Medieval Writing
Compendia of Knowledge (2)
A number of these works have titles suggesting a mirror or reflection of the world; terms like Speculum, Imago Mundi, Image du Monde. These titles, and the attempt at universality in the content, suggest that the book in some sense encapsulates the world. While the world is the work of the creator, the book is the interpretation of that world by man. This concept of a book makes it much more than a collections of words describing the world, but it somehow is a world in its own right. The structure of the book represents the author's concept of the structure of the world.
Christ in judgement
Christ sits in majestic judgement over the west portal of Chartres cathedral, flanked by the symbols of the evangelists. He is holding a book, perhaps his superior version of the book of the world.
This concept of the "Weltbuch" is expounded in an article by Christel Meier 1984 "Grundzüger der mittelalterlichen Enzyklopädick" in Litteratur und Karenbildung im Spätmittelalter und in der Reformationziet, Stuttgart 1984. If your German is better than mine, you may be able to give a clearer exposition of this concept.
Medieval literate culture was based in a concept of a body of authoritative texts. The process of accumulation of knowledge of the world involved the compilation of such sources into a structured text. The process would be called plagiarism in modern scholarship as sources were assembled, edited, contextualised and presented anew. This was not an improper process, as the original authors were often cited in the prologues to give legitimacy to the work. These encyclopedic works demonstrate perhaps best of all that medieval literate culture was a reflexive study of the written word itself rather than original observations of the world. The world created by the book of the world was a little world of scholarship and learning, not the big bad nasty world of plague, wars and famine.
Pope Gregory
Pope Gregory the Great may have got the authority for his writings from a dove, as depicted here on a portal figure from Chartres Cathedral, but other authors relied on authority from their predecessors.
The massive compilation of Isidore of Seville spread rapidly across the monasteries of Europe at a time when these expanding institutions were working furiously to collect libraries of texts for teaching, preaching and their own education. The work was essentially a library in itself. One might think that such compilations would have lesser value as libraries steadily enlarged and a greater range of works was more widely dispersed. On the contrary, these libraries in a box developed and grew, with more commentary and allegory added to the basic texts.
Blackfriar's Hall The rise of the preaching orders, the Dominicans and Franciscans, in the 13th century, resulted in greater need for compiled material from which material for sermons and preaching could be abstracted. Vincent of Beauvais, who produced the biggest medieval encyclopedia of the lot, Speculum Maius, was a Dominican. In the 13th century new material was added to these works, but still under the banner of older authorities such as Aristotle, some mostly anonymous late antique authors and some Arab authors.
The Dominicans packed them in the aisles in large churches like this one in Norwich. The huge nave has been turned into a hall for concert performances and the like.
The most comprehensive of the works arranged their material under four major topics which encompassed all the phenomena of the world: the cosmos, history, science and ethics. The ordering of these topics was different in different works, and not all were covered in every work. In the simplest form of the genre, only the cosmos was dealt with. Some sections of these compilations also appeared as individual works. The text of sections on animals could be essentially the same as those of a bestiary. Sections on minerals were also produced in separate works referred to as lapidaries.
The moral qualities of mythical beasts like the unicorn were expounded in the encyclopedias, as in the bestiaries. This depiction is on a misericord in Lincoln Cathedral.
Some works had names like De Natura Rerum (On the Nature of Things), suggesting that they were all about everything. Others like Brunetto Latini's Trésor or works with names that refer to flowers, like Liber Floridus or Hortus Deliciarum, suggest a selection of the best bits, as in the term florilegium. Either way, they represent approaches to learning in which disengaged scientific curiosity is not enough. Knowledge of the works of the creator was a moral act with a greater purpose.

The fact that these works survived, grew and developed from the Dark Ages through into the era of printed books suggests that their meaning to readers changed over the centuries.

My friend Libby Keen has not only finished her PhD thesis on the history of Bartholomeus Anglicus' De Proprietatibus Rerum and its reception over the centuries, she has produced the book, which is published by ANU e-Press. The Journey of a Book: Bartholomew the Englishman and the Properties of Things can be downloaded electronically for free or obtained in hard copy at modest price. It's a fascinating tale, not only of the production and content of a book, but of its changing meaning over the centuries.

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