activity itself (newspapers, correspondence, maps...), others come from the initiative of actors who seek to extract information, knowledge or prestige from the manuscripts. It is also a question of apprehending, in a new light, documentary corpuses that are often reduced to their content, whereas they are often the result of a complex transaction between travelers, local intermediaries, patrons and powerful collectors.



In the early modern era, the ships that sailed through the world’s seas and oceans did not only carry men and goods on board. They also carried "by sea" writings of all kinds, such as road maps and charts useful for navigation, logbooks kept by ship captains, personal papers of passengers and crew members, and "packages" of official and private correspondence. While the trade in printed books has been the subject of numerous works embracing the scales of Atlantic or global history (Leonard 1949, González Sánchez 2001, Rueda Ramírez 2005, Gómez Álvarez 2011, Cooper-Richet et Mollier 2012), the presence of handwritten documents on board ships, as well as the material conditions of their transport at sea, remain a blind spot in the historiography of the maritime fact in the early modern period. Certainly, specialists of the French Navy of the Ancien Régime are not unaware of the quantitative importance of the papers coming from or going to the Levant and the Ponant. But this vast epistolary production has been analyzed mainly as a means of long-distance political communication or as a logistical and archival challenge for an institution in the making (Llinares et Ulbert 2017). Logbooks and topographic maps constitute another important part of the documentation transported and archived by the French Royal Navy during the Ancien Régime. Upon their return to France, the commanders of warships and merchant ships were required to deposit the original or copy of these documents. Initially stored in the "Dépôt des papiers de la Marine" organized at the end of the 17th century, from 1720 onwards they were deposited within a detached service, the "Dépôt des Cartes, Plans et Journaux de la Marine". At each stage of the production, collection, and transportation of these manuscripts, various actors were likely to use them in search of information, knowledge, or prestige (Palomino 2018).

Despite the contribution of these works, the intellectual, political, administrative and commercial dynamics of the maritime circulation of manuscripts in the early modern period have never been studied as a whole by historiography. The aim of this conference is to identify significant collections of manuscripts that transited by sea in the early modern period, and to analyze the role of the various actors - ministers, diplomats, scholars, soldiers, sailors, merchants, librarians, archivists - involved in their production, collection, transportation and use, during and after the crossing. As key actors in the process, the European navies (French, English, Spanish) will be considered in their operational and administrative realities. From the 17th century onwards, they experienced an intense development in the Atlantic Ocean as well as in the Mediterranean Sea, two areas that will constitute the geographical framework of the colloquium.

It is generally on the initiative of ministers or administrators of the Navy that important sets of manuscripts were sent to the merchant ports of Western Europe (Venice, Marseille, Cadiz, Lisbon), and carried to the political and intellectual centers (Paris, Madrid, London) where they were archived, catalogued and preserved until today. In France, the figures of Colbert under the reign of Louis XIV and the Count of Maurepas under the reign of Louis XV, are emblematic of a maritime ambition resulting in the acquisition of manuscripts with the purpose of enriching the collections of the Royal Library (Armstrong 2013). In order to carry out these projects, the political power depended on numerous actors who played in turn (or sometimes at the same time) the role of informers, buyers or transporters: scholars and bibliophiles, ambassadors, consuls, representatives of the "nation" abroad, Chambers of Commerce, ship captains, etc. The example of the "fonds des traductions", preserved in the Department of Oriental Manuscripts of the Bibliothèque nationale de France, perfectly illustrates the complex organization implemented to collect and transport manuscripts across the Mediterranean during the time of Louis XV (Berthier 1997). These projects were part of a context of structuring orientalist knowledge in seventeenth- and eighteenth-century Europe (Girard 2015 ; Hamilton, Van den Boogert et Westerweel 2015). Scholars such as Nicolas Fabri de Peiresc, Gilbert Gaulmin, Edward Pococke, Antoine Galland, François Pétis de la Croix, Abbés Sevin and Fourmont, Jean Otter, Abraham Hyacinthe Anquetil-Duperron, contributed decisively to the enrichment of European collections of Arabic, Turkish, Persian, and Indian manuscripts (Omont, 1908 ; Richard 1980, 1996 et 1998 ; Colas 1997 ; Berthier 2000 et 2010 ; Van Damme 2014 ; Cheny 2015 ; Gallien 2015 ; Miller 2015). Often underestimated by European administrators and scholars, the role of local intermediaries is nevertheless essential in the collection of knowledge and information. Moreover, recent works have emphasized the decisive role played by scholars from the Ottoman Empire, whether Muslims, Greek Orthodox, Maronites or Jews, in the constitution of orientalist knowledge in Europe itself; they have carried out valuable work in copying and annotating oriental manuscripts preserved in the princely libraries of Spain, Italy and France (Ghobrial 2016, Kilpatrick et Toomer 2016, Glesener 2021).

