Last updated:
June 14, 2021

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Life of Helinand

Helinand of Froidmont (Helinandus Frigidimontis) lived from about 1160 till after 1229.  Originating from a Flemish noble family, Helinand was born in the region of Beauvais in France. He studied with the grammaticus Ralph of Beauvais, a pupil of Peter Abelard, and then entered the Cistercian monastery of Froidmont near Beauvais.[1  Many scholars have assumed that Helinand was a famous minstrel before he became a Cistercian, and that he was familiar to Philippe Augustus, king of France, too. However, there is no solid evidence supporting these assumptions at all.[2]  Helinand has written works in both French and Latin, and he became a famous preacher. In spring 1229, he attended the Council of Toulouse and pronounced three sermons on the occasion of the founding of the University of Toulouse. Helinand died sometime after 1229. 

Les Vers de la Mort

Helinand is the author of the well-known vernacular Les Vers de la Mort, written between 1194 and 1197. In this poem, Death visits the kings and ecclesiastical figures involved in the divorce scandal of Philippe Augustus and Ingeburga of Denmark. This text seems to have provoked, in 1199, a ban on the composition of vernacular polemic verse by members of the Cistercian order.[3 

Les Vers de la Mort have been much more popular than Helinand’s Latin works, and this popularity continues until today. In 1244, about ten years after Helinand had died, the Dominican friar Vincent of Beauvais († ca. 1264), in his Speculum Historiale (see below), mentions the great fame of Les Vers de la Mort. The twenty-four manuscripts that have come down to us, dating from the thirteenth and fourteenth century, testify to this popularity in a physical way. Les Vers de la Mort have been read from the pulpit frequently and were the object of late-medieval commentaries and imitations. Since the end of the sixteenth century, five editions of the medieval French text have been published. Starting in 1930, an impressive series of translations has appeared too, into French, Dutch, English, German, Italian and Spanish. In 1987, Les Vers de la Mort were adapted for the stage, and today one may also find representations of the text on cd and on the Internet.[4 

Only little is known of the context in which Helinand composed this work. Scholars who studied the text, stressed various elements which they considered important for that context, e.g., the transition from monastic to scholastic writing taking place in the Cistercian environment at the end of the twelfth century, the indifference to monastic life, the rise of the contemptus mundi doctrine, the political situation, or the liberty to satirize high-ranked people using vernacular languages.[5 


Sixty-eight sermons in Latin by Helinand have been identified until now; only half of this corpus is available in printed editions.[6  These sermons are the products of a preacher who possesses a detailed knowledge of both the Bible and the profane classical Latin authors. Like he did in Les Vers de la Mort, Helinand criticizes ecclesiastical figures and other high-ranked individuals, the rich and the powerful, but he also addresses his fellow-Cistercians and resists topics like contemporary worldly learning.

In the three sermons he preached at Toulouse in 1229, Helinand severely attacked the Cathars. On account of these texts, Kienzle marked out Helinand as one of the clerics involved in the Albigensian Crusade, as a combatant of the many Cistercians involved in the campaign against heresy and heterodoxy.[7 


Helinand is reputed for the Chronicon, which he compiled during the years 1211-1223. This Chronicon is a voluminous world chronicle in Latin containing 49 books, of which less than half have survived.[8  Today we have:

  • the text of books 1-18, covering the period from the Creation to the death of king Alexander the Great;
  • several fragments of books 19-44 which have survived as copies, notably scattered through the whole of the Speculum Maius of Vincent of Beauvais, who already complains about the loss of part of the Chronicon; [9
  • the text of books 45-49, which deal with the period from 634 to 1204, at which year the text ends rather abruptly.

The greater part of Helinand's Chronicon has never been edited. Today we know of editions of the following sections:

  • an edition of the list of chapters of books 1 to 18 as well as the margins of the Vatican manuscript of the Chronicon: Paulmier-Foucart 1986;
  • a partial edition of book 6: Malewicz 1974;
  • an edition of book 6, chapters 64-66: Smits 1987;
  • an edition of book 8, incorporated into an unpublished thesis of the École Nationale des Chartes; see Arnaud-Cancel 1971;
  • an edition of selections from book 12: Smits 1983;
  • an edition of books 45-49: Tissier 1669, 73-205; reprinted by Migne, Patrologiae cursus completus, series Latina (...) [PL], vol. 212, 771-1082; this edition omits several sections that must have been present in Helinand's work; see Voorbij/Woesthuis 1996, 348-351. 

In 1986, at the University of Groningen (The Netherlands), the "Chronicon Edition Project" was initiated to make all surviving parts of Helinand's work available in a critical edition.

