1911 Encyclopædia Britannica/Vincent of Beauvais

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12189581911 Encyclopædia Britannica, Volume 28 — Vincent of BeauvaisThomas Andrew Archer

VINCENT OF BEAUVAIS, or Vincentius Bellovacensis (c. 1190-c. 1264), the encyclopaedist of the middle ages, was probably a native of Beauvais.[1] The exact dates of his birth and death are unknown. A tolerably old tradition, preserved by Louis a Valleoleti (c. 1413), gives the latter as 1264;[2] but Tholomaeus de Luca, Vincent's younger contemporary (d. 1321), seems to reckon him as living during the pontificate of Gregory X. (1271-76). If we assume 1264 as the year of his death, the immense volume of his works forbids us to think he could have been born much later than 1190. Very little is known of his career. A plausible conjecture makes him enter the house of the Dominicans at Paris between 1215 and 1220, from which place a second conjecture carries him to the Dominican monastery founded at Beauvais in 1228-29. There is no evidence to show that the Vincent who was sub-prior of this foundation in 1246 is the encyclopaedist; nor indeed is it likely that a man of such abnormally studious habits could have found time to attend to the daily business routine of a monastic establishment. It is certain, however, that he at one thne held the post of “reader” at the monastery of Royaumont (Mons Regalis), not far from Paris, on the Oise, founded by St Louis between 1228 and 1235. St Louis read the books that he compiled, and supplied the funds for procuring copies of such authors as he required for his compilations. Queen Margaret, her son Philip and her son-in-law, Theobald V. of Champagne and Navarre, are also named among those who urged him to the composition of his “little works,” especially the De Institutione Principum. Though Vincent may well have been summoned to Royaumont even before 1240, there is no actual proof that he lived there before the return of Louis IX. and his wife from the Holy Land, early in the summer of 1254. But it is evident that he must have written his work De Eruditione Filiorum Regalium (where he styles himself as “Vincentius Belvacensis, de ordine praedicatorum, qualiscumque lector in monasterio de Regali Monte”) after this date and yet before January 1260, the approximate date of his Tractatus Consolatorius. When he wrote the latter work he must have left Royaumont, as he speaks of returning from the funeral of Prince Louis (15th January 1260) “ad nostram domum,” a phrase which can hardly be explained otherwise than as referring to his own Dominican house, whether at Beauvais or elsewhere.

The Speculum Majus, the great compendium of all the knowledge of the middle ages, as it left the pen of Vincent, seems to have consisted of three parts only, viz. the Speculum Naturale, Doctrinale and Historiale. Such, at least, is Échard's conclusion, derived from an examination of the earliest extant MSS. All the printed editions, however, consist of four parts, the additional one being entitled Speculum Morale. This has been clearly shown to be the production of a later hand, and is ascribed by Échard to the period between 1310 and 1325. In arrangement and style it is quite different from the other three parts, and indeed it is mainly a compilation from Thomas Aquinas, Stephen de Bourbon, and two or three other contemporary writers.

The Speculum Naturale fills a bulky folio volume of 848 closely printed double-columned pages. It is divided into thirty-two books and 3718 chapters. It is a vast summary of all the natural history known to western Europe towards the middle of the 13th century. It is, as it were, the great temple of medieval science, whose floor and walls are inlaid with an enormous mosaic of skilfully arranged passages from Latin, Greek, Arabic, and even Hebrew authors. To each quotation, as he borrows it, Vincent prefixes the name of the book and author from whom it is taken, distinguishing, however, his own remarks by the word “actor.” The Speculum Naturale is so constructed that the various subjects are dealt with according to the order of their creation; it is in fact a gigantic commentary on Genesis i. Thus book i. opens with an account of the Trinity and its relation to creation; then follows a similar series of chapters about angels, their attributes, powers, orders, &c., down to such minute points as their methods of communicating thought, on which matter the author decides, in his own person, that they have a kind of intelligible speech, and that with angels to think and to speak are not the same process. The whole book, in fact, deals with such things as were with God “in the beginning.” Book ii. treats of our own world, of light, colour, the four elements, Lucifer and his fallen angels, thus corresponding in the main with the sensible world and the work of the first day. Books iii. and iv. deal with the phenomena of the heavens and of time, which is measured by the motions of the heavenly bodies, with the sky and all its wonders, fire, rain, thunder, dew, winds, &c. Books v.-xiv. treat of the sea and the dry land: they discourse of the seas, the ocean and the great rivers, agricultural operations, metals, precious stones, plants, herbs, with their seeds, grains and juices, trees wild and cultivated, their fruits and their saps. Under each species, where possible, Vincent gives a chapter on its use in medicine, and he adopts for the most part an alphabetical arrangement. In book vi. c. 7 he incidentally discusses what would become of a stone if it were dropped down a hole, pierced right through the earth, and, curiously enough, decides that it would stay in the centre. Book xv. deals with astronomy—the moon, stars, and the zodiac, the sun, the planets, the seasons and the calendar. Books xvi. and xvii. treat of fowls and fishes, mainly in alphabetical order and with reference to their medical qualities. Books xviii.-xxii. deal in a similar way with domesticated and wild animals, including the dog, serpents, bees and insects; they also include a general treatise on animal physiology spread over books xxi.-xxii. Books xxiii.-xxviii. discuss the psychology, physiology and anatomy of man, the five senses and their organs, sleep, dreams, ecstasy, memory, reason, &c. The remaining four books seem more or less supplementary; the last (xxxii.) is a summary of geography and history down to the year 1250, when the book seems to have been given to the world, perhaps along with the Speculum Historiale and possibly an earlier form of the Speculum Doctrinale.