The focus of historiography on oriental manuscripts can be explained by the interest raised in early modern Europe by the knowledge of the East and on the East (Bléchet, 1996). However, the Levantine route is not the only maritime route followed by manuscripts in the early modern period. In the western Mediterranean and along the Atlantic coasts of the Maghreb, several cases of European ships transporting Arabic manuscripts have been recorded, but these circulations were generally linked to acts of piracy or military operations rather than to a concerted acquisition policy (Jones 1987). An emblematic example is the capture by Spanish pirates of a ship carrying the library of the Sultan of Morocco, Mawlāy Zaydān, in 1612: intercepted off San Miguel de Ultramar (Kasbat el Mehdia in Morocco), the manuscripts were first transported to Cadiz for cataloguing, and then taken to Madrid where they joined the collections of the Escorial Library (Hershenzon 2014). Later, between the mid-seventeenth and early nineteenth centuries, the English Navy had orders, during periods of naval warfare in the Atlantic, to seize all documents (papers, letters, manuscripts) found on enemy ships: these Prize Papers constitute today an extraordinarily rich collection in the National Archives in Kew. On the vast Atlantic Ocean, other manuscripts traveled from America to Europe between the sixteenth and eighteenth centuries, such as the accounts of Catholic missionaries, the famous Mesoamerican codexes, or the logbooks recounting American expeditions.

Main topics and research axes

The expression "Traveling Manuscripts" may not be interpreted with the metaphorical and poetic connotations that it may have at first glance. The aim of this conference is to reflect collectively on the material conditions under which manuscripts, which are by nature fragile and sensitive to humidity-related alterations, were moved over long distances by sea in the early modern era, and to examine the intellectual, political, administrative and commercial dynamics that stimulated and framed these large-scale circulations. Within this general problematic, several axes may be considered:

  1. The production of manuscripts : collection, copy, translation

Before transportation on the sea, a complex series of intellectual and material operations enters into the production of the manuscripts :

  • copying and translation
  • binding
  • purchase (of the isolated volume or of the entire library)
  • abduction or confiscation

They involve different actors: copyists, translators, booksellers, soldiers, European scholars or local erudites, etc. One aim of the conference is to produce a typology of these operations and actors, in order to identify common or more exceptional configurations in time and space.

  1. Transport and conservation of manuscripts at sea

The crossing of seas and oceans involves many perils for manuscripts : salt, humidity, pests, damage. The crews must take into account these risks linked to navigation, which invites us to wonder about the concrete conditions of the transport of manuscripts at sea:

  • what materials and containers were used: wooden crates, bales of cloth, etc.?
  • How were the manuscripts loaded and unloaded? How did the confiscations at sea take place? Were the manuscripts subject to special surveillance upon arrival, or even seizure by the Inquisition, customs, health offices, etc.?
  • Once on land, how were they carried to the places where they were supposed to be stored?
  1. Institutional configurations: port cities, political centers

The last axis focuses on the institutional configurations of the circulation and reception of manuscripts:

  • What is the respective role of port cities and political/intellectual capitals in the circulation of manuscripts ? How did the port authorities - municipalities, chambers of commerce, health offices - communicate and coordinate with the government in order to ensure the transport of manuscripts?
  • What role did the actors involved in the reception and conservation of manuscripts (librarians, archivists, naval administrators) play ?  
  • Finally, what do we know of the conservation and uses of these manuscript collections

Submission guidelines

Abstracts of max. 300 will be sent to the following address : manuscritsvoyageurs2023@gmail.com by January 30, 2023.

Notification of acceptance will be given before February 28, 2023.

