Vincent of Beauvais

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(History of the World: The Middle Ages)

Article abstract: Vincent compiled the most comprehensive encyclopedia of the Middle Ages, encompassing natural science, history, theology, philosophy, and the liberal and mechanical arts.

Early Life

Very little is known about Vincent of Beauvais, except for his association with the court of the French king Louis IX and inferences that can be drawn from his writings. He never refers to his birthplace, but he often shows a familiarity with people and events in Beauvais. No record of his birth exists, and the approximate dates commonly given for it (usually between 1190 and 1200) stem partly from the assumption that he must have been a fairly young man when he became a member of the newly formed Order of Preachers, the Dominicans, in about 1220.

According to some sources, Vincent was based at the Dominican House on rue St. Jacques in Paris and studied at the University of Paris in the 1220’s. It seems likely that he participated in the founding of the Dominican House in Beauvais in 1228-1229, perhaps in keeping with the Dominican custom of sending members of the order back to their hometowns to establish convents. It was during this period of his life in Beauvais that he came to the attention of Louis IX because of his early work on the compendium of knowledge which finally became the Speculum majus (1244, revised 1256-1259).

Life’s Work

Although Vincent did not receive an official appointment from Louis IX until about 1246, when he was made lector of the royally founded Cistercian abbey at Royaumont (not far from Beauvais), he was probably in correspondence with the king in the early 1240’s concerning his compendium, and he received royal encouragement and financial support for some of the copying and research on that immense project. The first version of the Speculum majus seems to have been finished and ready for the king by 1244. From the time of his appointment at Royaumont, however, Vincent was intimately involved with the royal family, which was often in residence there. He became a kind of educational director for the king’s children (although he did not tutor them himself), and in 1260 he wrote, at the commission of the queen, a work on the education of princes, De eruditione filiorum nobilium (on the instruction of nobly born children). When one of the royal children, the Dauphin Louis, died in 1260, Vincent wrote a personal consolation (Epistola consolatoria super morte filii, or “letter of consolation on the death of his son”) to the king. In the preface to this letter, Vincent mentions that he has preached before the king, a comment that offers further evidence of the respect he was shown by the royal family.

Vincent of Beauvais is chiefly remembered, however, for his tremendous three-volume encyclopedia, the Speculum majus. This work was begun probably in the 1230’s and went through several stages before the revised version (covering material up to 1250) was made available sometime between 1256 and 1259. The Dominican emphasis on intellectual endeavors no doubt nurtured Vincent’s desire to provide an all-inclusive reference book for the learned, but he devised the specific rationale and organization for the work, even though he presented himself as no more than an extractor of the wisdom of others. He saw the work as an aid to memory amid the bewildering abundance of materials one would have to consult to answer questions of theology, natural science, or history. He was a selector and arranger of knowledge, not an original thinker.

Nevertheless, what he produced was a monumental and influential treatise in three parts: the Naturale, the Historiale, and the Doctrinale (dealing, respectively, with the elements of nature, the acts of men, and the arts and sciences). The common purpose of these three parts (later editions added a spurious fourth book, the Morale ) was to enable the readers more easily to observe, admire, and imitate the best in human wisdom up to that time; in other words, Vincent wanted to provide...

(The entire section is 1,542 words.)