An enormous encyclopedia
The name of this largest encyclopedia of the Middle Ages means 'Greater Mirror'. The work is a reflection of society as seen by a medieval scholar. We can compare the Speculum Maius to a present-day encyclopedia such as the Encyclopaedia Britannica because of its form, richness of subject matter and enormous size. The work was incredibly famous from its inception until well into the seventeenth century, as evidenced by the hundreds of manuscripts and the series of early printings made of the Speculum Maius.
Vincent divided the work into four large parts. The first part, Speculum Naturale (Mirror of Nature), was about nature in all its facets. It starts with God and creation. Using the creation story from Genesis as a guide, this speculum then tells about all aspects of nature, from the sun and moon to insects and worms, from the gems to man. This natural part ends with a summary of the history of humankind and a preview of the end of times, as seen by medieval people.
The second part, the Speculum Doctrinale (Mirror of the Sciences), describes all sciences as they were known in the thirteenth century. Vincent extensively discusses the liberal arts, political science, monastic science, agriculture, medicine and alchemy, etc.
Vincent did not accomplish the third part, which would have been called the Speculum Morale (Mirror of Ethics). But around the year 1300, it was realised by members of another monastic order, the Franciscans, possibly based on material that Vincent had already provided. Because this part appeared together with the three original specula in print from 1475 onwards, it seems as if this Speculum Morale is part of the Speculum Maius, but that is not true. And you will notice this when you take a more detailed look at the contents of this part.
The fourth and last part, the Speculum Historiale (Mirror of History), covers the history of humankind from the very beginning, for a medieval scholar so at Adam and Eve, and runs up to Vincent of Beauvais' own time. It concludes with a reflection on the future of the end of the world. The last dated historical data date from 1253. This fourth speculum also contains a summary of the other three parts and anthologies from classical and Christian literature. The Speculum Historiale was the most popular part of the four; more than 250 manuscripts are known today.
Initially, Vincent of Beauvais had the plan to bring the entire Speculum Maius together in one manuscript. But the longer he was working on it, the more extensive the work became, so that was no longer feasible. Presumably, Vincent worked by subjects (treatises) and perhaps on loose sheets. Subsequently, his workshop of writers neatly transcribed all the texts. Then everything was bundled into larger parts (partes). These could then be copied by hand for further distribution. Vincent says that he is not always satisfied with the work of his writers, but neither was he satisfied with his own writings. He reworked both the Speculum Naturale and the Speculum Historiale up to four or five times and did not finish the Speculum Morale. It remains the subject of research how he reworked the various specula in concrete terms.
Libraries at that time did not have the extensive book collections that we are used to today. Vincent did not find all the books that he needed at the place where he worked. For this reason, King Louis IX gave him a licence to travel throughout the French territory to look for material in other libraries. We know that he visited the city of Tournai, among other places, and was delighted with the wealth of the library there.
For more details about the Speculum Maius