The Speculum Doctrinale, in seventeen books and 2374 chapters, is a summary of all the scholastic knowledge of the age and does not confine itself to natural history. It is intended to be a practical manual for the student and the official alike; and, to fulfil this object, it treats of the mechanic arts of life as well as the subtleties of the scholar, the duties of the prince and the tactics of the general. The first book, after defining philosophy, &c., gives a long Latin vocabulary of some 6000 or 7000 words. Grammar, logic, rhetoric and poetry are discussed in books ii. and iii., the latter including several well-known fables, such as the lion and the mouse. Book iv. treats of the virtues, each of which has two chapters of quotations allotted to it, one in prose and the other in verse. Book v. is of a somewhat similar nature. With book vi. we enter on the practical part of the work; it deals with the ars oeconomica, and gives directions for building, gardening, sowing, reaping, rearing cattle and tending vineyards; it includes also a kind of agricultural almanac for each month in the year. Books vii.-ix. have reference to the ars politica: they contain rules for the education of a prince and a summary of the forms, terms and statutes of canonical, civil and criminal law. Book xi. is devoted to the artes mechanicae, viz. those of weavers, smiths, armourers, merchants, hunters, and even the general and the sailor. Books xii.-xiv. deal with medicine both in practice and in theory: they contain practical rules for the preservation of health according to the four seasons of the year, and treat of various diseases from fever to gout. Book xv. deals with physics and may be regarded as a summary of the Speculum Naturale. Book xvi. is given up to mathematics, under which head are included music, geometry, astronomy, astrology, weights and measures, and metaphysics. It is noteworthy that in this book Vincent shows a knowledge of the Arabic numerals, though he does not call them by this name. With him the unit is termed “digitus”; when multiplied by ten it becomes the “articulus”; while the combination of the articulus and the digitus is the “numerus compositus.” In this chapter (xvi. 9), which is superscribed “actor,” he clearly explains how the value of a number increases tenfold with every place it is moved to the left. He is even acquainted with the later invention of the “cifra” or cipher. The last book (xvii.) treats of theology or (as we should now say) mythology, and winds up with an account of the Holy Scriptures and of the Fathers, from Ignatius and Dionysius the Areopagite to Jerome and Gregory the Great, and even of later writers from Isidore and Bede, through Alcuin, Lanfranc and Anselm, down to Bernard of Clairvaux and the brethren of St Victor.

