Book People | August 2023 | Alex Johnson

The Order Creating Napoleon’s Traveling Library Signed by its Makers at Raab

Raab Collection

The fate of this traveling library was the fate of his entire army of 1812

Napoleon was one of the best read leaders the world has ever seen. As a young man he particularly enjoyed Plutarch’s Lives of the Noble Grecians and Romans and in exile on Saint Helena one of his favourites was Paul et Virginie by Jacques-Henri Bernardin de Saint-Pierre. 

But he also commissioned various travel libraries which were put together by his personal librarian Antoine-Alexandre Barbier. These contained hundreds of volumes and covered military tactics, history, geography and religion as well as poetry and plays, among them works by Corneille, Racine, and Voltaire.

Travelling libraries had been popular for centuries before Boneparte. Henry VIII travelled with chests full of books as he wandered around England, and Francis I had a similar arrangement in France. Around 100 years later, English antiquarian and MP William Hakewill (1574-1655) commissioned several travelling libraries as gifts for friends and patrons. Several still survive, including one in the British Library and another in the Brotherton College at the Library of the University of Leeds.  

The Raab Collection is offering the order creating Napoleon’s travel library that accompanied him to Russia, signed by the three men who built it, Abbe Denina (Napoleon's imperial librarian), Barbier, and Jacob Desmalter who was responsible for the creation of the library itself and its decorations. Raab describe it as the first known travel library of a head of state and general. 

The document was signed, Paris, October 26, 1810, and reads: 

“Memo for his Majesty the Emperor and King, executed by the order of Mr. Barbie, librarian of his Majesty by Jacob Desmalter.
“Six boxes of pure mahogany to serve as portable libraries, the top opening and hinged, the interior being fitted with copper such that it can remain open, the back decorated with a copper hinge…. 1,440.
“One box made of oak from the Vosges [mountain range], lined with wool…. 150
“One box of oak… 140
“Restore and repair three mahogany boxes and refit the interiors with blue silk…. 234
“Repair and polish one mahogany box… 18
TOTAL 1982.”

It is verified at the bottom by Desmalter and witnessed on the verso by Barbier and Denina.

Sadly, the traveling library was lost in Napoleon's failed 1812 Russian campaign.