Léopold Delisle, distinguished librarian and scholar, devoted his life to the Bibliothèque nationale de France and its manuscripts. During his 53 years at the library, he had an enormous impact on the organisation, development, and preservation of the French national collections. Moreover, his prolific publications have influenced our understanding of the Middle Ages through the documents left behind.
Born in Valognes, Normandy, Delisle developed a precocious interest in medieval manuscripts under the wing of local historian and collector Charles Duhérissier de Gerville, who introduced the young man to palaeography by making him transcribe a charter of Henri II. With Gerville’s support, Delisle moved to Paris to study at the Ecole des chartes in 1845 and received wide acclaim for his thesis on Norman ducal finance. In 1852, he followed his teacher Benjamin Guérard to the Bibliothèque’s Département des manuscrits. His first task was cataloguing and organising the rather dishevelled holdings, and subsequently, he wrote a history of their formation (Cabinet des manuscrits). He rose through the ranks to become Conservateur des Manuscrits in 1871 and Administrateur Général in 1874.
Delisle famously negotiated the ‘repatriation’ of 166 stolen manuscripts acquired by Bertram, 4th Earl of Ashburnham, from the dubious hands of Guiglielmo Libri and Joseph Barrois in the middle of the nineteenth century. As detective, prosecutor, and defender of French heritage, Delisle masterfully compiled evidence of manuscripts sequestered from French holdings and fought with dogged determination for their return over several decades.
Whilst his relationship with the 5th Earl of Ashburnham, heir of the illicit manuscripts, was decidedly frosty, Delisle maintained fruitful contact with other private collectors, whose generosity helped increase the library’s collections. In 1904, he invited Henry Yates Thompson to display a case of his manuscripts at the exhibition of Primitifs français. Two years later, Edward VII presented to France a second volume of a richly illuminated French translation of Josephus, owned by Yates Thompson and combined with a number of missing leaves held at Windsor. It was hence reunited with the first volume, illuminated by Jean Fouquet and once owned by François I, in the holdings of the Bibliothèque nationale.