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A genesis of the Speculum Maius


Quoniam multitudo librorum ..


Between 1240 and 1260, Vincent of Beauvais compiled the enormous Speculum Maius. The genesis of this encyclopedic work was complicated. This short presentation of its genesis departs from the analysis that Eva Albrecht published in her Ph.D. De ontstaansgeschiedenis en de compilatie van het "Speculum Naturale" van Vincent van Beauvais († 1264), Louvain 2007, vol. 1, notably pp. 60-64.

In 1244 Vincent had completed a collection of articles on virtues and vices, chronological history and natural history. He then started to expand and reorganize the text drastically, which resulted into a bipartite Speculum Maius. It contained

  • a Speculum Naturale in 30 books, treating natural history on the basis of the biblical order of six days of Creation, virtues and vices, and the arts and sciences;

  • a Speculum Historiale in 30 books, presenting a chronological history from the Fall of man to the year 1244; in this framework Vincent had incorporated a massive florilegium from the works by classical and medieval Latin authors, theological works by the Church Fathers and other ecclesiastical writers, and excerpts from legends and lives of the saints.


Vincent sent a first copy of the first half of the Speculum Historiale to King Louis IX of France in autumn 1245 [first half (= 15 books) of the Dijon version; for this version the siglum Ha is used]. Vincent then revised this first half of the Speculum Historiale and together with the second half of the Speculum Historiale [Klosterneuburg version; siglum: Hb] and the entire Speculum Naturale [Tournai version, siglum: Na], this bipartite Speculum Maius came into circulation, not before autumn/winter 1245/1246.


Apparently Vincent was dissatisfied with his work and took both specula out of circulation. He separated the material on the arts and sciences from the Speculum Naturale and accommodated it into a new speculum, the Speculum Doctrinale in 18 books [siglum: Do], which is uncompleted. He profoundly revised the remaining material of the Speculum Naturale as well as the second half of the Speculum Historiale.


Before 1250, a revised version of the first half of the Speculum Historiale came into circulation [first half (= 15 books) of the Vienna version; siglum: Hc]. In its General Prologue (Libellus Apologeticus), Vincent announced his plan to create a quadripartite Speculum Maius in three volumes, including a Speculum Naturale, a Speculum Doctrinale plus a Speculum Morale (on virtues and vices), and a Speculum Historiale.


A thorough revision of the entire Speculum Historiale came into circulation after March 1253. Vincent had the massive florilegium strongly reduced but now incorporated long stretches of texts from new historical sources [Saint-Jacques version, 32 books; siglum: Hd]. The Libellus Apologeticus now describes a quadripartite Speculum Maius in four volumes, allowing both the Speculum Doctrinale and the Speculum Morale a volume of its own. Smaller revisions of the historical material resulted into the final version of the Speculum Historiale [Douai version, 32 books; siglum He]. Its exemplar came into circulation after July 1254.


The revision of the Speculum Naturale took much longer. Not before autumn 1257, a new version of the Speculum Naturale came into circulation [Bruges version, 32 books; siglum Nb]. Smaller revisions that Vincent incorporated afterwards resulted into the final version of the Speculum Naturale [Douai version, 33 books; siglum Nc]. It is unclear when its exemplar came into circulation.


Although at a few places in the earliest version of the Speculum Maius textual material has been identified that was intended for incorporation into the Speculum Morale, it is unclear if Vincent has been able to materialize his plans for that speculum. The Speculum Morale that we know today and that has been ascribed to Vincent, is the product of a Franciscan compiler who worked between 1310 and 1320 [siglum: Mo].

For more information on the components of the Speculum Maius.

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