The ébéniste inconnu of the palm leaf manuscript collection
The grand siècle of the 17th century was — and still is — widely romanticized as a period of history in which art and literature reached their pinnacle in France. French painters, poets, composers, and gardeners from this era were celebrated across Europe and are still remembered today. The art of woodworking, too, attained such decadent heights that a new French term was coined to describe the woodworker who created the lavish furnishings adorning the châteaus of the richest members of society — the ébéniste.
But while the most famous among the ébénistes made it into the history books, many more — as is always the case — were simply forgotten. These ébénistes inconnus, “unknown ébénistes”, still haunt the many French châteaus, now turned museums, that remain, as a testament to the incredible craftsmanship that was once taken for granted.
The collection of palm leaf manuscripts at the BnF also has its own forgotten ébénistes, who produced the wood covers that bind and protect the fragile leaves. Some of these wood covers were made in India, and came to France along with their manuscripts, but many others were made by French craftsmen after the manuscripts had arrived in France. Unlike bookbinders, who often printed their names on the spine or inside the book covers, we know next to nothing about the individuals who produced these manuscript covers. But by carefully examining their work, we can get a glimpse of their profession as it was transformed by empire, revolution, and industrialization.
Charpentiers & menuisiers
In French — as in any language — there are a number of overlapping terms for woodworking professionals. Over time, these terms seem to become more and more specialized and, consequently, more prestigious. The oldest and most general of these is charpentier, the carpenter. The work of carpentry is associated with the construction of large wood structures and framework, but, historically, the word charpentier comes from the Latin carpentarius, which refers specifically to someone who fabricates chariots (carpentum), as opposed to the more general lignarius, “wood-worker”.
The word menuisier, on the other hand, is derived from the word menu, “minute” or “minor”, and refers to a woodworker who specializes in producing smaller pieces, such as furniture. The work of menuiserie was originally part of carpentry; it was regulated by the guild of carpenters, and, in the middle ages, menuisiers were referred to as charpentiers de la petite cognée, “carpenters of the small ax”. Eventually, menuiserie became distinguished from charpenterie by the greater precision and attention to detail required by the work, and, in the 14th century, the menuisiers broke away from the carpenters’ guild and formed their own.
But even menuiserie itself was a broad category with multiple divisions and subdivisions — it was divided into architectural work (menuiserie d’assemblage) and furniture (menuiserie de rapport), and architectural work was further divided into menuiserie dormante, which covered partitions, panelling, and flooring, and menuiserie mobile, which dealt with doors and other openings. The term menuisier may have even been applied1 to other craftsmen, such as goldsmiths, who created smaller pieces.
Rathakāras & kammāḷas
A similar semantic field of woodworking terms also exist in India; in fact, the Sanskrit word rathakāra, “chariot-maker”, is an exact parallel to the Latin carpentarius, testifying to the importance of chariots in ancient Indo-european culture. As with “carpenter”, the term rathakāra also eventually came to mean a woodworker in general; however, in the subcontinent, the profession of woodworking developed under very different social and economic conditions.
A surprising amount of research has been done on the social status of the rathakāra as various empires rose and fell, with varying conclusions. It seems that, in the earliest literature we have, they enjoyed a privileged status, but in the later dharmaśāstra texts, they are ranked among the lowest members of society.2 In South India, woodworkers form part of the Kammāḷar community, sometimes called Kammāḷa-rathakārar, which — although constituting multiple castes — has consistently been considered of low caste status. Today, the Kammāḷar community as a whole is listed as a “backward class” by the Government of India.
But the term kammāḷa, like menuisier, is a broad category that nominally covers five crafts — three kinds of metalwork (gold, brass, and iron), woodwork, and stonework — and the social status of these crafts relative to one another seems to have varied. In fact, it has been hypothesized that, during the period of the Mauryan empire, there was a shift towards crafting stone monuments and away from the use of wood, coinciding with the rise of temple building. This led to a decline in the status of woodworkers and allowed architects and stonemasons to attain “a distinct class of their own”.3
Naturally, the rise of temple towns also created a division between the rural, independent handyman and the urban, master craftsman who oversaw multiple apprentices and directed the building of a temple.4 Although all five kinds of the Kammāḷar craftsmen would have been involved in temple construction,5 the master craftsman was likely a stonemason — simply because temples were built in stone — and he commanded higher wages. Goldsmiths, who worked with a more precious material, also attracted higher wages, and this income disparity eventually led to the “disassociation of the goldsmiths from the [Kammāḷar] union”,6 just as menuisiers in France, with their increased economic activity, broke away from the guild of carpentry.
