Mabillon, John

, a very learned French writer, was born Nov. 23, 1632, at Pierre-mont, on the frontiers of Champagne. He was educated in the university of Rheims, and afterwards entered into the abbey of the Benedictines of St. Remy; where he took the habit in 1653, and made the profession the year following. He was looked upon at first as a person that would do honour to his order; but a perpetual head-acb, with which he was afflicted, almost destroyed all the expectations which were conceived of him. He was ordained priest at Amiens in | 1660; and afterwards, lest too much solitude should injure his health, which was not yet re-established, was sent by his superiors to St. Denis, where he was appointed, during the whole year 1663, to shew the treasure and monuments of the kings of France. But having there unfortunately broken a looking-glass, which was pretended to have belonged to Virgil, he obtained leave to quit an employment, which, as he said, frequently obliged him to relate things he did not believe. As the indisposition of his head gradually abated, he began to shew himself more and more to the world. Father d’Acheri, who was then compiling his “Spicilegium,” desiring to have some young monk, who could assist him in that work, Mabillon was chosen for the purpose, and accordingly went to Paris in 1664, where he was very serviceable to d’Acheri. This began to place his talents in a conspicuous light, and to shew what might be expected from him. A fresh occasion soon offered itself to him. The congregation of St. Maur had formed a design of publishing new editions of the fathers, revised from the manuscripts, with which the libraries of the order of the Benedictines, as one of the most ancient, are furnished. Mabillon was ordered to undertake the edition of St. Bernard, which he had prepared with great judgment and learning, and published at Paris, in 1667, in two volumes folio, and nine octavo. In 1690 he published a second edition, augmented with almost fifty letters, new preliminary dissertations, and new notes; and just before his death was preparing to publish a third. He had no sooner published the first edition of St. Bernard, than the congregation appointed him to undertake an edition of the “Acts of the Saints of the order of Benedictines;” the first volume of which, he published in 1668, and continued it to nine volumes in folio, the last of which was published in 1701. The writers of the “Journal de Trevoux” speak not improperly of this work when they say that “it ought to be considered, not as a simple collection of memoirs relating to monastic history, but as a valuable compilation of ancient monuments; which, being illustrated by learned notes, give a great light to the most obscure part of ecclesiastical history.” The prefaces alone,“say they,” would secure to the author an immortal reputation. The manners and usages of those dark ages are examined with great care; and an hundred important questions are ably discussed.“Le Clerc, in the place | referred to above, from which we have chiefly drawn our account of Mahillon, has given us one example of a question occasionally discussed by him in the course of his work, concerning the use of unleavened bread, in the celebration of the sacrament. Mabillon shews, in the preface to the third age of hisActa Sanctorum,“t’hat the use of it is more ancient than is generally believed; and, in 1674, maintained it in a particular dissertation, addressed to cardinal Bona, who was before of a contrary opinion. But the work which is supposed to have done him the most honour is his” De re diplomatica libri sex, in quibus quicquid ad veterum instrumentorum antiquitatem, materiam, scripturam et stilutn; quicqnid ad sigilla, monogrammata, subscriptiones, ac notas chronologicas; quicquid inde ad antiquariam, historicam, forensemque disciplinam pertinet, explicatur, et illustratur. Accedunt commentarius de antiquis regum Francorum palatiis, veterum scripturarum varia specimina tabulis LX. comprehensa, nova ducentorum et amplius monumentoruoi collectio," Paris, 1631, folio. The examination of almost an infinite number of charters and ancient titles, which had passed through his hands, led him to form the design of reducing to certain rules and principles an art, of which before there had been only very confused ideas. It was a bold attempt; but he executed it with such success, that he was thought tp have carried it at once to perfection.

In 1682 he took a journey into Burgundy, in which M. Colbert employed him to examine some ancient titles relating to the royal family. That minister received all the satisfaction he could desire; and, being fully convinced of Mabillon’s experience and abilities in these points, sent him the year following into Germany, in order to search there, among the archives and libraries of the ancient abbeys for materials to illustrate the history of the church in general, and that of France in particular. He spent five months in this journey, and published an account of it. He took another journey into Italy in 1685, by order of the king of France; and returned the year following with a very noble collection of above three thousand volumes of rare books, both printed and manuscript, which he added to the king’s library; and, in 1687, composed two volumes of the pieces he had discovered in that country, under the title of “Museum Italicum.” After this he employed himself in publishing other works, which are strong | evidences of his vast abilities and application. In 1698 he published a Latin letter concerning the worship of the unknown saints, which he called “Eusehii Romani ad Theophilum Gallum epistola.” The history of this piece does credit to his love of truth, and freedom from traditional prejudices. While at Rome he had endeavoured to inform himself particularly of those rules and precautions, wh:ch were necessary to be observed with regard to the bodies of saints taken out of the catacombs, in order to be exposed to the veneration of the public. He had himself visited those places, and consulted all persons who could give him light upon the subject; but five or six years elapsed after his return to France, without his having ever thought of making use of these observations. In 1692, however, he drew up the treatise above-mentioned; in which he gave it as his opinion, that the bodies found in the catacombs were too hastily, and without sufficient foundation, concluded to be the bodies of martyrs. Still, aware this was a subject of a very delicate nature, and thai such an opinion might possibly give offence, he kept it by him five years, without communicating it to above one person; and then sent it, under the seal of secresy, to cardinal Colloredo at Rome, whose opinion was, that it should not be published in the form it was then in. Nevertheless, in 1698 it was published; and, as might easily be foreseen, very ill received at Rome; and after many complaints, murmurs, and criticisms, it was in 1701 brought before the Congregation of the Index, and Mabillon it necessary to employ all his interest to prevent the censure of that body. Nor, perhaps, could he have averted this misfortune if he had not agreed to publish a new edition of it; in which, by softening some passages, and throwing upon inferior officers whatever abuses might be committed with regard to the bodies taken out of the catacombs, he easily satisfied his judges; who, to do them justice, had a great esteem for his learning and virtues, and were not very desirous of condemning him.

This eminent man died of a suppression of urine, at the abbey of St. Germain-des-Pres, in Dec. 1707. His great merit had procured him, in 1701, the place of honorary member of the academy of inscriptions. Du Pin tells us thac “it would be difficult to give Mabillon the praises he deserves: the voice of the public, and the general esteem of all the learned, are a much better commendation of him | than any thing we can say. His profound learning appears from his works: his modesty, humility, meekness^ and piety, are no less known to those who have had the least conversation with him. His style is masculine, pure, clear, and methodical, without affectation or superfluous ornaments, and suitable to the subjects of which he has treated.” Few men were more honoured by the notice of the great than Mabillon, and to this he was entitled both by his virtues and his extensive learning. Pope Clement XI. paid him the compliment to write to father Iluinart, expressing his hopes that the remains of such a man had been interred with the honours due to him. “Every man of learning who goes to Paris,” said cardinal Colloredo, “will ask where you have placed him”.1


Gen. Dict. —Niceron, vol. VII. and X. Life by Rairmrt, 1703. Le Clert Bibl. Choisie. Saxii Onoinast.