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Jean Mabillon

Benedictine monk of the Congregation of Saint-Maur, b. November 23, 1632; d. at Paris, December 27, 1707

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Mabillon, JEAN, Benedictine monk of the Congregation of Saint-Maur, b. at Saint-Pierremont between Mouzon and the Chartreuse of Mont-Dieu in Champagne, November 23, 1632; d. at Paris, December 27, 1707. He was the fifth child of Estienne Mabillon, a peasant who died in 1692 aged 104, and of his wife, Jeanne Guérin, descended, through her mother’s family, from a branch of the seigneurs of Saint-Pierremont. Jean was a precocious child, and easily surpassed his school companions in their studies, while his is pleasant disposition made him a general favorite. At the age of nine, he was sent to his uncle, Jean Mabillon, then parish priest at Neufville, by whom he was well instructed in the “rudiments”, and from whom he received a donation to enable him to continue his studies. In 1644 Jean was sent to the Collège des Bons Enfants at Reims. Here, while studying at the university, he lived, half as pupil, half as servant, in the house of Clément Boucher, canon of the cathedral and commendatory Abbot of Tenailles. This patron, in 1650, procured him admission to the diocesan seminary, where he remained for three years. In 1653, however, the scandalous conduct and death of the uncle who had befriended him made the vocation to the secular priesthood distasteful to him, and he withdrew from the seminary. After less than a month of retirement, on August 29, he became a postulant in the Abbey of St-Remi at Reims. This house had, since 1627, belonged to the reformed Maurist Congregation (see Maurists). He was clothed on September 5, and, after his year’s novitiate, was professed on September 6, 1654. His devotion to the strict observance, to mortification and to study, was so great that his superiors entrusted him with the direction and teaching of the novices. But the eagerness with which he endeavored to fulfil his office was greater than his health could endure; he began to suffer from violent headaches and soon became incapable even of reciting his Office. In 1656, his superiors, in the hope that entire rest might restore his health, sent him to Nogent, whence, in July, 1658, he was transferred to the famous Abbey of Corbie. Here, as at Nogent, he occupied his time in the study of antiquities, while holding successively the offices of porter, of depositarius, and of cellarer. He was ordained at Amiens in 1660. The tranquil life restored his health and, in 1663, he was transferred to the Abbey of St-Denis, where he became treasurer. But his superiors had already noticed his great gifts and, in 1664, at the request of Dom D’Achéry (q.v.), he was removed to the Abbey of St-Germain-des-Pres, where he remained for the rest of his life.

When Mabillon first entered its precincts, the commendatory abbot was John Casimir, King of Poland, an eccentric person whose irregular life had but little effect on his abbey; the claustral prior was Dom Ignatius Philibert, and D’Achéry was custodian of its wonderful library. The society to which the young monk was introduced at St-Germain was, perhaps, the most learned of its time in Europe. Every week, on Sundays after Vespers, there met in D’Achéry’s room a group of savants that included men like Du Cange, Baluze, d’Herbelot, Cotelier, Renaudot, Fleury, Lamy, Pagi, Tillemont. Mabillon soon became a brilliant member of this group of noted workers. D’Achéry had asked for him to help him in his projected “Lives of the Benedictine Saints”. but the first work entrusted to his care was that of editing the works of St. Bernard. This was published within three years (1667), and was at once recognized as a masterly edition. Meanwhile Mabillon had been arranging the materials already brought together by D’Achéry, and the first volume of the “Acta Sanctorum, O.S.B.” was published in 1668. A second volume appeared the following year, a third in 1672. The scholarly conscientiousness and critical methods of Mabillon were a source of scandal to some of his less instructed fellow-monks, and in 1677 a petition, violently attacking the “Acta Sanctorum O.S.B.”, was presented to the general chapter of the congregation, demanding the suppression of the work (as harmful to the interests of Benedictinism) and an apology from its author. Mabillon defended himself with such humility combined with firmness and learning that all opposition was overcome, and he was encouraged to continue. Meanwhile, in 1672, he had already made the first of those “literary journeys” (this time into Flanders), in search of documents and materials for his work, that were so marked a feature of the latter half of his life, and which had such fruitful results for history and liturgy. In 1675 was published the first of four volumes of “Vetera Analecta” in which he collected the fruits of his travels and some shorter works of historical importance.