Nevertheless, although Indian stonework is better-known, there are many examples of elaborate wood carvings still preserved in medieval Indian temples. Occasionally, some of this artistry is also applied to manuscript covers, especially in cases where the text has ritual or devotional significance.
The rise of the ébéniste
In 17th century France,7 the woodworking profession was also transformed by the use of new, prestige materials — an influx of tropical woods from the burgeoning French colonial empire and its expanding maritime trade network. These were unlike any of Europe’s native species; they were dense and oily and possessed magnificent colours and textures, like mahogany, purpleheart, rosewood, and — perhaps the most prized of them all, and the most difficult to work — ébène, ebony.
Woodworkers who used these materials were in great demand, and the most famous among them were granted apartments in the Louvre. Michel de Marolles famously wrote a poem celebrating the craftsmen lodged there, including a section on menuisiers. In it, he praised Laurent Stabre, who, at the time of his appointment by Henry IV in 1608, was described as a “menuisier faiseur de cabinets“. But by his death in 1624, his title had become “menuisier en ébène“. Pierre Boulle, admitted in 1636, was similarly described as a “menuisier et tourneur en ébène et autre bois“.
It wasn’t until the latter half of the 17th century that the term ébéniste came to replace menuisier en ébène in the list of artisans lodged at the Louvre. Perhaps the first — but undoubtedly the greatest — among them was André-Charles Boulle,8 who, when granted an apartment at the Louvre in 1672, was described as an “ébéniste, faiseur de marqueterie, doreur et siseleur”9. Again, the woodworking craft had become further specialized with the help of new materials — Boulle was most famous for his marquetry, in which thin veneers of tropical wood, precious metals,10 and tortoiseshell were glued onto a substrate to form intricate designs. As with goldsmiths in India, the incorporation of these luxury materials increased the prestige of both the craft and its craftsmen.
At first glance, the word ébénisterie might seem deceptively similar to charpenterie and menuiserie. But the two older words each describe their own domain of work — the charpentier builds large wooden structures, while the menuisier builds furniture and other smaller pieces. The ébéniste, however, also creates furniture; in fact, both the ébéniste and the menuisier offer, functionally, the same product. The only thing that differentiates ébénisterie from menuiserie is luxury11 — the incorporation of rare, expensive, and exotic materials.
Perhaps the word ébénisterie belongs to a rather different semantic field: together with turquerie and chinoiserie, two other words that were also coined in France in the same era. The 17th & 18th centuries witnessed a surge of interest in the products of the exotic East, which were both imported and imitated. This was a period in which Occidental and Oriental woodworking intersected, sometimes quite literally — Japanese screens were cut up and incorporated into French commodes; Chinese wine cups were mounted on French trays to create ink stands. Ébénistes began using Oriental patterns in their marquetry, and a new type of varnish was invented in an attempt to reproduce Oriental lacquer. It seems that ébénisterie was not so much a designation for a craft as it was a signification of opulence, rarity, and exoticism.
The ebony wood covers of the Ducler collection
Among the palm leaf manuscripts at the BnF, the collection that most exemplifies the work of ébénisterie is that of Philippe-Étienne Ducler (1778-1840), administrator of the French colony of Karaikal on the southeast coast of India.12 Each of these three dozen Tamil and Sanskrit manuscripts is bound on either side with polished covers often made of ebony, finished with a decorative, “thumbnail” edge profile.
