Jacob van Maerlant


Jacob van Maerlant (or Merlant) is known as the greatest Flemish poet of the Middle Ages. He was born about 1235 and died sometime after 1291. Of his life little is known. In his first work, Merlijns Boeck, the author calls himself "Jacob de coster van Merlant" while in the later Der Naturen Bloeme he calls himself "Jacob van Merlant". His name may have come from Maerlant on the island of Voorne, where he lived for some time employed as a sexton (coster). Later he moved to Flanders and resided at Damme, near Bruges, where he may have held the position of town clerk.


Maerlant's earliest works were chivalrous romances, such as were in vogue at that time in courtly circles, and were adapted from French or Latin sources. Such are Alexanders Geesten (the Alexander Romance, tales of Alexander the Great, c. 1257), from the Latin of Gauthier de Chastillon; Historie van den Grale (the grail legend) and Merlijns Boeck (Merlin's book) from the French Arthur stories of Robert de Borron; and the Historie van Troyen (History of Troy, the Trojan war. ca. 1264), from the French of Benoit de Sainte More. But this kind of literature was little to his taste, which inclined to the didactic and useful. So he turned his back on the lying romances, as he called these works in his Rijmbijbel, and devoted his talent to poems of a didactic and moralizing character. His Rijmbijbel is a rhymed Biblical history, translated from the Scholastica of Petrus Comestor, with a continuation Die Wrake van Jherusalem, adapted from the history of Josephus. His Der Naturen Bloeme is a natural history encyclopedia (see below). He also translated a Life of St. Francis (Leven van St. Franciscus) from the Latin of Bonaventure. Maerlant's most extensive work is the Spiegel Historiael, a rhymed chronicle of the world, translated from the Speculum historiale of Vincent of Beauvais. It was begun in 1283, but was left unfinished at the poet's death. Maerlant is also the author of a number of other poems, including the Wapene Martijn (Alas! Martin); the Disputacie van onser Vrouwen ende van den helighen Cruce, which bewails the sad situation of the Holy Land. Maerlant's last poem Van den Lande van Oversee was written after the fall of Acre (1291) and is a stirring summons to a crusade against the infidels, with bitter complaints about abuses in the Church.

Der Naturen Bloeme

The Der Naturen Bloeme (the "flower" of nature or the book of nature), a natural history encyclopedia, is a modified translation into Middle Dutch of a large version of the Liber de Natura Rerum, written in the middle of the thirteenth century by Thomas de Cantimpré. Maerlant incorrectly attributed this Latin work to Albrecht of Cologne (Albertus Magnus). Maerlant did not include text from the beginning of the Liber de Natura Rerum (on the anatomy of the human body and on the soul) and from the end (on the weather, the planets, and the elements). The included chapters are:

  • prologue, lines 1-158
  • I, lines 159-658: the Ages of Man and the monstrous races
  • II, lines 659-4692: animals (beasts)
  • III, Lines 4693-8368: birds
  • IV, lines 8369-9471: sea monsters
  • V, lines 9472-10607: fish
  • VI, lines 10608-11485: serpents
  • VII, lines 11486-12539: "worms" (insects)
  • VIII, lines 12540-13503: ordinary trees
  • IX, lines 13504-14145: spice trees
  • X, lines 14146-14851: medicinal herbs
  • XI, lines 14852-15043: authorities
  • XII, lines 15044-16518: gem stones
  • XIII, lines 16519-16681: metals

Within each chapter the entries are arranged in rough alphabetic order. The larger manuscripts contain descriptions, and often illustrations, of hundreds of beasts, birds and fish, many of which are imaginary or not identifiable. Maerlant describes several sea creatures based on land creatures, such as the sea-cow, sea-stag, sea-dog, sea-horse, and sea-pig, which are pictured as resembling their land counterparts, but with fish tails and fins.


The Der Naturen Bloeme exists only in copies; Maerlant's original is lost. The existing manuscripts can be grouped into two families. In the first family is Detmold, Lippische Landesbibliothek 70, designated manuscript D (ca. 1287); and in Brussels, from the abbey of Saint-Bernards at Hemiksem, the manuscript designated B (first quarter of the fourteenth century). Manuscript B is probably a copy of D, with both based on a lost original. The second family includes two subfamilies. The first subfamily includes Munich, Bayerische Staatsbibliothek Cod. germ. 4259/79, a fragment containing only lines 8229-8400, 8718-8879, 9175-9334 and 9632-9796, designated manuscript M (fourth quarter of the thirteenth century); and Leiden, Universiteitsbibliotheek Leiden BPL 14 A, designated manuscript L. The second subfamily includes The Hague, Koninklijke Bibliotheek KB, 76 E 4 and Koninklijke Bibliotheek KB, KA 16, manuscripts designated A and V. There are other partial copies.

[Adapted in part from the Catholic Encyclopedia and from notes accompanying the online Der Naturen Bloeme edited by Gysseling.]

See also Encyclopedia.