Vincent of Beauvais

Vincent of Beauvais (ca. 1190-ca. 1264) was a Dominican cleric who took it upon himself to compile the Speculum majus, an encyclopedia of all human knowledge up to the time of Louis IX of France. 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.

The exact date of Vincent of Beauvais's birth is unknown but is placed between 1184 and 1194 in Beauvais, France, during the first reign of Philip-August. Sometime between 1218 and 1220, Vincent entered the Dominican order in Paris and began his studies at the house of the Rue Saint-Jacques. It was a time of religious fervor, and his order was charged with overseeing the Inquisition, but Vincent chose to lead a quiet, academic life. He spent most of his life in the monastery at Beauvais but was called for periodic visits to Louis IX at Royaumont where the king had founded an Abbey in 1228. Vincent lectured at the monastery and preached at court, making knowledge accessible to the residents of court.

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. His strong organizational skills and intense curiosity made him well suited to a life of research and writing. 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 cataloguing 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 1,200 manuscripts. Vincent's dedication to his research earned him the nickname "Liborum helluo" or devourer of books.


The Speculum Majus

For over two decades Vincent studied the scholars, organizing their work into one massive book he titled Speculum majus or "great mirror." His contemporaries complained that science, teaching and reading were on the decline, and he wrote the Speculum majus because he believed that inspired ideas easily sink into oblivion and must be preserved for future generations.

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 the three parts in great detail, covering the areas of nature, education and history. The work was written over a span of 24 years—from its beginning in 1220 to 1244—and is considered the most comprehensive and influential of any similar reference work.

The first part of the Speculum majus is titled Speculum naturale, the "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 doctrinale, the "mirror of teaching." It consists of seventeen books and comprises 2,374 chapters. The thesis of the Speculum doctrinale is that the purpose of education is to acquire the knowledge of how to serve God. His chief purpose was to impart knowledge yet not influence individual will. The purpose of Speculum doctrinale 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 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 members of society.

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 it to bring the world up to the date of 1250. As with the other books, Historiale 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, the "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 of Beauvais. It was exposed as a fraud only about 200 years ago. Close examination determined that references to events that occurred after Vincent's death proved it could not have been written by him but rather by an author or authors unknown.

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 categorized his references as great, mediocre, of little or no authority at all. He was modest in ascribing credit to his sources. Vincent is respected for presenting Greco-Roman scholars in a positive light, with particular attention to Roman statesman/philosopher Cicero, Greek philosopher Aristotle and Greek physician Hippocrates.

The Speculum majus is considered one of the most influential of all early encyclopedias and was used by later authors such as Geoffrey Chaucer, author of The Canterbury Tales . It was also known and used extensively by scholars of the Italian Renaissance.

The Speculum majus was translated from Latin into French in 1328 and translated and printed by William Caxton, English printer and publisher, in 1481 under the title The Myrrour of the World . Numerous works were undertaken after the Speculum, but few had the same impact or made such enormous contributions to human knowledge.


Other Writings

In 1250 Vincent of Beauvais was appointed lector and chaplain to the royal court of his friend and patron, Louis IX. His role at court was not that of 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 his children. Queen Marguerite, wife of Louis IX, on the other hand, was very concerned about the proper education of her children. To help the royal instructor and at the request of Queen Marguerite, Vincent composed De eruditione filiorum nobilium, (On the Education of Noble Sons ). This work was written between 1247 and 1249 and was intended to enumerate the needs of young Louis (1244-1260) and his sister, Isabelle (1242-1271). Vincent dedicated this treatise to Queen Marguerite. De eruditione put particular emphasis on the need for selecting the right 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 eruditione filiorum nobilium 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 discourages girls and women from taking any action to improve their looks.

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 most 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. He also wrote Tractatus consolatorius de morte amici to Louis on the death of one of his sons.

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. His purpose in preparing Speculum majus was to collect and catalogue arguments to confirm Christian faith. He died in Paris, and his epitaph puts his death at 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.



Gabriel, Astrik L., The Educational Ideas of Vincent of Beauvais, University of Notre Dame Press, 1962.

Labarge, Margaret Wade, Saint Louis: Louis IX, Most Christian King of France, Little, Brown and Co., 1968.

Potamian, Brother, Catholic Encyclopedia, Robert Appleton Co., 1912.