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The Bédier Archives: at the sources of philology

Christophe Labaune
Cet article est une traduction de :
Les archives Bédier : aux sources de la philologie

Notes de la rédaction

Source: La lettre, no. 38, June 2014

Texte intégral

1The archive collection of Joseph Bédier (1864-1938) recently returned to the Collège de France Archives.

Manuscript of additional notes for Tristan et Iseut, n.d., Collège de France Archives

2Joseph Bédier, who was elected Chair of Medieval French Language and Literature in 1903, left a considerable body of documents to the Collège de France, of which he was the Administrator from 1929 to 1936. The public already knew Joseph Bédier when he presented his candidacy for the Chair left vacant by his master Gaston Paris (1872 1903). His edition of Tristan et Iseut three years earlier had earned him a fine reputation, and his theses (particularly Les fabliaux, 1893, reed. 1895) did not go unnoticed in the world of philological research. The Bédier archive collection, which the Collège de France owns, represents about five linear meters.

3The successive inventories reveal hundreds of letters and thousands of draft ages, in which lectures and book manuscripts are hardly distinguishable from one another. The reader witnesses the genesis of complex and singular work. Added to this are Bédier’s lectures, particularly those he delivered abroad as a lecturer at the University of Freiburg or as a speaker in numerous American universities, where he was a genuine “travelling spokesman of French literature”, as his biographer Alain Corbellari called him (Joseph Bédier, écrivain et philologue, Geneva, Droz, 1997).

4His archives allow for the comprehensive study of the philologist, through his multiple responsibilities, from his Freiburg lectures to his work as the Collège de France’s Administrator. They offer as much insight on the man as on his work. We get a sense in them of the strength of his commitment, particularly during the Great War. The fact that the author readily headed to the trenches to gather first-hand accounts attests to his perfectionism and to his unrelentless search for truth, both in this context and in medieval texts. He also displayed these qualities beyond his field of study, be it for the publication of Histoire de la littérature française illustrée (in collaboration with Paul Hazard) or in his studies on Chateaubriand, Pascal, Boileau or Racine.

5Bédier was at ease debating and readily demonstrated his singularity, though with a certain humility. Les Fabliaux already contradicted most philologists’ arguments. We can follow him preparing the ground, answering his opponents without swaying, whilst continuously correcting himself: in fact, the ratio is three drafts to a manuscript. His style, which is sometimes polemical, is deliberately jousting. The one whom, among the candidates to the Collège de France, Michel Bréal [Comparative Grammar, 1866-1905] considered as possessing “a high degree of literary sentiment” (Faculty Meeting of 15 August 1903), built a rigorous method, which some thought that he had lacked in his younger years. He opposed earlier theories (that of Karl Lachmann) and unpacked the most innovative ones, following Dom Henri Quentin’s method of critical editing of ancient texts. More controversial were his heated conversations with Pio Rajna in 1910, though they also attested to a chivalrous sense of honour (the feature on the “Réponse à Pio Rajna” (“Reply to Pir Rajna”) published in La Revue du Midi is evocatively titled “Defence against an uncalled for reproach”).

6The archives reveal the patient construction of a methodical work. Like an ultimate tribute to his master, Bédier broke away from the teaching of Gaston Paris [Medieval French Language and Literature, 1872-1903], who nevertheless carried on supporting him, to open a new path in the philological study of medieval texts. Hundreds of very well preserved letters constitute another major element of the collection and map out Bédier’s relations with the cultural world of the day. He was at the heart of the intellectual circles of the first half of the twentieth century, a position that was consecrated by his election to the Académie française in 1920, where he succeeded Edmond Rostand. Bédier’s considerable legacy is now accessible for research purposes in a single place. His archives (the inventory of which is available online at:, his work and works devoted to him can all be found in the Bibliothèque générale, which is part of the Documentary Networks and Partnerships Division.

A symposium dedicated to Joseph Bédier was held at the Fondation Singer-Polignac, on 22 and 23 May 2014.

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Table des illustrations

Légende Manuscript of additional notes for Tristan et Iseut, n.d., Collège de France Archives
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Référence électronique

Christophe Labaune, « The Bédier Archives: at the sources of philology », La lettre du Collège de France [En ligne], 9 | 2015, mis en ligne le 29 septembre 2015, consulté le 27 mars 2017. URL :

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Christophe Labaune

Archivist, Documentaries Networks and Partnerships Division

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