As told in an 1832 article by Eugène Burnouf for the Journal asiatique, Ducler had ordered a “savant Hindou”, in the employ of the French government but sentenced to 8 years in prison on unspecified charges, to produce this collection of manuscripts for him. This activity was apparently meant, somehow, to ease the severity (“adoucir la rigueur”) of his prison stay.13 Burnouf describes the manuscripts not only in terms of the texts they contained, but also in terms of their physical beauty, as objects to behold. The palm leaves themselves had been imported from Sri Lanka — then under British rule —, presumably because of their superior quality. He does not mention the wood covers, but it is clear that they were produced at the same time, given their precise fit. The species of ebony used is perhaps a local, south Indian variety, such as Diospyros melanoxylon, but it could easily have been imported as well.14
The overall effect was the creation of, as Burnouf writes, the most beautiful Tamil collection ever seen in France (“la plus belle collection tamoule que nous ayons vue en France”). He praised it again in a letter to Hippolyte Royer-Collard, minister of public instruction, urging him to retain the collection for the Bibliothèque du roi, assuring him that he would spare no expense once he had set his eyes upon it. Naturally, Royer-Collard would not have been able to read the manuscripts; he was being asked to judge a book by its cover. Burnouf himself did not seem to look too closely, either; some of the text titles he gives in his article are wrong.
The afterlife of the Ducler style
What the Ducler collection seems to have spawned is a new manuscript culture: a hybrid, French colonial style that re-interprets the south Indian manuscript as an object d’art for the discerning French consumer. Much of the traditional craft of manuscript-making has been retained — the oblong format, the scorch marks that indicate that the edges of the leaves have been sealed with a hot iron — but the thin wood covers, although certainly made by a kammāḷa ācāri, evoke a French sensibility with their European-style decorative edge. It is unlike the pragmatic, unadorned covers made simply to protect a manuscript, nor is it like the elaborate covers of manuscripts used as devotional objects. This was a new product for a new market, destined to be shipped to France and added to the cabinet of curiosities of a refined, French gentleman.15
This style was not limited to the collection commissioned by Ducler. Eugène Burnouf, who had so admired their look, seems to have ordered a number of manuscripts in the same format, with the same kind of leaves and the same ebony wood covers.
Given their striking similarity, it is possible that the same craftsmen were even employed by Burnouf. The covers are decorated with an identical edge profile, perhaps even made with the same tool.
These manuscripts made it into the hands of other collectors, as well. A manuscript from an as-yet unidentified acquisition bears, again, the same format and ebony covers; the library stamp indicates that it was a much more recent acquisition, from the 1930’s onward.
Not all manuscripts arrived in France with wood covers. Sometimes they were protected with thicker leaves on either side, sometimes with nothing at all. It seems that at some point in the late 19th century,16 the BnF decided to commission wood covers for many of the palm leaf manuscripts that did not have them. These covers produced in France have a simpler, bevelled edge and sharp corners, and they were often made of local woods, like oak.
But producing new covers made to fit an existing manuscript presented a new problem: taking accurate measurements of the manuscript. On the back side of each cover, the woodworker has left traces of these measurements — along with a shelfmark, there are pencilled-in numbers indicating the intended width and height of the piece.
Prior to the 19th century, length in France was measured in pieds and pouces, feet and inches, like in many civilizations around the world. Despite a number of attempts at standardization, these units varied widely from place to place and trade to trade. A new, standard unit of length, based on the physical properties of the Earth, had been proposed as far back as the 17th century, but it wasn’t until the French revolution that the mètre was formally adopted by the National Assembly, abolishing the old pied du roi of the Ancien Régime.
But accurately establishing the mètre was a difficult scientific and political problem. The earliest attempt had tried to derive it from the swing of a pendulum, but scientists found that the length of the swing varied at different places on Earth, due to minute differences in gravity. Then, there was a proposal to measure a portion of the equator as a basis for the metre, but that was decided to be not feasible, since it would have involved taking measurements in parts of the world that “civilization” had yet to reach. Finally, after much debate and a multi-year odyssey, scientists managed to measure a tiny fraction of a meridian, resting comfortably within Europe, and that measurement became the basis for the standard metre of the Revolution.
The measurements given on the wood covers are in centimetres (for the width) and millimetres (for the height), decimal subdivisions of the new metre that were proposed in 1793. The millimetre measurements, in particular, seem unusually and unnecessarily precise; it is difficult to imagine asking someone to produce wood covers exactly 28 millimetres high. Nor was 28 millimetres a standard size — there are also covers marked as 27 mm and 29 mm high. Perhaps this expectation of rigour and accuracy was partly the result of a new confidence in standardized measurements; it was now possible to give the woodworker exact, numerical dimensions — deriving from the Earth itself — and expect a product made-to-measure in return. On the other hand, it may also be a reflection of the precision that became a trademark of the ébéniste, who was expected to work with hair-thin veneers of expensive materials and produce intricate patterns with them.
