Vincent Beauvais was a Dominican Cleric who took it upon himself to compile the Speculum Majus, an encyclopedia of all human knowledge upto the time of Louis IX of France.
The exact birth date of Vincent is unknown but is placed between 1184-1194 in Beauvais, France, during the first reign of Philip – August. Sometime between 1218 – 1220, Vincent entered the Dominican order in Paris and began his studies at the house of the Rue – Saint Jacques.
Vincent spent most of his life monastery at Beauvais but was called for periodic visit to Louis IX at Royaumont where the King had founded an Abbey in 1228. It is most certain that, however, that he held the Post of a “Reader” at the monastery of Royaumont on the Oise, not far from Paris, also founded by Louis IX, between 1228 – 1235. The King read the books that Vincent compiled and supplied the funds for procuring copies of such authors required. Vincent lectured at the monastery and preached at court, making knowledge accessible to the residents of court. Queen Margaret of Provence and her son-in-law, Theobald V Champagne and Navarre, are also among those urged him to the composition of his “little works”, especially Deorali PrincipisInstitutione.
In his role as priest and theologian, Vincent had access to vast libraries and soon conceived of the idea to compile an encyclopedia of all knowledge. Recognizing a need to organize all existing knowledge for the benefit of humanity, he established his goal and soon undertook the enormous task of collecting and cataloging all information all information available to that time. He was aided in his effort by his royal patron Louis IX, King of France, who helped him with the purchase of books and by giving him unlimited access to the royal library, which contained nearly 1200 manuscripts.
For two decades, Vincent studied the scholars, organizing their work into one massive book he titled “Speculum Majus” or “the Great Mirror”. The Speculum was originally divided into two parts, Speculum Naturale, and Speculum historiale. A third part, Speculum Doctrinale was originally an appendix to the Naturale, but, Vincent eventually presented it as a full third part in its own right. He catalogued three parts in great detail, covering the areas of nature, education and history.
The first part of the Speculum Majus, is titled Speculum Naturale, “mirror of nature”. This part summarizes all knowledge of nature. With feverish activity he set about collecting the flowers, of the ancient world in order to begin his first classification and save the heritage of the past. Its 32 books and 3,718 chapters cover a variety of natural sciences, including agriculture, botany, cosmography, mineralogy, physiology, physics and zoology.
Vincent wrote the second part of the Speculum Majus on instruction, or education, and titled it Speculum doctrinal, the “mirror of teaching”. It consists of seventeen books and comprises 2,374 chapters. The thesis of these Speculum doctrinal is that the purpose of education is to acquire knowledge of how to serve God. His chief purpose was to impart knowledge yet not to influence individual will. The purpose of Speculum doctrinal is to summarize all scholastic knowledge of the age. Here he discusses all things relating to education, including astronomy, anatomy, geometry, instincts, industrial and mechanical arts, passions, poetry, logic, medicine, rhetoric, surgery, the philosophy of law, and the administration of justice.
The Speculum is probably the most popular title in this particular market of illustrated popular theology, competing especially with the Bibliapauperum and the Arsmoriendi for the accolade.
At the request of Queen Marguerite, Vincent composed De eruditionefiliorumnobilium, (on the education of the Noble Sons). This was written between (1247-1249) and was intended to enumerate the needs of young Louis (1244-1260) and his sister (1242-1271).
His third part is the Speculum Historiale, the “mirror of history”. In its 31 books and 3,793 chapters, Vincent relates all of history’s events. It first covered from the beginning of time, as referenced theologically, to 1244. It is a compilation of extracts from other chroniclers, and Vincent later extended to bring the world up to the date of 1250. As with the other books, historical interprets history in the light of strict Christian doctrine, beginning with the creation as it is explained in the Bible and following the order of the six days of creation as described in Genesis.
The fourth part, Speculum Morale, “mirror of morality”, has been closely studied, and experts agree that it was written in the beginning of the fourteenth century, and was fraudulently introduced into the works of Vincent Beauvais.
To compile such an enormous work, Vincent studied the writings of 450 Greek, Hebrew, and Roman Scholars. He was meticulous in his research. He screened his authorities carefully, warned his readers that all authorities do not have the same value, and categorised his references as great, mediocre, of little or no authority at all. He was modest in ascribing credit to his sources.
In 1250 Vincent of Beauvais was appointed lector and chaplain to the court of his friend and patron, Louis IX. His role at court was not that of a teacher, but rather as a theoretician of education. Vincent provided the material and principles, but the actual application was left to court scholars. As with most royal parents of the time, Louis maintained a somewhat remote relationship with the children. Queen Marguerite, wife of Louis IX, on the other hand, was very concerned about the proper education of her children.
He died in Paris, and his epitaph puts his death in 1264. He left a legacy of erudition, his Speculum Majus survived him as the greatest encyclopedia up to the eighteenth century and retains that title today.
He was a staunch orthodox Christian, followed Dominic Order. His purpose in preparing Speculum Majus was to collect and arguments to confirm Christian faith.
Vincent of Beauvais was very conscious of politics, and in his treatise on the subject he emphasizes that the authority of the church and the consent of the people are important. His political thoughts on the education of rulers display an anti-feudalistic attitude toward lords and vassals. He gives specific direction on the education of rulers, favoring limitations on monarchical power and attention toward democratic thinking. He wrote that monarchy should not be based on power alone, and he believed that excessive power led to increased evil.
It was a time of religious fervor, and his new Dominic order was charged with overseeing the Inquisition, but Vincent chose to lead a quiet, academic life. Vincent dedicated this treatise to Queen Marguerite. De eruditione put particular emphasis on the need for selecting the tutor for royal children. This work is defined by some as high-minded, quoting from many of the authorities of the day, but providing little practical application.
The last nine chapters of De eruditionefiliorumnobilium discuss the education of girls. Vincent is specific about the importance of teaching girls good morals and manners, especially regarding chastity, modesty and humility. He stresses the importance of not allowing daughters in public alone and suggests that daughters of noble birth should have supervised readings of the Bible varied with periods of prayer and sewing. He also decries the attention paid to physical appearance and discourage girls and women from taking any action to improve their looks.
The first book of the Speculum doctrinale gives the key to an understanding of the purpose of the work in-full that is, the restoration of fallen humanity through discipline and the study of philosophy. Throughout the seventeen books of Speculum doctrinale, Vincent considers the various human conditions – as individuals, as parts of families and as a member of society.
An industrious man with strong organizational skills, Vincent spent more than two decades researching and writing this work, which covers the areas of nature, education and history. His intense curiosity made him well suited to a life of research and writing. Vincent’s dedication to his research earned him the nickname “Liborumhelluo” or devourer of books.
Vincent of Beauvais’s source of inspiration was divine love. He was a humble soul who saw life only as a means for obtaining heaven.
““Woman is man's confusion.””
Philosophers & Thinkers
Perhaps the most notable aspect of Vincent’s encyclopaedia is his familiarity with Greco-Roman classical scholarship and his obvious respect for the classics, particularly the Greek philosopher Aristotle, the Roman statesman-philosopher Cicero, and the Greek physician Hippocrates.
He was never married since he was fully dedicated to his theological work.