Incunabula and the Keio University Library Collection


Vincentius Bellovacensis [Vincent de Beauvais], Speculum historiale ([Strassburg]: [The R-Printer (Adolf Rusch)], [1476-80]; also recorded as [c. 1473])

Speculum historiale

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The 13th-century Dominican friar, Vincent de Beauvais, compiled a tripartite encyclopaedia entitled the Speculum maius at the request of Louis IX, the French king. It consists of the Speculum naturale, the Speculum doctrinale and the Speculum historiale (cf. IKUL 007, 009). Later, another compiler added the Speculum morale, drawing mainly on the Summa theologiae of Thomas Aquinas (cf. IKUL 008). Thus the Speculum maius came to comprise four parts by the advent of printing; the Speculum historiale was the most popular of all the four. The Keio copy is a voluminous folio edition weighing 16. 8 kg. It consists of four volumes, containing 155, 176, 175, and 191 folios respectively. All four volumes are bound together in 15th-century German calf on wooden boards. It includes the preface to the whole Speculum maius as well as the text of the Speculum historiale and a detailed list of its contents.

It has frequently been observed that, in incunabula, only the main text is printed with type, whereas the rubrication, such as the large initials, is added later by hand. In the Keio copy, the spaces for the initials have been left blank, and this shows the state of the book immediately after printing. It is presumed that it was left incomplete because of the great cost of inserting all the initials in this voluminous book by hand. An early owner did supply some by hand, in black ink, in imitation of calligraphic initials, but most of the spaces remain blank. There are occasional marginalia throughout the volume, particularly in the florilegium of passages from Ovid; in this section, one missing line is supplied, and a citation from the Remedia amoris is inscribed by hand in the margin. Moreover, an account of the battle in 1581 between Poland, under the rule of King Stefan Batoriy (reigned 1576-86), and the Grand Duchy of Moscow is added, along with a reference to Ovid in the margin of another page. There are two autographs of Germans on other pages, and one can therefore conjecture that the Keio copy was formerly owned in Germany or Eastern Europe.

(TM; trans. by YO)

The Speculum historiale is extant in various manuscripts, and provided material for numerous Latin and vernacular texts in late-medieval Europe. England was no exception. The Speculum historiale is primarily a treasury of exempla for preachers' sourcebooks. Various collections of anecdotes, such as the Gesta Romanorum (IKUL005) – a Latin collection written around the end of the 13th or the beginning of the 14th century and circulated around Europe – depended on the Speculum maius, and especially the Historiale. The Speculum historiale also influenced writers in late-medieval England: it is the source for 112 exempla in John Gower's Confessio amantis, for example (Welter, p. 208). Aiken claims that Geoffrey Chaucer owed his knowledge of medicine and alchemy, as demonstrated in the Canterbury Tales, to the Speculum maius. A number of anecdotes about historical or legendary figures in the Legend of Good Women and the Canterbury Tales were probably derived from the Historiale as well. The Historiale was also an important sourcebook for English and Scottish chronicles. Book IV of the Historiale is entirely devoted to Alexander the Great, and is the longest medieval chronicle written about him. The Polychronicon, by Ranulph Higden, and Mandeville's Travels both turn to the Historiale in recounting the episode of Alexander's visit to the speaking oracular trees named 'the trees of the sun and the moon'. As an anthology of medieval Alexandrian materials, Book IV of the Historiale also stands at the beginning of an important tradition. It is the first medieval text that condemns Alexander rather severely for the murder of the philosopher Callisthenes, who advised Alexander against adopting the oriental custom of monarch-worship. The Historiale compiles several isolated anecdotes into a fictitious historical narrative, and as a result the murder of Callisthenes could be interpreted as proof of the cruelty of Alexander, who grew vainglorious after visiting the oracles of Ammon, where he was told that he was the son of the god (Cary, pp. 114-15). The long account in the Historiale shaped the morally culpable figure of the medieval Alexander. However, in another chapter a seriously wounded Alexander is shown denying that he belongs to the divine race. This morally positive episode was entirely forgotten by medieval moralists until Vincent cited it (Cary, pp. 152-53). The influence of the Historiale has stretched not only to literature but also to the world of art: the wall paintings at Eton College and decorations in Winchester Cathedral contain motifs derived from it (Gill, pp. 4-5).

  Aiken, Pauline, 'Vincent of Beauvais and Dame Pertelote's Knowledge of Medicine', Speculum, 10 (1935), 281-87
---, 'Vincent of Beauvais and Chaucer's Monk's Tale', Speculum, 17 (1942), 56-68
---, 'Vincent of Beauvais and Chaucer's Knowledge of Alchemy', Studies in Philology, 41 (1944), 371-89
  Cary, George, The Medieval Alexander, ed. by D. J. A. Ross (1956; repr. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1967)
  Gill, Miriam, 'The Speculum historiale as a Source for Art: The Eton College Wall Paintings', Vincent of Beauvais Newsletter, 24 (1999), 4-8
  Welter, J.-Th., L''exemplum' dans la littérature religieuse et didactique du Moyen Age, Bibliothèque de la société d'histoire ecclésiastique de la France (1927; repr. New York: AMS Press, 1973)
  Wimsatt, W. K., Jr, 'Vincent of Beauvais and Chaucer's Cleopatra and Croesus', Speculum, 12 (1937), 375-81



Vincentius Bellovacensis [Vincent de Beauvais]
Place of Publication
[The R-Printer (Adolf Rusch)]


Date of Publication
[1476-80]; [c. 1473]

Contemporary German calf on wooden boards, rebacked.

Bibliographical Notes

Four parts bound in one; 155 leaves (of 156), lacking 1 blank at the beginning, 176 leaves, 175 leaves, 191 leaves (of 192), wanting 1 blank at the end; a stub remains between the 58th and 59th leaves (conjugate with the 54th leaf).

Goff V282, HC 6245, IJL2 376, MB 15
Acquisition Year

Its probable East European or German provenance can be seen in marginalia. On vol. I, fol.129, there is an early MS marginalia referring to the 1581 campaign of Stefan Batoriy, Polish King, against the Muscovites and connecting the event to passages from Ovid. On the lower margin of part 2, fol. 29v is written ‘Joannes Leonardi Pfalizell' with the mention of the year 1599. On part 1, fol. 2r, a German ownership inscription dated 1821 can be seen, along with a signature by another owner erased by pen. On the front paste-down, there is a bookplate of Paul Helbronner (with the motto ‘Perseverantia'), the famous Alpine cartographer at the beginning of the twentieth century. Maîtres Laurin – Guilloux – Buffetaud, Paris, 27 October 1997 sales catalogue. (Cf. Mostly British, p. 99).