Bernard Silvestre (Bernardus Silvestris)

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Bernard Silvestre (Bernardus Silvestris)

also known as Bernard de Tours

(Bernardus Turonensis)

(fl. mid-twelfth century)


The only certain date of Bernard’s life is that of his Cosmographia, sometimes improperly called De mundi universitate, written between 1145 and 1148. He lived and taught in Tours, where he owned a house near the church of Saint Martin—evidence of which has been found by André Vernet among property titles. It is possible that Bernard also lived and taught in other cities, such as Orléans.

Bernard’s most famous work is the Cosmographia, a poetical cosmogony alternately in prose and verse, dedicated to Thierry of Chartres; it describes the creation of the universe (megacosmos) and of man (microcosmos). The Cosmographia is less a treatise on cosmogony than a dramatic interpretation of philosophical thoughts drawn from many sources: from the Timaeus, translated and commented upon by Calcidius; from Asclepius, Apuleius, Boethius, Macrobius, Martianus Capella, Ovid, and Virgil.

The literary qualities of the Cosmographia are undeniable; its interest for the historian of science is perhaps less evident but not without importance. This work shows us, in fact, that the heritage of Greek science had not been entirely lost in the first half of the twelfth century and, further, that a man of letters could have mastered much of it simply by reading the Latin texts available to him. But Bernard’s major concern was not to construct a rigorous doctrinal synthesis from such material. It is for this reason that it is pointless to ask, as modern historians often do, whether the Cosmographia is pagan or Christian in character.

Bernard was first of all a poet. His attitude toward nature was less “scientific” than that of his contemporary William of Conches. Thus while Bernard seems ready to admit that a state of chaos preceded the order found in the world, William believes that the chaotic state of matter is merely hypothetical. In his commentary on Martianus Capella, Bernard also admits the existence of the waters “above the firmament” while William rejects that idea as being contrary to the laws of physics and considers the biblical verse (Gen. 1:7) upon which it is based as purely allegorical.


I. Original Works. With the exception of works that are certainly apocryphal (De cura rei familiaris, De formahonestae vitae) and works that are probably apocryphal (Degemellis, De paupere ingrato), the literary output of Bernard can be divided into two groups: surely authentic and probably authentic.

Certainly authentic works are Experimentarius (a manual of geomancy of which Bernard was not the author but merely the editor), M. Brini Savorelli, ed., in Rivista criticadi storia della filosofia, 14 (1959), 283–342; Mathematicus (or De patricida, or De parricidali), in J. P. Migne, ed., Patrologia latina, CLXXI (Paris, 1893), cols. 1365–1380, where it is erroneously attributed to Hildebert of Lavardin, and in B. Hauréau, Le Mathematicus de Bernard Silvestriset la Passio sanctae agnetis de Plerre Riga (Paris, 1895); and Cosmographia (or De mundi univesitate), C. S. Barachand J. Wrobel, eds, (Innsbruck, 1876), a very defective edition: there is also an unpublished critical edition prepared by André Vernet and described in “Bernardus Silvestris et sa Cosmographia,” in École nationale des Chartes. Positions des théses… de 1937, pp. 167–174.

Among works considered “probably authentic” must be classed Bernard’s Ars dictaminis; although he almost certainly composed a treatise on this subject, so many have been attributed to him that we have no way of determining which represent later modifications. See Charles-V. Langlois. “Maître Bernard,” in Bibliothéque de l’École des chartes, LIV (1893), 225–250; Ch. H. Haskins. “An Italian Master Bernard,” in Essays in History Presented to R. L Poole (Oxford, 1927), pp. 211–226; “The Early Artes dictandi in Italy,” in Studies in Mediaeval Culture (Oxford, 1929), pp. 170–192; E. Faral, “Le manuscrit 511 du Hunterian Museum de Glasgow.” in Studi medievali, 9 (1936), 18–121, esp. 80–88: H. Koller. “Zwei pariser Briefs ammlungen,” in Mitteilungen des Instituts fürösterreichische Geschichtsforschung, 59 (1951), 229–327; B. Berulfsen, “Et blad av en Summa dictaminum,” in Avhandlinger utgitt av del Norske Videnskaps-Akademi i Oslo, II. Historisk-Filosofisk Klasse (1953), no. 3; F.-J. Schmale. “Der Briefsteller Bernhards von Meung,” in Mitteilungen des Instituts für österreichische Geschichtsforschung, 66 (1958), 1–28; and W. Zöllner, “Eine neue Bearbeitung der ‘Flores dictaminum’ des Bernhard vonMeung,” in Wissenschaftliche Zeitschrift der Martin-Luther-Universität Halle-Wittemberg, Gesellschafts- und Sprach-wissenschaftliche Reihe, 13 (1964), 335–342.

Another “probably authentic” work is Commentum supersex libros Eneldos Virgilii, G. Riedel, ed. (Greifswald, 1924). For a better text, consult the manuscripts mentioned in the following studies: M. De Marco, “Un nuovo codicedel commento di Bernardo Silvestre all’ Eneide” in Aevum, 28 (1954), 178–183; and G, Padoan, “Tradizione e fortunadel commento all’ Eneide di Bernardo Silvestre,” in Italia medioevale e umanistica, 3 (1960), 227–240.

The third is Commentum super Martianum Capellam. Extracts are in E. Jeauneau, “Note sur l’École de Chartres,” in Studi medievali, 3rd. ser., 5 (1964), 821–865, esp. 855–864.

II. Secondary Literature. Works on Bernard are E. Gilson, “La cosmogonie de Bernardus Silvestris,” in Archives d’histoire doctrinale et littéraire du moyen âge, 3 (1928), 5–24; L. Thorndike, A History of Magic and Experimental Science During the First Thirteen Centuries of Our Era, 3d ed., II (New York, 1947); T. Silverstein, “The Fabulous Cosmogony of Bernardus Silvestris,” in Modern Philology, 46 (1948), 92–116; R. B. Woolsey, “Bernard Silvester and the Hermetic Asclepius,” in Traditio, 6 (1948), 340–344;M. F. McCrimmon, “The Classical Philosophical Sources of the ‘De mundi universitate’ of Bernard Silvestris” dissertation (Yale University, 1952); F. Munari, “Zu den Verseinlagen in Bernardus Silvestris’ De mundi universitate.” in Philotogus, 104 (1960), 279–285; J. R. O’Donnell, “The Sources and Meaning of Bernard Silvester’s Commentary on the Aeneid,” in Mediaeval Studies, 24 (1962), 233–249: and W. von den Steinen, “Bernard Silvestre et le problème du destin,” (“Les sujetsd’inspiration chez les poètes latin du XIIe siècle,” III), in Cahiers de civilisation médiévale, 9 (1966), 363–383, esp.373–383.

Edouard Jeauneau