But the transition to the metric system, like the Revolution itself, was not an instantaneous, universally-welcomed change. Napoléon Bonaparte restored the usage of pieds and pouces in 1812, although they were officially defined in terms of metres and millimetres. This seems to have been a common strategy of adaptation; standard formats and sizes that were already in use were simply redefined in terms of metres, often resulting in very awkward measurements. A trace of these old standards can be seen, perhaps, in the thickness of the wood covers — they consistently measure between 6 and 7 millimetres, corresponding exactly to a quarter of a pouce.
Moreover, the methods that a craftsman uses to take measurements does not necessarily involve numbers. As ethnomathematical studies have shown — and as any woodworker would know — measurement is not always done with a ruler or with standard units, but rather with spatial reasoning and functional units. For example, the process of making stringholes in a new wood cover probably did not involve measuring the manuscript with a measuring tape. Instead, the simplest way to find the correct placement for a stringhole would be to overlay a leaf on top of the cover and mark where the hole is.
The fuel of industry
Apart from social and political upheavals, the turn of the 19th century was also marked by an industrial revolution, largely fuelled by the burning of wood until it was supplanted by coal around 1840. Even so, wood continued to be an important and overharvested resource,17 with its use in construction, paper pulp production, and wartime infrastructure. In order to ensure its supply, large swathes of land were replanted, often with a single species of tree to create monoculture plantations. And, by far, the most popular species planted were those from the pine (Pinaceae) family.
The wood of these trees, which include spruce, pine, and fir,18 are the very opposite of ebony — cheap, soft, light coloured, easy to work, and found abundantly throughout Europe. It dulls cutting tools not with its hardness but with the stickiness of its resin.19 These trees grow quickly — especially in a plantation setting —, reaching a harvestable size in a fraction of the time that ebony takes; in fact, in the forests of Franche-Comté, there is a tradition of electing a sapin président, a “president fir”, based on the volume of wood that could eventually be produced from it.20 But the wood from these fast growing trees is much less dense.
The majority of the wood covers that were produced in France are made of some species of pine wood, in contrast to the Ducler collection. The craftsmanship on display here, too, is strikingly different. It is far, far removed from the refined ébénisterie of the grand siècle; instead, these covers are characterized by a certain pragmatism, the sloppiness of (not quite) good enough. No one has bothered to remove the layout lines, and some cuts have pointedly missed their mark.
The precise centimetre and millimetre measurements are still present, but they rarely reflect the actual length and height of the wood cover; the length may be off by several centimetres. The stringholes seem to have been punched with an awl rather than drilled, sometimes in the wrong place.
There is a direct correlation between the low level of craftsmanship and the poor quality of the wood being used here. In ébénisterie, softwoods like fir were usually reserved for the framework of a piece of furniture — the parts that you wouldn’t see.21 Their softness makes them prone to dents, scratches, and tearout, and, in the wood covers, the resulting rough surface has been left unsanded. Many pieces are full of knots, which contribute to the difficulty of machining a flat and straight surface.
From ébéniste inconnu to ébéniste anonyme
Perhaps the woodworkers who crafted the pine wood covers would not have called themselves ébénistes. But their era was radically different from the grand siècle of André-Charles Boulle. By the early 20th century, the connection between ébénisterie and ébène had become tenuous; the fashion for ebony had faded. And around the same time that people were bemoaning the disappearance of the ébéniste and the demise of the bourgeoisie that employed them, some craftsmen had begun to advertise their business as ébénisterie industrielle.
Although during the height of the grand siècle, thin wood veneers were assembled together to produce intricate mosaics, they were now being used for a different purpose — to cover up cheaper wood. And now, furniture was even being veneered in local woods, like oak, that were once used only as an underlayer to cover up any cracks in the layer of exotic wood on top.