Organizing Committee

François Lavie, assistant professor in early modern history, Université Paris 8 – MéMo (Centre d’histoire des sociétés Médiévales et Modernes)

Maxime Martignon, post-doctoral researcher - musée du quai Branly - Jacques Chirac

Scientific committee

  • Alain Cabantous (Université Paris 1)
  • Guillaume Calafat (Université Paris 1)
  • Emmanuelle Chapron (Université d’Aix-Marseille / EPHE)
  • Jörg Ulbert (Université de Bretagne Sud)
  • Marie Houllemare (Université de Genève)
  • Caroline Le Mao (Université de Bordeaux)
  • Nicolas Schapira (Université Paris-Nanterre)

Select bibliography

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Annie Berthier, « L’approche de l’Orient par les textes et la naissance de l’esprit scientifique : l’acquisition de manuscrits pour la Bibliothèque du roi (XVIe-XIXe s.) », Comptes rendus des séances de l’Académie des Inscriptions et Belles-Lettres, 154e année, n° 4, 2010, pp. 1675-1684

Annie Berthier, Manuscrits, xylographes, estampages. Les collections orientales du département des Manuscrits, Paris, Editions BnF, 2000

Annie Berthier, « Turquerie ou Turcologie? L’effort de traduction des langues au XVIIIe siècle, d’après la collection des manuscrits conservée à la Bibliothèque nationale de France », dans F. Hitzel (dir.), Istanbul et les langues orientales, Paris, L’Harmattan, 1997, pp. 283-317

Françoise Bléchet, « Présentation. ‘‘Ex Oriente Lux’’ », Dix-huitième Siècle, n° 28, 1996, pp. 5-22

Christian Borde et Éric Roulet (dir.), Les Journaux de bord, XIVe-XXIe siècle, Aix-la-Chapelle, Shaker Verlag, 2015

Anne-Marie Cheny, Une bibliothèque byzantine. Nicolas-Claude Fabri de Peiresc et la fabrique du savoir, Champ Vallon, 2015

Gérard Colas, « Les manuscrits envoyés de l’Inde par les jésuites français entre 1729 et 1735 », dans François Déroche et Francis Richard (dir.), Scribes et manuscrits du Moyen-Orient, Paris, Bibliothèque nationale de France, 1997, pp. 345-362

Sandra Contamina et Isabelle Trivisani-Moreau (dir.), Les Textes voyageurs des périodes médiévale et moderne, Rennes, PUR, 2020 

Diana Cooper-Richet et Jean-Yves Mollier (dir.), Le commerce transatlantique de librairie, un des fondements de la mondialisation culturelle (France-Portugal-Brésil, XVIIIe-XXe siècle), Campinas, Publiel, 2012

Adrien Delmas, Les voyages de l’écrit : culture écrite et expansion européenne à l’époque moderne. Essais sur la compagnie Hollandaise des Indes orientales, Paris, Honoré Champion, 2013

Claire Gallien, « Edward Pococke et l’orientalisme anglais du XVIIe siècle : passeurs, transferts et transitions », Dix-septième siècle, n° 268, 2015/3, pp. 443-458

John-Paul Ghobrial, « The Archive of Orientalism and its Keepers: Re-Imagining the Histories of Arabic Manuscripts in Early Modern Europe », Past & Present, vol. 230, n° 11, 2016, pp. 90-111

Aurélien Girard (dir.), « Connaître l’Orient en Europe au XVIIe siècle », numéro spécial de la revue Dix-septième siècle, n° 268, 2015/3

Thomas Glesener, « Gouverner la langue arabe: Miguel Casiri et les arabisants du roi d’Espagne au siècle des Lumières », Annales. Histoire, Sciences Sociales, vol. 76, n° 2, 2021, pp. 227-267

Cristina Gómez Álvarez, Navegar con libros: El comercio de libros entre España y Nueva España (1750-1820), Madrid, Trama Editorial S.L, 2011

Carlos Alberto González Sánchez, Los mundos del libro: Medios de difusión de la cultura occidental en las Indias de los siglos XVI y XVII, Séville, Editorial Universidad de Sevilla, 2001

Carlos Alberto González Sánchez et Pedro Rueda Ramírez, « « Con recato y sin estruendo ». Puertos atlanticos y visita inquisitorial de navios », Annali della Scuola Normale Superiore di Pisa, serie 5, vol. 1, 2009, pp. 473-506

Alastair Hamilton, Maurits Van den Boogert, Bart Westerweel (dir.), The Republic of Letters and the Levant, Leyde, Brill, 2005

