A Biography of Vincent of Beauvais
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 life of the Dominican friar Vincent of Beauvais, one of the greatest encyclopedists of the Middle Ages, is shrouded in mystery. His place of birth is unknown; his date of birth remains a matter of speculation, despite the fact that it has variously been listed as 1180 or 1190. In his works he calls himself brother Vincentius Belvacensis, of the Dominican order (Ordo Predicatorum). Several scholars conjectured that Vincent was a student at Paris during the reign of the French King Philip Augustus (1180-1223) and that he joined the Dominican order at Paris, but this has not been established with certitude.
During the years 1244-1245, Vincent entered into contact with King Louis IX (1226-1270) through the intermediary Radulphus, who was acting as the abbot of the Cistercian monastery of Royaumont. That monastery, situated in the Vallée de l’Oise, was founded by Louis IX in 1228. Radulphus told Vincent that King Louis had heard about the compendium of all theological knowledge available that Vincent had just completed. Radulphus also reported that the king ordered and funded a copy of the historical part of that work. This is the first reference known to the Speculum Maius ("Greater Mirror"), the encyclopedic work for which Vincent became famous. The Speculum Maius was intended, in its final state, to consist of four parts: the Speculum Naturale (on natural history), the Speculum Doctrinale (on the arts and sciences), the Speculum Morale (on virtues and vices) and the Speculum Historiale (on human history from Creation upto Vincent's own lifetime). But Vincent did not succeed in completing all four parts (see An overview of the genesis of the Speculum Maius).
It is tempting to identify Vincent of Beauvais as the sub-prior Vincentius of the Dominicans at Beauvais, who is mentioned in a cartulary dating from 1246, but this, too, has not been established with certainty.
By the end of 1246 or early 1247, Vincent was at Royaumont where, as he recounted himself, he worked as a lector in theology. The fact that he should have worked in this capacity for Cistercian monks is puzzling since, at the time, the Dominican brothers themselves were short of lectores in theology. Perhaps his personal contacts with the king and the royal family did account for this.
For them Vincent wrote a political compendium ("opus universale de statu principis") that was intended to consist of four parts. Due to intervening tasks, however, he left this compendium unfinished. Vincent completed only the first part on the moral instruction of princes and courtiers, the De morali principis institutione, sometime after 1260. More than one decade earlier, before the end of 1250, he had already completed the fourth part of this compendium, entitled De eruditione filiorum nobilium ("On the education of noble children").
During the years ca. 1247 - ca. 1260 Vincent also compiled a number of theological works. Two of these works, the Liber gratiae and the Tractatus de sancta Trinitate, he mentions in the Speculum Naturale.
Following the death of the crown prince in January 1260, Vincent wrote a letter of consolation (Liber consolatorius) for King Louis. From this letter it is clear that Vincent, at that time, no longer lived at Royaumont.
It is unknown where Vincent of Beauvais lived during the last years of his life. It is assumed that he died in 1264, but this, again, has not been established with certitude.