The French monk and historian Jean Mabillon (1632-1707) made an important contribution to the science of historical investigation by discovering a way of dating ancient manuscripts.
Jean Mabillon was born on Nov. 23, 1632, the son of a peasant who lived close to Reims. He was a capable student and a religiously devout young man. After spending a year in the diocesan seminary, he became a novice in 1653 in the Benedictine monastery in Reims. He was ordained a priest in 1660, and his quiet scholarly competence prompted his abbot to send him to the abbey of St-Germain-des-Prés in Paris in 1664 to take part in the work of historical research in which the monks there were engaged.
The abbey belonged to a group of reformed Benedictine monasteries called the Congregation of St. Maur. The Maurists were beginning to establish a reputation in Paris for sound historical scholarship. Mabillon's first major project at St-Germain-des-Prés was to collect documents pertaining to the lives of Benedictine saints and to edit these manuscripts into a nine-folio Acta (1668-1701). His grasp of history showed itself in a series of introductions in which he connected each saint's life with the ecclestiastical and civil events that were taking place at that particular time. Mabillon's sensitive interpretations, particularly of the early Middle Ages, received wide attention in French historical circles outside the Benedictine order.
When a Jesuit scholar named Daniel Papebroch attacked the validity of the ancient charters supposedly given by the Merovingian kings to the Benedictine monks for the land on which the Maurist monasteries were built, Mabillon spent 8 years working on a reply: De re diplomatica (1681; On Diplomatics). In it he showed that the age of a manuscript could be determined from its handwriting. With this important work Mabillon established the principles for the modern science of determining manuscript authenticity by means of dating. Later Mabillon was again called upon, this time to defend the legitimacy for monks to do scholarly work. This resulted in his Traité des études monastiques (1691; Treatise on Monastic Studies).
Mabillon traveled widely in Europe in search of manuscripts, but the most profitable trip was to Italy, which led to the publication of Museum Italicum (1687-1689). Throughout his life Mabillon was a monk and a scholar first, and only secondly did he allow himself to become a man of fame and controversy. When he died in St-Germain-des-Prés on Dec. 27, 1707, he had established his place as the greatest historical scholar of the 17th century.
Further Reading on Jean Mabillon
There are no biographies of Mabillon in English. His importance is described in works on the science of history. James Westfall Thompson, A History of Historical Writing, vol. 2 (1942), is especially good.