Alastair Hamilton, « ‘To Divest the East of all its Manuscripts and all its Rarities’. The Unfortunate Embassy of Henri Gournay de Marcheville », dans Alastair Hamilton, Maurits H. van den Boogert et Bart Westerweel (dir.), The Republic of Letters and the Levant, Leiden, Brill, 2005, pp. 123-150  

Daniel Hershenzon, « Traveling Libraries: The Arabic Manuscripts of Muley Zidan and the Escorial Library », Journal of Early Modern History, vol. 18, n° 6, 2014, pp. 535-558

Marie Houllemare, « La fabrique des archives coloniales et la naissance d’une conscience impériale (France, XVIIIe siècle) », Revue d’histoire moderne et contemporaine, no 61‑2, 2014, pp. 7‑31

Robert Jones, « Piracy, war and the acquisition of Arabic manuscripts in Renaissance Europe », Manuscripts of the Middle East, vol. 2, 1987, pp. 96-110

Hilary Kilpatrick et Gerald J. Toomer, « Niqulawus al-Halabi (c.1611–c.1661): A Greek Orthodox Syrian Copyist and his Letters to Pococke and Golius », Lias: Journal of Early Modern Intellectual Culture and its Sources, vol. 43, 2016, pp. 1-159

Irving A. Leonard, Books of the Brave. Being an Account of Books and of Men in the Spanish Conquest and Settlement of the Sixteenth-Century New World, Berkeley, University of California Press, 1992 (1949)

Sylviane Llinares et Jörg Ulbert (dir.), La Liasse et la plume. Les bureaux du secrétariat d’État de la Marine (1669-1792), Rennes, PUR, 2017

Peter N. Miller, L’Europe de Peiresc. Savoir et vertu au XVIIe siècle, Paris, Albin Michel, 2015

Henri Omont, Missions archéologiques françaises en Orient aux XVIIe et XVIIIe siècles, 2 vol., Paris, Imprimerie nationale, 1902

Jean-François Palomino, L’État et l'espace colonial : savoirs géographiques entre la France et la Nouvelle-France aux XVIIe et XVIIIe siècles, Thèse soutenue à l’Université de Montréal, 2018

Francis Richard, « Les manuscrits persans rapportés par les frères Vecchietti et conservés aujourd’hui à la Bibliothèque Nationale », Studia Iranica, vol. 9, 1980, pp. 291-300

Francis Richard, « Jean-Baptiste Gentil, collectionneur de manuscrits persans », Dix-huitième Siècle, n° 28, 1996, pp. 91-110

Francis Richard, « Les manuscrits persans de Simon de Vierville et la Bibliothèque de l’Arsenal », Littérature persane – Kâr-nâmeh, t. IV, Paris, L’Harmattan, 1998, pp. 9-16

Pedro Rueda Ramírez, Negocio e intercambio cultural. El comercio de libros con America en la carrera de Indias (siglo XVII), Séville, Editorial Universidad de Sevilla, 2005

Etienne Taillemite, « Les archives et les archivistes de la Marine des origines à 1870 », Bibliothèque de l’École des chartes, t. 127, livraison 1, 1969, pp. 27-86

Stéphane Van Damme, « Capitalizing Manuscripts, Confronting Empires: Anquetil-Duperron and the Economy of Oriental Knowledge in the Context of the Seven Years’ War », dans László Kontler, Antonella Romano, Silvia Sebastiani, Borbála Zsuzsanna (dir.), Negotiating Knowledge in Early Modern Empires: A Decentered View, New York, Palgrave Macmillan, 2014, pp. 109-128 


  • Musée du quai Branly
    Paris, France (75)
  • Maison de la recherche
    Saint-Denis, France (93)


  • Monday, January 30, 2023


  • manuscrit, circulation, voyage, orient, atlantique, maritime


  • Maxime Martignon
    courriel : manuscritsvoyageurs2023 [at] gmail [dot] com
  • François Lavie
    courriel : manuscritsvoyageurs2023 [at] gmail [dot] com

Information source

  • Maxime Martignon
    courriel : manuscritsvoyageurs2023 [at] gmail [dot] com


CC0-1.0 This announcement is licensed under the terms of Creative Commons CC0 1.0 Universal.

To cite this announcement

« Traveling manuscripts. Maritime transport and the circulation of manuscripts », Call for papers, Calenda, Published on Thursday, November 03, 2022, https://doi.org/10.58079/19ui

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