When you enter the modern doorway of the municipal library in Saint Omer, Nord-Pas de Calais, you will think it just like any other library in any other town in France – but you would be wrong. This library houses a secret, a room that is home to some of the oldest books in the world…
The Bibliotheque de Saint Omer is tucked away down a side street off the main square in the town. Most of us would not look twice. There is nothing unusual about its modern glass doors and tiled walls – it is a library, no different from thousands of libraries you’ll find in towns and cities all over France.
This library though has a stunning secret. A surprise that will have book lovers the world over astounded.
The centuries old books in the library at Saint Omer
Mount the stairs to the first floor and the book lending section and turn to the right down a short corridor and there you will find a long wood-panelled room, known as the Salle Aubin, part of the old Jesuit College of St Omer. Inside there are 35,000 books including some of the oldest books in the world dating back to the 7th Century.
It is a unique collection, put together over centuries by the monks of the Saint Bertin Monastery that was once one of the Gothic wonders of France. Founded by monks in the 7th Century, this was where St Thomas à Becket sought refuge in 1165. It is almost certain he would have sat and read some of the books that were there at that time. St Bertin was largely destroyed during the French Revolution but the ruins remain, testament to its former glory. The prized book collection was miraculously saved when it was confiscated during the French Revolution. The books became public property and they still are.
The 35,000 books and manuscripts in the special collection are available to read on request (via the administrators, see below). Or, like me, you can just look at them on their shelves and admire these aged tomes. Leather bound books, huge books, many in Latin, some in old French, others old English, some are mere fragments that are more than 1500 years old. Books that were lovingly collected and cared for by the monks from the 7th Century to the 18th Century. Today they are in astonishingly good condition, some from the 9th Century look almost new, cared for by the dedicated library staff.
Amongst the collection is a Gutenberg Bible dating back to around 1450. Only 21 complete copies survive, and they are considered to be among the most valuable books in the world. I asked Monsieur Cordonnier, who is one of the knowledgeable staff at the library if I could see it. He laughed and told me “at 60 million Euros value, that book is locked away in a vault”.
Hundreds of the books are being scanned and stored digitally for all to see, the Director of the library Madame Ducroquet told me around 600 of the precious books have been earmarked for the first phase. In Medieval times, those books were considered amongst the most important of the day. At that time Saint Omer was called “La Ville aux Beaux Cloches” (The village of the beautiful bells) and was one of the 10 most important cities in Europe.
Although there are other remarkable book collections in the north of France, all but one or two of them are behind closed doors – this collection is there for all to see and it is quite astonishing.
If you want to see one of the books up close – you’ll need to contact the staff via the website below and request permission, but I recommend if you visit the town, that you simply pop in and admire the heaving bookshelves and the regular exhibitions held there.
Visit this unique library at 40 rue Gambetta, 62500 Saint-Omer (approximately 30 minutes from Calais port).
Opening hours: Tuesday, Wednesday, Friday and Saturday 9am-12am and 13h-18h