But 1675 saw also the occasion of his greatest work. To the second volume of the “Acta SS.” for April Daniel Papebroch had prefixed a “Propylaeum antiquarium”, which was really a first attempt to formulate rules for the discernment of spurious from genuine documents. Therein he had instanced as spurious some famous charters in the Abbey of St-Denis. Mabillon was appointed to draw up a defense of these documents, and he made his defense the occasion of a statement of the true principles of documentary criticism. This is the volume, “De re diplomatica” (1681), a treatise so masterly that it remains today the foundation of the science of diplomatics. Papebroch himself readily admitted that he had been confuted by this treatise, though an attempt was made some time later by Germon to disprove Mabillon’s theory, thereby provoking a reply from Mabillon in his “Supplementum” of 1704. The admiration excited amongst the learned by Mabillon’s great book was widespread. Colbert offered its author a pension of 2000 livres, which Mabillon declined, while requesting Colbert’s continued protection for his monastery. In 1682 Mabillon was sent by Colbert into Burgundy to examine certain ancient documents relative to the royal house; and in 1683 he was sent with Dom Michel Germain, at the king’s expense, on a journey throughout Switzerland and Germany in search of materials for the history of the Church or of France. During this expedition, which took five months to accomplish, Colbert died and was succeeded as minister by Le Tellier, Archbishop of Reims, who also greatly admired Mabillon. At the instance of this prelate the king, in 1685, required Mabillon to make a tour through the libraries of Italy for the purpose of acquiring books and manuscripts for the Royal Library. More than 3000 rare and valuable volumes were procured. During his travels Mabillon was everywhere received with the utmost honor. Soon after his return he began his famous controversy with De Rancé, Abbot of La Trappe, who had denied that it was lawful for monks to devote themselves to study rather than to manual labor. Mabillon’s “Traité des etudes monastiques” (1691) was a noble defense of monastic learning and laid down the lines that it should follow. De Rancé replied, and Mabillon was forced to publish further “Réflexions sur la Réponse de M.l’Abbé de la Trappe” (1692). De Rancé would have carried the dispute further, but Cardinal le Camus interfered, and the general opinion seems to have been that both parties to the dispute were really in substantial agreement; Mabillon being an instance of regular devotion combined with prodigious learning, De Rancé showing by his writings that learning was not incompatible with devotion to monastic strictness.

In 1698 a storm was raised in Rome by the publication by Mabillon, under the name of “Eusebius Romanus”, of a protest against the superstitious veneration of the relics of “unknown saints” from the catacombs. This work was denounced to the Holy Office, and Mabillon was compelled to explain and modify certain passages. In 1700 arose another storm. The Maurists, in spite of the difficulties arising from the current controversies on Jansenism, had determined to publish a critical edition of St. Augustine. To the last volume of this edition Mabillon was required to furnish a preface, defending the methods and critical conclusions of its editors. His first draft was submitted to various critics, and, after receiving their annotations, was rewritten and sent to Bossuet for his opinion. It was largely amended by Bossuet and returned to Mabillon to be rewritten. The result is the “Preface” of the eleventh volume as we now have it. Mabillon now retired to Normandy to avoid the clamor that, as he expected, was aroused by its publication. But the Holy See supported the Maurists, and though the extremists endeavored to tax the more moderate with heresy they were silenced by the supreme authority. Mabillon did not lack enemies. In 1698 they had spread a report that he had apostatized in Holland, and he felt obliged to write to the Catholics of England denying the charge. But, as his life drew to a close, all men came to recognize his genius and integrity. In 1701 the king appointed him one of the first members of the new Académie Royale des Inscriptions. Two years later appeared the first volume of the “Annales O.S.B.”, on which he had been engaged since 1693. He lived to see but four volumes published. In 1707, as he was on his way to Chelles, he fell sick. He was carried back to Paris and after three weeks’ illness, on December 27, having heard Mass at midnight and received Holy Communion, he died. He was buried in the Lady chapel at St-Germain. At the Revolution in 1798, when the Lady chapel of St-Germain was destroyed, the simple tomb of the great historian was removed to the garden of the Musée des Petits-Augustins. At the Restoration, however, it was carried back to St-Germain, where it still remains behind the high altar.


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