The Chronicon may be qualified as an encyclopedic text book of history, serving Cistercian needs to interpret the scriptures in accordance with the catholic truth and to preach.[10]  Its overall structure is based on the progression of time. It is frequently interrupted, however, by – sometimes voluminous and learned – digressions wherein Helinand includes whatever material he feels pertinent to the historical line. He has taken these digressions from a great variety of sources. Thus we find, to mention just a few examples:

For lack of a prologue to the Chronicon, Helinand's intentions with such extensive digressions is left for his editors and interpreters to attempt to understand.

Books 45-49 of the Chronicon have been a source for the fairly unknown chronicle by the Cistercian monk Aubri de Trois-Fontaines (ca. 1241).[11]  Small fragments of the Chronicon also survived through Helinand's sermons, as the author used his work as a source text for his own sermons. By far the largest portions derived from the Chronicon can be found in the Speculum Maius of Vincent of Beauvais, who used Helinand's text in two ways: 

  • Many longer and shorter quotations from the entire Chronicon  – as far as available to Vincent – have been incorporated into the Speculum Maius (Speculum Naturale, Speculum Doctrinale and Speculum Historiale);[12
  • Vincent compiled a long florilegium from Helinand's works, which he included in the Speculum Historiale.[13]  For a large part of this florilegium, he excerpted, abbreviated and restructured sections from books 10 and 11 of the Chronicon and invented chapter titles, thus creating the suggestion that this material was derived from independent texts. Vincent's presentation has led to serious misunderstandings. Several scholars mistakenly deduced from it that Helinand was the author of the moral treatise De cognitione sui and of the mirror of princes De bono regimine principis. These excerpts, however, were not conceived as separate treatises at all; they were just derived by Vincent from the historical exegesis of the Scripture that Helinand had pursued in his Chronicon (see Geertsma 2013). 


Helinand also wrote a few letters in Latin: 

  • a letter to Philip of Val Sainte-Marie that Helinand incorporated into book 6 of the Chronicon;[14
  • the Epistola ad Galterum clericum (or: Liber de reparatione lapsi), as far as known not preserved in the Chronicon. Vincent inserted this letter into his florilegium of Helinand.[15

(Falsely) Attributed works 

One work has falsely been attributed to Helinand: the Passio of Saints Gereon, Victor, Cassius and Florent. Since this Passio has been written before the year 1000, any credit to Helinand is wrong.[16

Several other works have been attributed to Helinand: a few Latin poems, including the Vado mori (see note 4), and three further works that are only known by name: Glosses on Exodus, an Anthology of the writings of Saint Bernard of Clairvaux, and a Commentary on the Apocalypse. For lack of further studies, Helinand's authorship of these works is unestablished.



For general information on Helinand and his oeuvre, see Smits 1983; Smits 1987; Smits 1991; Kienzle 1997; Kienzle 2001; and Saak 2015. See also Paden 1984.
Helinand of Froidmont (the individual and his works) is sometimes confused with the Cistercian monk Helinand of Perseigne.  See, for instance, Schneyer 1970; J. Favier, Dictionnaire de la France médiévale, Paris 1993, 490; and the section "Autori et testi" of Medioevo Latino. Bollettino bibliografico della cultura europea da Boezio a Erasmo (secoli VI-XV), Firenze 1980-....

Grossel 2013 convincingly proves these assumptions wrong.

See Paden 1980.

Most reliable edition: Wulff/Walberg 1905. Other editions: Loisel 1594; Méon 1826; Buchon 1843; Pauphilet 1952; Tschann/Parkes 1996; Thiry 2002; and Dörr/Zimmermann 2007.
Translations into modern French: Coppin 1930; Paquette 1979; Boyer/Santucci 1983; Desgrugillers-Billard 2008; into Dutch: Fieuws 1980; into English: Paden 1978; Porter 1999; into German: Cosacchi 1965; into Italian: Donà 1988; and into Spanish: Ibáñez Rodríguez 2004.
See Lanc 1987A for an adaptation for the stage.
For a presentation on cd, see: Hélinand de Froidmont, Les Vers de la Mort, interpretation by Marie Möör, with music by Jack Belsen, Jac Berrocal, Joachim Montessuis, Gaspar Claus, Olivier Mellano and Laurent Chambert (2014). For representations on the Internet, see e.g. and 
Les Vers de la Mort should not be confused with the Vado mori, a Latin poem attributed to Helinand; this text is edited by Blum/Dreves 1899. For an Italian translation of this Vado mori, see: Donà 1988, Appendix.

