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Vincent of Beauvais

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. □

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Vincent of Beauvais


(b. Beauvais, Oise, France, ca. 1190; d. Beauvais, ca. 1264), natural science, transmission of knowledge.

Vincent, known in Latin as Bellovacensis, seems to have studied at the University of Paris and to have entered the Dominican order there about 1220. Transferred to the priory in Beauvais around 1233, he became a close friend of Ralph, first abbot of the Cistercian monastery at nearby Royaumont; through Ralph he formed a lifelong friendship with Louis IX. Earlier Vincent had begun his Speculum maius, or “great mirror,” which was to make available to one and all the hitherto inaccessible wisdom of classical and ecclesiastical authors. The king, hearing of this, desired a copy for himself and supplied the funds necessary for the work’s completion. The date of composition of the Speculum is difficult to determine, since it went through a series of redactions and has several parts. The first version probably appeared in 1244, followed by a second some there years later and by a third in the 1250’s.

Three of its components are of unquestioned authenticity; the “Speculum naturale,” or “mirror of nature,” an encyclopedia of nature as created by God; the “Speculum historiale,” or “mirror of history,” giving the history, of mankind from the Creation to 1254 (in the final version); and the “Speculum doctrinale,” or “mirror of teaching,” summarizing all of the learned arts-liberal, mechanical, and medical, among others. To these an anonymous author, writing sometime between 1310 and 1325, added a fourth part, the “speculum morale,” or “mirror of morals,” drawn mainly from the writings of Thomas Aquinas. Written in Latin, the work was translated into various vernaculars and even appeared in verse. It went through seven printings; but none of these is reliable, each containing editorial interpolations and rearrangements. Besides the Speculum Vincent wrote several ascetial and theological treatieses; he is especially noteworthy for his writings and influence in education (see Gabriel).

The “Speculum naturale” reflects a theological orientation in its plan, which follows the biblical account of the six days of Creation, if not in its content, which reveals it to be “a great storehouse of medieval lore” (Thorndike, 475). Its superiority to other medieval encyclopedias of nature derives from the author’s access to larger and better libraries, and from his having the use of secretaries; its weakness is tracea˖ble to its being essentially a compilation of excerpts-although made with care and usually assigned to the proper authority-that shows little or no investigative origniality, critical sense, or organic unity. Vincent draws heavily from Pliny, Isidore of Seville, Adelared of Bath, and Thomas of Cantimpré; and his work also is interspersed with references to Albertus Magnus and Thomas Aquinas, possible added in subsequent revisions.

The “Speculum naturale” is composed of thirty-two books, most containing over one hundred chapters. As a preliminary, book 1 treats God, angels, and the original work of Creation; book 2 launches into the work of the first day, considering the material universe and digressing on the text “Let there be light” (Gen. 1:3) to provide thirtyfour chapters on optics that deal with the nature of light the origin of colors, and the properties of mirrors. Books 3 and 4 devoted to the work of the second day, use the formation of the firmament and the heavens to provide treatises on astronomy and meteorology, respectively. The separation of the dry land from the waters on the third day opens a treatise on geology and mineralogy that comprises 95 chapters; similarly, the creation of plants leads to 156 chapters; on botany. The works of subsequent days occasion the presentation of all available information on the birds of the air, the fished of the sea, and the animals that inhabit the dry land, man included.

The “Speculum doctrinale,” composed of seventeen books divided into 2,374 chapters, duplicates some of the earlier material but is concerned more with practical matter. It deals with grammar, logic, husbandry, political affairs, trades, medicine, physics, mathematics, astrology, music, weights and measures, and surveying, and even includes a dictionary of some 3,200 entries. For the mathematical arts Vincent relies on Nicomachus of Gerasa, Boethius, and al-Fārābī; his treatment is generally brief, perfunctory, and otherwise uninteresting.

The absence of a reliable text makes it difficult to characterize and evaluate Vincent’s science. His views on geography and astronomy seem to derive largely from Ibn Sīnā and are akin to those of Albertus Magnus; thus his text, at least as it has come down to us, gives basically Albertus’ account of al-Bitrūjī’s theory and concludes in favor of the Ptolemaic conception of the universe. He takes his chemistry from al-Rāzī’s De aluminibus et salibus, in the translation by Gerard of Cremona, and generally follows Ibn Sīnā’s presentation of alchemical doctrines. Vincent’s treatment of plants seems to be based on Alfred of Sareschel’s De plantis. HIs treatise on falconry he acknowledges as being abridged from ’a letter written by Aquila, Symchus, and Theodotion to Ptolemy, king of Egypt. in which they treated of noble birds and medicines for them” (Speculum naturale, Douai ed., I, col. 1197); Sarton notes that the original text of this letter has been lost and that apart from Vincent’s excerpts it survives only in early Catalan version, to which he gives a reference (Introduction… P. 931). According to Cuvier, his descriptions of fishes are superior to those of Albertus Magnus. Generally, however, Vincent’s excerpts are taken from classical authors and do not represent the best material available to the experts of his day; he makes little attempt to be up-to-date or to integrate the new with the old. He is somewhat credulous and occasionally intermingles superstition with verified knowledge. Yet withal, Vincent’s work is truly monumental and is the best encyclopedia to come out of the Middle Ages.


I. Original Works. Vincent’s works are the Speculum maius (Strasbourg, 7 vols., 1473-1476: Basel, 1481 [ “Speculum naturale” and “Speculum morale” only]; Nuremberg, 2 vols., 1473-1486; Venice, 1484, 1494, 1591; Douai, 4 vols., 1624, repr, Graz, 1964) and De eruditione filiorum nobilium, A. Steiner, ed. (Cambridge, Mass., 1938).

II. Secondary Literature. For general accounts and bibliography see W. A. Hinnebusch. The History of the Dominican Order II. Intellectual and Cultural Life to 1500 (New York, 1973), 421–428; Michel Lemoine, “L’oeuvre encyclopédique de Vincent de Beauvais,” Cahiers d’ historie mondiale IX (1966). 483–518, 571–579, repr, La pensée encyclopédique au moyen âge (Neuchatel, 1966); G. sarton, Introduction to the History of Science, II, pt, 2 (Washington, 1931), 929–932, and passim (see index); and L. Thorndike, A History of Magic and Experimental Science, II (New York, 1923), 457–476. More specialized studies are A Gabbriel, The Educational Ideas of Vincent of Beauvais, 2nd ed. (Notre Dame, 1962); G. Göler, “Vinzenz von Beauvais und sein Musiktraktat in Speculum doctrinale,” in Kölner Beiträge zur Musikforschung, 15 (1959), 29–34; and P. Duhem, Études sur Léonard de Vinci II (Paris, 1909), 318–319, and Le système du monde,, III (Paris, 1915; repr, 1958), 346–348.

William A. Wallace. O.P.

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Vincent of Beauvais

Vincent of Beauvais (bōvā´), c.1190–c.1264, French Dominican friar. He was the author of three of the four parts of the Speculum majus, of great value as a summary of the knowledge of his time. The part entitled "Morals" is of unknown authorship, but is not by him. The three parts written by him are entitled "Nature," "Instruction," and "History." In "Nature," the order followed is that of the six days of creation described in Genesis. "Instruction" ranges from the liberal arts to the mechanical arts. The "History" epitomizes the story of man since Adam as it was understood by 13th-century scholars.

See A. Gabriel, The Educational Ideas of Vincent of Beauvais (2d ed. 1962).

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