Speculum literature

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This author portrait of Vincent of Beauvais in a manuscript of his Speculum Historiale, contains an actual convex mirror as a visual pun. French translation by Jean de Vignay, Bruges, c. 1478-1480, for Edward IV;British Library

The medieval genre of speculum literature, popular from the twelfth through the sixteenth centuries, was inspired by the urge to encompass encyclopedic knowledge within a single work.[1] However, some of these works have a restricted scope and function as instructional manuals.[2] In this sense encyclopedias and speculum are similar but they are not the same genre.[3] Some have suggested that the modern equivalent is a summary survey, in the sense of a survey article in a scholarly journal that summarizes a field of research.[citation needed]

The speculum image, of the mirror that reflects far and wide, was drawn from the magical mirror that was supposed to belong among the treasures of legendary Prester John somewhere in the East; through it every province could be seen:

"Before our palace stands a mirror, the ascent to which consists of five and twenty steps of porpyry and serpentine ... This mirror is guarded day and night by three thousand men. We look therein and behold all that is taking place in every province and region subject to our sceptre."[4]

Specula as a genre

Specula often offered mirrors of history, doctrine, or morals. Vincent of Beauvais's Speculum Maius which included the Mirror of Nature, Mirror of History, and Mirror of Doctrine is not often described as a core representative of the genre. One historian has surmised that this is because Vincent's work was intended to be an objective work which is at odds with speculum literature, since it "is a subjective genre".[3] More usual members are found in this list:

Speculum for princes as a genre

Speculum of Princes or Speculum regale, the prince's realms were surveyed and his duties laid out.

Works with which include the word speculum

Ormulum, written by a certain Orm in Central England, bears an indirect reference to speculum and may be translated as "Orm's Mirror". It is universal in contents in that it contains the appropriate homiletic materials throughout the Church calendar.

In English mirror appears in, among many other works, the Myrrour of the Worlde (1490), one of the first illustrated books printed in English, by William Caxton (a translation of L'image du Monde, an overview of the sciences), the perennially-republished A Mirror for Magistrates (1559), and The Miroir or Glasse of the Synneful Soul, a manuscript translation from the French by the young Queen Elizabeth I of England. The Mirror of Simple Souls is a modern English translation of a similar French work. The word 'speculum' was rendered into English as 'mirror or glass'.

The Speculum Romanae Magnificentiae, Mirror of the Magnificence of Rome was a Renaissance "coffee table book" of prints of the sights of Rome, especially the antiquities, produced by the French print seller and publisher Antonio Lafreri (or Antoine du Pérac Lafréry, 1512-77). He had been publishing and distributing such prints, and selling them at his shop in Rome, since the 1540s. In the 1570s he hit on the idea of producing a title page for the albums of prints he also sold. Each copy of the Speculum may have different contents, as the customer in Rome could make his own selection in the shop & have them bound up.[5]

Similarly, the journal Speculum, published by the Medieval Academy of America, covers every aspect of the medieval world.

See also


  1. ^ Bradley, Ritamary "Backgrounds of the Title Speculum in Mediaeval Literature" Speculum 29.1 (January 1954), pp. 100-115.
  2. ^ Franklin-Brown, Mary (2012). Reading the world : encyclopedic writing in the scholastic age. Chicago London: The University of Chicago Press. p. 273. ISBN 9780226260709. 
  3. ^ a b c d e f g h i Franklin-Brown 2012, p. 273.
  4. ^ The fabricated "Letter of Prester John", said to have been sent to Manuel I Komnenos in 1165.
  5. ^ Speculum Romanae Magnificentiae, University of Chicago Library

External links

  • The Speculum Romanae Magnificentiae at the University of Chicago Library
  • Lafreri’s Speculum Romanae Magnificentiae. Held by the Department of Drawings & Archives, Avery Architectural & Fine Arts Library, Columbia University.
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