Vincent of Beauvais
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Vincent of Beauvais

The Dominican friar Vincent of Beauvais (Vincentius Bellovacensis) (c. 1190 - 1264?) wrote the Speculum Maius, the main encyclopedia that was used in the Middle Ages. The exact dates of his birth and death are unknown and not much detail has surfaced concerning his career. Conjectures place him first in the house of the Dominicans at Paris between 1215 and 1220, and later at the Dominican monastery founded by Louis IX of France at Beauvais in Picardy. It is more certain, however,that he held the post of "reader" at the monastery of Royaumont on the Oise, not far from Paris, also founded by Louis IX between 1228 and 1235.

Vincent's Speculum Maius ('The Great Mirror'), the compendium of all the knowledge of the Middle Ages, consisted of three parts, the Speculum Naturale, Speculum Doctrinale and Speculum Historiale.

The vast tome of the Speculum Naturale ("Mirror of Nature'), divided into thirty-two books and 3,718 chapters, is a summary of all the science and natural history known to western Europe towards the middle of the 13th century, a mosaic of quotations from Latin, Greek, Arabic, and even Hebrew authors, with the sources given. Vincent distinguishes, however, his own remarks.

The Speculum Naturale deals with its subjects in the order that they were created: it is essentially a gigantic commentary on Genesis I. Thus book I opens with an account of the Trinity and his relation to creation; then follows a similar series of chapters about angels, their attributes, powers, orders, etc., down to such minute points as their methods of communicating thought, on which matter the author decides, in his own person, that they have a kind of intelligible speech, and that with angels to think and to speak are not the same process.

Book II treats of the created world, of light, color, the four elements, Lucifer and his fallen angels and the work of the first day.

Books III and IV deal with the phenomena of the heavens and of time, which is measured by the motions of the heavenly bodies, with the sky and all its wonders, fire, rain, thunder, dew, winds, etc.

Books V - XIV treat of the sea and the dry land: they discourse of the seas, the ocean and the great rivers, agricultural operations, metals, precious stones, plants, herbs, with their seeds, grains and juices, trees wild and cultivated, their fruits and their saps. Under each species, where possible, Vincent gives a chapter on its use in medicine, and he adopts for the most part an alphabetical arrangement. In book VI chapter 7 he incidentally discusses what would become of a stone if it were dropped down a hole, pierced right through the earth, and, curiously enough, decides that it would stay in the centre. In book IX he gives an early instance of the use of the magnet in navigation.

Book XV deals with astronomy: the moon, stars, and the zodiac, the sun, the planets, the seasons and the calendar.

Books XVI and XVII treat of fowls and fishes, mainly in alphabetical order and with reference to their medical qualities.

Books XVIII - XXII deal in a similar way with domesticated and wild animals, including the dog, serpents, bees and insects; they also include a general treatise on animal physiology spread over books XXI - XXII.

Books XXIII - XXVIII discuss the psychology, physiology and anatomy of man, the five senses and their organs, sleep, dreams, ecstasy, memory, reason, etc.

The remaining four books seem more or less supplementary; the last (XXXII) is a summary of geography and history down to the year 1250, when the book seems to have been given to the world, perhaps along with the Speculum Historiale and possibly an earlier form of the Speculum Doctrinale.

Adapted from Wikipedia (

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