See, e.g., Leclercq 1977 (transition), Boyer/Santucci 1983, 17-19, note 13 (contemptus mundi doctrine) and Williams 1978 and Paden 1980 (satirical texts in vernacular languages). Grossel 2013 shows how difficult it is to approach such elements satisfactorily.

Editions: Tissier 1669, 206-305; reprinted by Migne, PL, vol. 212, 481-720. Six sermons have only survived in these editions.
In about 1986, Beverly Kienzle started an edition project of the unpublished sermons. Kienzle 1997, 46-53 surveys the sermons she published so far.
The list in Schneyer 1970 suggests that Helinand wrote 69 sermons. However, the last manuscript Schneyer reports — Munich, Bayerische Staatsbibliothek, clm 14348 f. 36va — does not contain a text by Helinand.

See Kienzle 1997, 37.

The text survived in manuscripts Vatican, Bibl. Apostolica Vaticana, Reg. lat. 535 (books 1-18) and London, British Library, Cotton Claudius B.IX (books 1-16). Books 45-49 were printed in 1669 by Tissier 1669, 73-205 (207), and reprinted by Migne, PL, vol. 212, 771-1082. 
Kneepkens 2013 shows that a probably complete manuscript copy of the Chronicon must have been extant in England.

Vincent's complaint can be found in the Speculum Historiale, Douai version, book XXX chapter 108: De domino Helinando monacho et scriptis eius = book XXIX chapter 108 in the following edition: Bibliotheca Mundi. Vincentii Burgundi, ex ordine Praedicatorum venerabilis episcopi Bellovacensis, Speculum Quadruplex, Naturale, Doctrinale, Morale, Historiale .... Ed. by the Benedictines of St. Vaast. Douai 1624 (reprint: Graz 1964-1965), vol. 4, p. 1222. Vincent has completed the Douai version in or shortly after 1254.  The same reference to Helinand's work is present in book XXIX, chapter 78 of an earlier version of the Speculum Historiale, the Klosterneuburg version, dating from 1244/45; see: Voorbij, J. B., Het "Speculum Historiale" van Vincent van Beauvais. Een studie van zijn ontstaansgeschiedenis, (Ph.D. Groningen University) Groningen 1991, p. 255.

Cf. Saak 1997, 290-292.

See Paulmier-Foucart 1981, 67-69; and Lonati 2020, 254-263. For information on Aubri's chronicle, see Wilmans 1851 and Reindel 1997. A partial edition of Aubri's work can be found in Monumenta Germaniae Historica, Scriptores vol. 23, 631-950 (edition by P. Scheffer-Boichorst).

For the relation of Helinand's Chronicon to the works of Vincent, see Paulmier-Foucart 1981; Smits 1986A; Voorbij/Woesthuis 1996; Woesthuis 1997; and Lonati 2020, esp. 235-254.
The reputation of Helinand's name and of his Chronicon owes much to the many references that Vincent incorporated into his Speculum Maius. Due to the popularity of the Speculum Maius — to which testifies a corpus of over 300 manuscripts and a series of incunabula printings and early modern editions — and to the translations and adaptations into medieval vernaculars of one particular part, the Speculum Historiale, Helinand's name (Helinandus, sometimes misread: Helmandus or Elimand[us]) became familiar to many scholars all over Europe. 
Vincent also incorporated quotations from the Chronicon in his De morali principis institutione, a part of his political-didactic encyclopedia Opus universale de statu principis.

The florilegium from Helinand's works starts with the chapter containing Vincent's complaint (see note 6): Speculum Historiale, Klosterneuburg version XXIX,78-111; Douai version XXX,108-148.  Manuscript evidence suggests that these Flores Helinandi also circulated as an independent text; this phenomenon needs further study.

Smits 1987.

Speculum Historiale, Klosterneuburg version XXIX,97-111; Douai version XXX, 134-148. Editions: Tissier 1669, 316-322; reprinted by Migne, PL, vol. 212, 745-760.

See: Levison 1931A, Levison 1931B, Philipart 1984 and Nieus 1997. This false attribution originates from the 16th-century church historian Laurentius Surius O.Carth., who misinterpreted the reference Helinandus in Speculum Historiale XIII,4, where Vincent most probably quoted the abbreviated rendering of the Passio that he had found in Helinand's Chronicon.
Migne's edition of the Passio in PL 212, 759-772, placed among genuine works by Helinand, reprints the earlier edition in the Acta Sanctorum, which in its turn collated the 16th-century edition by Surius with two manuscripts containing the text of the Passio.