Thomas of Cantimpré


Also known as Thomas Cantimpratensis, Thomas Brabantinus, and Thomas van Bellenghem, Thomas was a medieval writer, preacher, and theologian. He was born in 1201 to the noble family of De Monte of Bellenghem (today Bellingen) near Leeuw-Saint-Pierre (the Brussels region) in the Brabant (hence two of his surnames). At the age of five his education began at Liège, where he studied the trivium and quadrivium. In 1217 he became a canon of the Canons Regular of St. Augustine in the Abbey of Cantimpré (the source of his third and most commonly used surname) and eventually became a priest. Sometime between 1230 and 1232 he entered the Order of St. Dominic at Louvain. In 1233 he was sent to Cologne to pursue the higher theological studies of the order, under Albert the Great. After four years in Cologne, he went to the Dominican studium of St. James in Paris to study the sciences and to prepare for preaching. After his return to Louvain in 1240, he was made professor of philosophy and theology, and traveled and preached throughout Brabant and into Germany, Belgium, and France. He died around 1272.


Thomas wrote several saint's lives (hagiology), including Vita Christinae virginis mirabilis dictae Vita B. Margaritae Iprensis Vita Piae Lutgardiâ Vita Joannis abbatis primi monasterii Cantimpratensis et ejus Ecclesiae undatoris and Supplementun ad vitam B. Mariae d'Oignies a B.M. Jacobo de Vitriaco. In his Bonum universale de apibus he uses an allegory of bees and beehives to expound on the conduct and the duties of superiors and subjects, a work which was widely used by spiritual writers for many centuries.

The work for which he is most well known is the Liber de natura rerum, written around the years 1230-1245. 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. The encyclopedia is known in two versions, one of 19 books (written around 1228), the other of 20 books (written around 1244). The contents of the 20 books are:

  1. The anatomy of the human body
  2. The heart
  3. The monstrous human races of the East
  4. Animals (quadrupeds)
  5. Birds
  6. Marine monsters
  7. Fish
  8. Snakes
  9. Worms (insects)
  10. Common trees
  11. Aromatic (spice) and medicinal trees
  12. Properties of the aromatic and medicinal plants (herbal)
  13. Authorities and sources
  14. Valuable stones (gems)
  15. Seven metals
  16. Seven celestial areas
  17. The spheres of the Earth and seven planets
  18. The motion of the air (winds, weather)
  19. The four elements
  20. Eclipses and celestial motion

Thomas's encyclopedia was used as the basis for later encyclopedias. In particular, the Der Naturen Bloeme of Jacob van Maerlant is an almost exact copy of the work, translated into Flemish/Middle Dutch. It was also used by Albert the Great in his De Animalibus, by Bartholomaeus Anglicus in his De proprietatibus rerum, and by Vincent of Beauvais in his Speculum naturale. The text was also translated into German and French.

The Liber de natura rerum was Thomas's last "scientific" work. Because of a growing hostility toward scientific studies in the Dominican order, Thomas devoted the rest of his life to pastoral care. His last book was the Bonum universale de apibus, dedicated to Humbert de Romans (master of the preaching friars from 1254 to 1263), which was based in part on Book 9 of the Liber de natura rerum.

See also Encyclopedia.