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A genesis of the Speculum Historiale

In 1244, Vincent completed the first version of the Speculum Historiale. At that time, the work looked different from the Douai version (circa 1256), which is the work's last and most widely distributed version and consists of 32 books. The first version was named after the city of Dijon, where a manuscript containing elements of that version was first found. The names of the three intermediate versions are those of Klosterneuburg, Vienna and Saint-Jacques.

By 1244, the Speculum Historiale consisted of 30 books. Vincent sent a copy of the first 15 books to King Louis IX of France in that year, at the king's urgent request. This copy is preceded by a letter of presentation to the king, in which Vincent tells him that the Speculum Historiale is nearing completion (Dijon version). Later that year, Vincent completed his Speculum Historiale, consisting of 30 books, with modifications to the first 15 books (Klosterneuburg version). In the following years, Vincent reworked the Speculum Historiale in several stages. The second half (books 16-30 covering the period from Emperor Gratian to Vincent's own life) was revised much more thoroughly than the first half (books 1-15, from Adam and Eve to the beginning of Gratian's reign).

In a nutshell, Vincent proceeded as follows. The first half’s content underwent several minor changes, in several stages. Moreover, the distribution of content among the books was changed several times. The first half as we know it today contains 16 books (the Vienna version first with 15 books; then the Saint-Jacques and Douai versions with 16 books).

In the second half, on the other hand, Vincent substantially revised. To begin with, he greatly shortened the moralising anthologies from writings by Christian authors such as Ambrose of Milan, John Chrysostom, Jerome of Stridon, Augustine of Hippo, Gregory the Great, Bernard of Clairvaux, and several others. Two striking examples: the anthology from the writings of Gregory the Great was reduced from 165 chapters to 76, and that from Bernard of Clairvaux from 241 to 127. Even the treatise on the Last Days of the World, which concludes the Speculum Historiale, was reduced by more than 50 per cent. In total, several hundred thousand words were omitted.

These omissions were counterbalanced by substantial expansions:

  • In the first phase, Vincent incorporated material from newly acquired contemporary sources, including historiographical information, extensive descriptions of the Mongols and Tartars, an anthology from the Koran, and an account of the first crusade launched by King Louis IX in 1248. Vincent rearranged the distribution of content over 16 books. Thus, in this version (Saint-Jacques, c. 1254), the second half consisted of books 17-32.

  • In the second and final stage, Vincent added dozens of historiographical passages to the reworked material, most of which relate to French kings, from Charles Martel to Louis IX. In this final version (Douai, c. 1256), the text of the second half also has 16 books, numbered 17-32.

  • Vincent added an alphabetical register to the latter two versions. The register in the Saint-Jacques version is much more extensive than that in the Douai version.

Compared to the later versions of the Speculum Historiale, the Klosterneuburg version thus offers more of an ecclesiastical historiography and, with its voluminous anthologies, seems rather intended for a clerical audience. Especially the passages in which Vincent describes contemporary history are sketchy and show that he had very little suitable source material at his disposal. At the conclusion of his historiographical exposé, in Book XXX, c. 93 of the Klosterneuburg version, at the year 1244, Vincent complains that, due to the negligence and carelessness of the clerics and monks, he has been unable to find virtually any contemporary historiographical material in the various churches and monasteries. What Vincent has mentioned here about the time of King Louis IX, whom he calls Ludovicus Junior, comes from his own memory or from hearing others say:

Hec de temporibus Ludouici Iunioris, prout ego uel apud me ipsum recolere uel ab aliis audire potui, breuiter hic adieci, quia per negligentiam uel incuriam clericorum atque monachorum nostri temporis parum plus uel minus aut nichil omnino de hiis usque quoque per diuersas ecclesias et monasteria reperire ualui.

(quoted from the only surviving textual witness to this passage, ms. Wrocław, Biblioteka Uniwersytecka, R. 341 (II.N.9.f.), (ca. 1315), fol. 294va ; siglum: Hb1 in the list of manuscripts).

Sources: Oursel, C., Un exemplaire du ‘Speculum Majus’ de Vincent de Beauvais provenant de la bibliothèque de Saint Louis., in Bibliothèque de l'École des Chartes, 85 (1924), pp. 251-262 ; Voorbij, J.B., ‘La version Klosterneuburg et la version Douai du Speculum historiale: manifestations de l’évolution du texte’, in M. Paulmier-Foucart, S. Lusignan, and A. Nadeau (eds.), Vincent de Beauvais: intentions et réceptions d’une oeuvre encyclopédique au Moyen Age. Actes du XIV e Colloque de l’Institut d’études médiévales, organisé conjointement par l’Atelier Vincent de Beauvais ... et l’Institut d’études médiévales ... 27-30 avril 1988, Saint-Laurent/Paris 1990 (Cahiers d’études médiévales. Cahier spécial 4), pp. 111-140; Duchenne, M.-C. , ‘Autour de 1254, une révision capétienne du “Speculum historiale”’, in: M. Paulmier-Foucart, S. Lusignan, and A. Nadeau (eds.), Vincent de Beauvais: intentions et réceptions…, pp. 141-166; Voorbij, J.B., Het ‘Speculum historiale’ van Vincent van Beauvais, een studie van zijn ontstaansgeschiedenis, Ph.D., Groningen, 1991; Voorbij, H., ‘The transfer of the crown of thorns to Paris in 1239: Vincent of Beauvais paraphrases Gautier Cornu’, in: Vincent of Beauvais Newsletter, 46 (2022), pp. 5-22.


Image: Dijon, Bibliothèque Municipale 568, f° 9ro.

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