Vincent of Beauvais, Speculum historiale

Speculum historiale, ‘The Mirror of History’, is a history of the world down to the 1240s in thirty-one books comprising 3,793 chapters. It is the third part of the Speculum maius, ‘The Great Mirror’, a monumental encyclopedia which was an attempt to encompass all forms of knowledge. The other two parts are Speculum naturale, ‘The Mirror of Nature’, a compendium of scientific knowledge in 32 books comprising 3,718 chapters, and Speculum doctrinale, ‘The Mirror of Doctrine’, a compendium of scholarship covering all manner of human affairs in seventeen books comprising 2,374 chapters. The production of this vast work was overseen by Vincent of Beauvais (c. 1190–1264), a friar attached to the Dominican houses in Paris, Beauvais, and later Royaumont on the Oise (which is near Paris). His activities as a writer had the support of the Capetian royal house, or at least this much is implied by the prefaces to his shorter tracts.

Speculum historiale has been included for discussion because it illustrates the trend towards ‘exhaustiveness’, the trend, that is, towards the accummulation of material on every possible historical subject which is one of the dominant tendencies in historical writing in the later Middle Ages. The production of compendia of this kind was largely achieved through systematic ‘plagiarism’: that is, by the copying out and aggregation en mass of material from other texts with some abbreviation but little other editorial intervention. Speculum historiale is itself based on an earlier chronicle of the same type compiled by the Cistercian monk Helinand of Froidmont (d. c. 1229). Though some discrimination in the selection of content is often apparent (typically where the material has some bearing on the reputation of the order or religious house under whose aegis such a chronicle was being produced), these compendia can seem like works whose size—the amount of space that they would occupy on the shelf—counted for more than the quality of their contents.

Manuscripts for Discussion: Cambridge, Corpus Christi College, MSS 13 + 14. These codices comprise two volumes of a large format, four-volume, copy of the Speculum Historiale. The first volume is presently held at St John’s College, Cambridge, where it is MS 43 (B.21), the fourth is lost. The 326 folios of Corpus 13 house books 9–16, the 328 folios of Corpus 14 house books 17–24. The text is laid out in double columns of fifty lines and written in a large well-rounded bookhand. There are some fine illustrations, including decorated initials and borders for each book (e.g. Corpus 13, fols. 2r, 46v, 91r, and so on). The motif of a greyhound chasing a hare occurs in many of the borders.

Provenance: Made at the end of the thirteenth or the beginning of the fourteenth century, the four-volumes belonged to St Augustine’s, Canterbury. This much is clear from the abbey’s library catalogue which lists the set along with the name of the donor who gave them to the abbey—‘Abbot Thomas’, perhaps Thomas of Findon (1283–1310)—and the ‘second folio’ readings from each book. These readings comprise the first words at the top of the second leaf. Since copies of the same text often varied in the precise distribution of the words across the pages, recording the ‘second folio’ reading was a way of identifying a specific copy of a book. Corpus 13 has lost its medieval fly-leaves, but St John’s 43 and Corpus 14 have the ex libris of the donor ‘Abbot Thomas’. Corpus 13 has the required second folio (eua/cuauit ostendens at the top of fol. 3r in the present foliation), as does Corpus 14 (miscente, fol. 2r). For the catalogue, see B. C. Barker-Benfield (ed.), Corpus of British Medieval Library Catalogues, vol. 13, St Augustine’s Abbey, Canterbury, 3 pts. (London, 2008), nos. BA1.901–4 (pp. 935–8) [ZVRea2]. Cf. M. R. James, Ancient Libraries of Canterbury and Dover (Cambridge, 1903), pp. 294 and 518 (nos. 901–904).

Facsimile: Both Corpus 13 and Corpus 14 are reproduced at the Parker Library on the Web.

Text: Vincent de Beauvais, Speculum quadruplex sive Speculum maius: naturale, doctrinale, morale, historiale, 4 vols. (Graz, 1964). PN.DQ.V6. A facsimile reprint of Douai edition of 1624.


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