Encyclopedia

Encyclopedia

There were several encyclopedias in circulation in the middle ages, including some from classical Greece and Rome. Medieval encyclopedias were not like modern ones; much of their content came from earlier writers, with little scepticism or attempts at fact checking. The animal sections generally have short accounts of the "known" characteristics of a large number of animals, some real and some mythical. The chapters are usually ordered by the type of animal: beasts (mostly mammals), bird, serpents and reptiles, fish, and worms (mostly insects). Some encyclopedias arrange the chapters in each section in roughly alphabetic order by the animal's Latin name. Many encyclopedia manuscripts are illustrated, often with hundreds of small images, which do not necessarly depict the animals accurately.

Encyclopedias differ from medieval bestiaries in several ways:

  • They usually do not have the moralizations and allegories found in bestiaries
  • They include many topics, such as astronomy, astrology, botany, geography, history, philosophy, zoology
  • They were usually written by a single person, often identified in the text as the author
Author Date Title of Text Notes
Bartholomeus Anglicus 1203-1272 De proprietatibus rerum Bartholomaeus covered all the sciences as known at that time, including theology, philosophy, medicine, astronomy, chronology, zoology, botany, geography, and mineralogy. The work was to serve as instruction for his fellow Franciscans, who were expected to be educated but did not have the time or means to study each discipline individually.
Cecco d’Ascoli 1257-1327 Acerba A compendium for the contemporary natural science of the time, including the order and influences of the heavens, the characteristics and properties of animals and precious stones, and the causes of phenomena such as meteors and earthquakes.
Gossuin de Metz 13th century L'Image du Monde The Image du Monde (Image of the World or Mirror of the World) is an encyclopedia on multiple topics, including theology, philosophy, history, astronomy, astrology, physics, geography and zoology.
Hrabanus Maurus 780-856 De rerum naturis The work is an encyclopedia in 22 books, covering a large range of subjects. Hrabanus' stated intent was to compile an encyclopedic handbook for preachers. He drew on earlier sources for his information, particularly the Etymologiae of Isidore of Seville, but the organization of the material was his own invention.
Isidore of Seville 560-636 Etymologies Isidore attempted to set down the basics of all that was known on a vast range of topics, including grammar, rhetoric and logic; arithematic, geometry, and astronomy; law, military science and theology; cosmology; and agriculture, mineralogy, physiology and zoology, among others. Isidore was not critical: he accepted most of what he read without question. His main goal throughout the Etymologies is not only to record facts, but to assign meaning, usually, as the title suggests, through etymology.
Lambert of Saint-Omer 1061-1150 Liber floridus The Liber floridus ("book of flowers"), an encyclopedia of Biblical, chronological, astronomical, geographical, theological, philosophical and natural history subjects. Lambert saw the compilation as a bouquet of flowers plucked from the heavenly meadow "that the faithful bees may fly together to them and drink from them the sweetness of the heavenly potion."
Brunetto Latini 1220-1294 Tesoretto / Li Livres dou Tresor The "books of treasure", called in Italian the Tesoretto, is a compendium from earlier sources of what was known to scholars of thirteenth century Europe.
Jacob van Maerlant 1235-1291 Der Naturen Bloeme The "flower" of nature or the book of nature is a natural history encyclopedia. It is a modified translation into Middle Dutch of a large version of the Liber de Natura Rerum by Thomas de Cantimpré
Konrad von Megenberg 1309-1374 Das Buch der Natur The book of nature is a natural history encyclopedia. It is a survey of all that was known of natural history in his time and provides information about human nature, planets and elements, fauna, flora, mineralogy, but also about miracle fountains and people. It was the first natural history in the German language.
Thomas de Cantimpré 1201-1272 CE Liber de natura rerum In this enormous encyclopedia, Thomas compiled the natural history knowledge of his time, including what would now be called anthropology, zoology, botany, mineralogy, astronomy, astrology, and meteorology. His intent was to create a text that would serve as an introduction to "natural sciences" for the use of preachers and other ecclesiastics.
Vincent of Beauvais 1184/94-1264 Speculum maius The "great mirror was intended as a compendium of all the knowledge available. Vincent himself stated that he chose "Speculum" for its name because his work contains "whatever is worthy of contemplation (speculatio), that is, admiration or imitation".