Veneers could also be stacked together, with their grain perpendicular to one another, and pressed and glued to produce plywood, a product that was thinner, stronger, and more stable than solid wood. One breathless endorsement in a 1935 youth magazine declared the imminent demise of solid wood furniture. A labour union newsletter from 1936 notes that, while all other wood industries were suffering the effects of the economic crisis, the plywood industry hadn’t skipped a beat. Furniture produced from plywood was both cheaper and less prone to warping with changes in temperature and humidity, which — as the newsletter notes — was a constant complaint of the clientele.22
This shift in the ébéniste trade was a result of economic pressure, but it was made possible by advances in woodworking machinery — whether foot-powered, horse-powered, steam-powered, or electric — in tandem with the expertise that had been honed over centuries of working with veneers. But now, the label of ébénisterie was no longer necessarily associated with luxury goods; expensive materials, like mother of pearl, were being replaced by cheaper synthetic substitutes, like nacrolaque. And the ébéniste was no longer a master artisan, but merely a worker hired to do a job in a factory. There were still famous ébénistes, to be sure, but now there were many more highly skilled workers that were needed to handle the complex materials and processes required to produce even low quality furniture.
The library’s conservation practices have evolved, as well. New wood covers are no longer commissioned for palm leaf manuscripts; instead, the leaves are protected by pressboard panels, produced using a layering and pressing process that is a distant, industrial relative of the veneering technique once employed by the ébénistes of the Sun King.
Li, Charles. 2022. “The ébéniste inconnu of the palm leaf manuscript collection.” Texts Surrounding Texts: Satellite Stanzas, Prefaces and Colophons in South-Indian Manuscripts (Paris BnF and Hamburg Stabi collections). 3 February. https://tst.hypotheses.org/2707
- Franklin 1884, 3, note. For this usage, the Grand Robert cites a dictionary from 1930. Today, there is menuiserie aluminium. [↩]
- Jha 1973. [↩]
- Misra 1975, 7. [↩]
- Kosambi 1956, 312. [↩]
- Ramasamy correlates the emergence of the five-fold Kammāḷar grouping in the 8th/9th century with the revival of temple building activity of the medieval Chola empire (2003, 303). [↩]
- Ramasamy 2004, 580 [↩]
- Tangentially, the 17th century also witnessed a surge in witch-hunts; see this case of a master menuisier accused of witchcraft. [↩]
- Likely a relative of Pierre Boulle (Stein 1890). [↩]
- This is notably earlier than the earliest attestation of the term ébéniste given in the Trésor de la langue française, which cites a dictionary published in 1680. [↩]
- In fact, his workshop contained a bronze foundry (Samoyault 1979, 10). [↩]
- Dictionary definitions of the word ébéniste employ the term “de luxe” (Temple 1996, 252). In the mid-18th century, it seems that ébénisterie was still considered a specialization of menuiserie. [↩]
- See also Francis 2021 and Moiroud 1830. [↩]
- Ducler seems to have modified the prison regulations in 1928. [↩]
- Although Karaikal itself was not an important commercial port, the Coromandel coast, where Karaikal is located, was famous for its colonial ports where Chinese lacquerware was shipped to the West. These products became known as “Coromandel lacquer“. [↩]
- For an earlier account of French fascination with Indian palm leaf manuscripts, see Colas in Rath 2012. [↩]
- Many of these manuscripts are from the collection of Edouard Ariel, who arrived in Pondicherry in 1844. His manuscripts were transferred to the BnF in 1866. [↩]
- See, for example, these wood production statistics from 1876, divided into bois d’œuvre and bois de feu. [↩]
- See Becker & Le Tacon 1985 for an overview of species planted in France. [↩]
- Although not a study of solid wood, see Bridges 1971, summarized in Wood Machining Abstracts, 1970 & 1971. [↩]
- These trees have now become tourist attractions, and no longer seem to serve as a future wood harvest. See Matteson 2015, 253, which mistranslates sapin as “pine”. [↩]
- Although one account claims that this practice was prevalent in the east of France, whereas a Parisian master ébéniste would use oak. [↩]
- There was also a product called “artificial wood” that seems to have been made using layers of paper, used as a substrate for a wood veneer. This was seen as an improvement over solid fir. [↩]
Hi Charles, This is a profoundly interesting, learned, and well-written piece of work. Great job!