As the fifteenth book of the Speculum Doctrinale is a summary of the Speculum Naturale, so the Speculum Historiale may be regarded as the expansion of the last book of the same work. It consists of thirty-one books divided into 3793 chapters. The first book opens with the mysteries of God and the angels, and then passes on to the works of the six days and the creation of man. It includes dissertations on the various vices and virtues, the different arts and sciences, and carries down the history of the world to the sojourn in Egypt. The next eleven books (ii.-xii.) conduct us through sacred and secular history down to the triumph of Christianity under Constantine. The story of Barlaam and Josaphat occupies a great part of book xv.; and book xvi. gives an account of Daniel's nine kingdoms, in which account Vincent differs from his professed authority, Sigebert of Gembloux, by reckoning England as the fourth instead of the fifth. In the chapters devoted to the origines of Britain he relies on the Brutus legend, but cannot carry his catalogue of British or English kings further than 735, where he honestly confesses that his authorities fail him. Seven more books bring us to the rise of Mahomet (xxiii.) and the days of Charlemagne (xxiv.). Vincent's Charlemagne is a curious medley of the great emperor of history and the champion of romance. He is at once the gigantic eater of Turpin, the huge warrior eight feet high, who could lift the armed knight standing on his open hand to a level with his head, the crusading conqueror of Jerusalem in days before the crusades, and yet with all this the temperate drinker and admirer of St Augustine, as his character had filtered down through various channels from the historical pages of Einhard. Book xxv. includes the first crusade, and in the course of book xxix., which contains an account of the Tatars, the author enters on what is almost contemporary history, winding up in book xxxi. with a short narrative of the crusade of St Louis in 1250. One remarkable feature of the Speculum Historiale is Vincent's constant habit of devoting several chapters to selections from the writings of each great author, whether secular or profane, as he mentions him in the course of his work. The extracts from Cicero and Ovid, Origen and St John, Chrysostom, Augustine and Jerome are but specimens of a useful custom which reaches its culminating point in book xxviii., which is devoted entirely to the writings of St Bernard. One main fault of the Speculum Historiale is the unduly large space devoted to miracles. Four of the medieval historians from whom he quotes most frequently are Sigebert of Gembloux, Hugh of Fleury, Helinand of Froidmont, and William of Malmesbury, whom he uses for Continental as well as for English history.

Vincent has thus hardly any claim to be reckoned as an original writer. But it is difficult to speak too highly of his immense industry in collecting, classifying and arranging these three huge volumes of 80 books and 9885 chapters. The undertaking to combine all human knowledge into a single whole was in itself a colossal one and could only have been born in a mind of no mean order. Indeed more than six centuries passed before the idea was again resuscitated; and even then it required a group of brilliant Frenchmen to do what the old Dominican had carried out unaided. The number of writers quoted by Vincent is almost incredible: in the Speculum Naturale alone no less than 350 distinct works are cited, and to these must be added at least 100 more for the other two Specula. His reading ranges from Arabian philosophers and naturalists to Aristotle, Eusebius, Cicero, Seneca, Julius Caesar (whom he calls Julius Celsus), and even the Jew, Peter Alphonso. But Hebrew, Arabic and Greek he seems to have known solely through one or other of the popular Latin versions. He admits that his quotations are not always exact, but asserts that this was the fault of careless copyists.

A list of Vincent's works, both MS. and printed, will be found in the Histoire littéraire de France, vol. xviii., and in Jacques Échard's Scriptores ordinis praedicatorum (1719-21). The Tractatus consolatorius pro morte amici and the Liber de eruditione filiorum regalium (dedicated to Queen Margaret) were printed at Basel in December 1480. The Liber de Institutione Principum, a treatise on the duties of kings and their functionaries, has never yet been printed, and the only MS. copy the writer of this article has been able to consult does not contain in its prologue all the information which Échard seems to imply is to be found there. The so-called first edition of the Speculum Majus, including the Speculum Morale, ascribed to Johann Mentelin and long celebrated as the earliest work printed at Strassburg, has lately been challenged as being only an earlier edition of Vincent's three genuine Specula (c. 1468-70), with which has been bound up the Speculum Morale first printed by Mentelin (c. 1473-76). The edition most frequently quoted is that by the Jesuits (4 vols., Douai, 1624).

See J. B. Bourgeat, Études sur Vincent de Beauvais, théologien, philosophe, encyclopédiste (Paris, 1856); E. Boutaric, Examen des sources du Speculum historiale de Vincent de Beauvais (Paris, 1863), and in tome xvii. of the Revue des questions historiques (Paris, 1875); W. Wattenbach, Deutschlands Geschichtsquellen, vol. ii. (1894); B. Hauréau, Notices . . . de MSS. latins de la Bibliothèque Nationale, tome v. (1892); and E. Mâle, L'art relieieux du XIIIe siècle en France.  (T. A. A.) 

  1. He is sometimes styled Vincentius Burgundus; but, according to M. Daunou, this appellation cannot be traced back further than the first half of the 15th century.
  2. Apparently confirmed by the few enigmatical lines preserved by Échard from his epitaph—

    “Pertulit iste necem post annos mille ducentos,
    Sexaginta decem sex habe, sex mihi retentos.”