Vincent of Beauvais and Jacob van Maerlant

Miniature depicting Vincent of Beauvais at work in his atelier, from manuscript London, British Library, Royal 14 E I, fol. 3r, Miroir Historial (French translation by Jean de Vignay of Vincent’s Speculum Historiale)

The Dominican friar Vincent of Beauvais († ca. 1264) is the author of an enormous oeuvre. He is most famous for his voluminous encyclopedic work Speculum Maius which he compiled between 1240 and 1260.

In 1244 Vincent had completed a collection of articles on virtues and vices, chronological history and natural history. He then started to expand and reorganize the text drastically, which resulted into a bipartite Speculum Maius. This large and magnificent work contained well over 4 million words in 62 books with a total of 9885 chapters:

  • a Speculum Naturale in 30 books, treating natural history on the basis of the biblical order of six days of Creation, virtues and vices, and the arts and sciences;
  • a Speculum Historiale in 32 books, presenting a chronological history from the Fall of man in the Garden of Eden to the year 1244 – his own life time. In this framework Vincent had incorporated a massive florilegium from the works by classical and medieval Latin authors, theological works by the Church Fathers and other ecclesiastical writers, and excerpts from legends and lives of the saints – including, of course, that of our own St Gengulphus.

This brief overview of St Gengulphus was included in the Speculum Historiale – in Liber vigesimus quartus (Book 24) on page 159.

Jacob van Maerlant (ca. 1230–40 – ca. 1288–1300) was a Flemish poet of the 13th century and one of the most important Middle Dutch authors during the Middle Ages. Jacob’s most extensive and – widely acknowleged – highest achievement is the Spiegel Historiael, a rhymed chronicle of the world, translated, with omissions and important additions (including a small addition to the account for St Gengulphus), from the Speculum Historiale of Vincent of Beauvais. An enormous undertaking. To have access to such a such a huge and an even more hugely expensive hand-written piece of work (see above Speculum Maius of Vincent of Beauvais) needed a sponsor – and was found in the Count Floris V of Holland. Jacob began his work in 1284 and ended – his effort largely completed – in 1289.

Jacob wanted to write a historical story, not compile or translate an encyclopedia. It could be argued that Vincent was a scholar/historian and Jacob van Maerlant a writer/author. The target audience is also completely different. Vincent has as readers of his encyclopedia his fellow brothers in mind; Maerlant wrote for laymen – albeit it literate laymen or those who would expose his writings to illiterate laymen in their own language. The result was that Jacob had to leave out a lot. The most special victim of this were the theological elements and clerics. Maerlant finishes Creation and the Fall of Man in 250 lines of verses to which Vincent spent no less than 55 chapters. Maerlant also omits the anthologies from the works of authorities and well-known writers. Maerlant also relied on sources that Vincent did not use, such as the Historia regum Britanniæ by Geoffrey of Monmouth.

Although Jacob van Maerlant was an intense and devoutly religious man, he is said to have been called to account by priests for translating relevant pieces for his transcriptions from the Bible into the vulgar i.e. Flemish tongue – very much frowned upon by the Church in the C13th. In spite of his religious orthodoxy, Jacob was a keen satirist of the corruptions of the clergy. He was one of the most learned men of his age, and for two centuries was the most celebrated of Flemish poets.

Manuscript from West Flanders; c. 1325-1335; Miniature of Jacob van Maerlant; Koninklijke Nederlandse Akademie van Wetenschappen (Royal Dutch Academy of Sciences), Amsterdam

Vincent’s account of St Gengulphus relates his purchase of the spring, the infidelity of Gengulph’s wife miraculously revealed when she is required – as a kind of trial by ordeal – to plunge her arm into a spring of water to retrieve a pebble, their separation (under generous terms by Gengulphus) with Gengulphus leaving any punishment of his wife in the hands of God, the murder of the Saint by his wife’s paramour, the miracles occuring at his funeral and a clear description of her punishment (Cuius corpus dum [in] feretro ad sepulturam portaretur, multi infirmi de tactu sanati sunt. Dumque hoc illius uxori referretur ab ancilla sua, scilicet dominum suum tanquam martyrem sanctum miracula facere, irridens illa et subsannans ait: Ita inquit Gengulphus miracula factitat, ut anus meus cantat. Moxque ab ano suo turpes sonos et numerosos, vellet nollet, cepit emittere). Especially important here is the very, no morally restrained, account of the of the punishment of the wife of Gengulphus.

Vincent tells it like it is in the phrase which in accounts in later generations of translations and Latin paraphrases were considerably softened – i.e their accounts were quite simply suppressed and cleaned: ‘…ut anus meus cantat’ (..If Gengulphus can make such miracles, then my arse can sing) is one good translation. An illustration of such censorship is a translation in a 1938 PhD thesis submission of a similar Latin text albeit what more modest – which translated a simliar text of Hroswitha (which itself was somewhat cleaned from the primary source Vita I) as: nor do miracles occur at his grave any more than do wondrous manifestations take place about my person”   See:

Jacob van Maerlant’s rhymed verse account of St Gengulphus has added to the account of Vincent the punishment to the clerk in the last five lines – something which anyone hearing this story would be curious to know. The particularly unusual end of the clerk would certainly amuse the reader/listener. This reflects Maerlant’s penchant for telling a story and communicating this with a touch of humour.

Spieghel Historiael, Manuscript KA XX, Koninklijke Bibliotheek (The Hague)
The conquest of Jerusalam by Godfried of Bouillon in 1099