Intermediate between science and philosophy were the reckless polymaths who sought to give order and unity to the expanding knowledge of their period, to bring science and art, industry and government, philosophy and religion, literature and history into an orderly whole that might provide a base for wisdom. The thirteenth century excelled in encyclopedias, and in summae that were all-encompassing syntheses. The more modest encyclopedists limited themselves to summarizing natural science. Alexander Neckam, Abbot of Cirencester (c. 1200), and Thomas of Cantimpré, a French Dominican (c. 1244), wrote popular surveys of science under the title of The Nature of Things; and Bartholomew of England, a Franciscan, sent forth a chatty volume On the Properties of Things(c. 1240). About 1266 Brunetto Latini, a Florentine notary exiled for his Guelf politics, and living for some years in France, wrote in the langue d’oïl Li livres dou tresor (The Treasure Books), a brief encyclopedia of science, morals, history, and government. It proved so permanently popular that Napoleon thought of having a revised edition published by the state, half a century after the world-shaking Grande Encyclopédie of Diderot. All these works of the thirteenth century mingled theology with science, and superstition with observation; they breathed the air of their time; and we should be chagrined if we could foresee how our own omniscience will be viewed seven centuries hence.

The most famous encyclopedia of the Christian Middle Ages was the Speculum maius of Vincent of Beauvais (c. 1200-c. 1264). He joined the Dominican Order, became tutor to Louis IX and his sons, was given charge of the King’s library, and undertook, with several aides, the task of reducing to digestible form the knowledge that encompassed him. He called his encyclopedia Imago mundi, Image of the World, presenting the universe as a mirror that reflected the divine intelligence and plan. It was a gigantic compilation, equal to forty sizable modern tomes. Vincent, with copyists and shears, completed three parts—Speculum naturale, Speculum doctrinale, Speculum historiale; the heirs of the task added, about 1310, a Speculum morale, largely “cribbed” from Thomas’ Summa. Vincent himself was a modest and gentle soul. “I do not know even a single science,” he said; he disclaimed all originality, and merely proposed to gather excerpts from 450 authors, Greek, Latin, or Arabic. He transmitted Pliny’s errors faithfully, accepted all the marvels of astrology, and filled his pages with the occult qualities of plants and stones. Nevertheless the wonder and beauty of nature shine out now and then through his paste, and he himself feels them as no mere bookworm could:

I confess, sinner as I am, with mind befouled in flesh, that I am moved with spiritual sweetness toward the Creator and Ruler of this world, and honor Him with greater veneration, when I behold the magnitude and beauty… of His creation. For the mind, lifting itself from the dunghill of its affections, and rising, as it is able, into the light of speculation, sees as from a height the greatness of the universe containing in itself infinite places filled with the diverse orders of creatures.135

The outburst of scientific activity in the thirteenth century rivals the magnitude of its philosophies, and the variety and splendor of a literature ranging from the troubadours to Dante. Like the great summae and The Divine Comedy, the science of this age suffered from too great certainty, from a failure to examine its assumptions, and from an indiscriminate mingling of knowledge with faith. But the little bark of science, riding an occult sea, made substantial progress even in an age of faith. In Adelard, Grosseteste, Albert, Arnold of Villanova, William of Saliceto, Henri de Mondeville, Lanfranchi, Bacon, Peter the Pilgrim, and Peter of Spain, fresh observation and timid experiment began to break down the authority of Aristotle, Pliny, and Galen; a zest for exploration and enterprise filled the sails of the adventurers; and already at the beginning of the wonderful century Alexander Neckam expressed the new devotion well: “Science is acquired,” he wrote, “at great expense, by frequent vigils, by great expenditure of time, by sedulous diligence of labor, by vehement application of mind.”136

But at the end of Alexander’s book the medieval mood spoke again, at its best, with timeless tenderness:

Perchance, O book, you will survive this Alexander, and worms will eat me before the bookworm gnaws you…. You are the mirror of my soul, the interpreter of my meditations… the true witness of my conscience, the sweet comforter of my grief…. To you as faithful depositary I have confided my heart’s secrets;… in you I read myself. You will come into the hands of some pious reader who will deign to pray for me. Then indeed, little book, you will profit your master; then you will recompense your Alexander by a most grateful interchange. I do not begrudge my labor. There will come the devotion of a pious reader who will now let you repose in his lap, now move you to his breast, sometimes place you as a sweet pillow beneath his head; sometimes, gently closing you, he will fervently pray for me to Lord Jesus Christ, Who with Father and Holy Spirit lives and reigns God through infinite cycles of ages. Amen.137

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