The mysterious scroll in the portrait of Vincent of Beauvais

While preparing next weeks lecture at the Berlin State Library I remembered a miniature which was drawn to my attention by a tweet of @melibeus1 which shows Vincent of Beauvais at work (online source is the Catalogue of Digitized Manuscripts of the British Library:

British Library, Royal 14 E I f. 3: Vincent of Beauvais at his writing desk

British Library, Royal 14 E I f. 3: Vincent of Beauvais

The miniature stems from BL Royal 14 E I, a late fifteenth century manuscript which according to the BL catalogue was made in the Southern Netherlands (Bruges?) for Edward IV (death 1483), king of England and lord of Ireland and which contains a French translation of the Speculum Historiale by Jean de Vignay.

I find it very intriguing that a vernacular (here French) version of this originally very erudite Latin compilation for Vincent’s fellow Dominican brothers for preaching purposes would evoke the interest of a king, after all a laical reader. Also the Spiegel Historiael, the Middle Dutch version of the Speculum Historiale by Jacob van Maerlant, Philip Utenbroecke, and Lodewijk van Velthem, was originally made for members of the nobility and can be traced in quite some laical libraries (on manuscript transmission of the Spiegel Historial see Biemans). Last but not least, the Medieval High German translation of the Spiegel Historiael was part of the library of two Nuremberg merchants and a South German nobleman (the count of Öttingen), although we do not know yet who commissioned it.

I find one detail of this portrait of Vincent of Beauvais at work particularly interesting. We see him writing on his desk and the things hanging from his desk are there to hold down the parchment, as he was not writing in a book, but on loose parchment and the mirror at the right side is probably there to catch some extra light. The books behind him (his sources) are quite anachronistically bound 15th century style. (Also he was not working alone, but had many helpers for compiling the sources).  If you are interested in the making of the Speculum Historiale have a look at Voorbij 1991. This and many more useful publications and information about Vincent of Beauvais and his works can be found on the website which is maintained by Hans Voorbij en Eva Albrecht. Also very useful is the site of the Atelier Vincent Beauvais (, where amongst others an edition of a manuscript of the Speculum Historiale is provided. As I am not a specialist for medieval art I owe the information on the iconography of the miniature to Eef Overgaauw. Some other pictures of medieval writers and painters at work can be found on Le Blog Enluminure by Claudine Brunon.

Unsolved is still the funny scroll that is rolling out of Vincent’s desk. His “printer”? No seriously, is this a sign for his productivity? I am interested to know if somebody else has seen something similar.

One Response to “The mysterious scroll in the portrait of Vincent of Beauvais”
  1. Dirk Schoenaers says:

    Hi Ulrike

    Not exactly the same, but the scroll is similar in its dimensions:

    MS384 f.101a

    The well-known miniature depicting Jean Miélot shows how scrolls (in this case of larger dimensions) were kept in the nooks and cracks of lecterns.

    His writing desk seems to have a storage option at the side which is similar to the one in the Vincentius-miniature. One might ask whether these narrow scrolls are intended to represent preliminary transcriptions of source materials or rather something else, such as a medium for pen-trials or something to clean the nib of the pen?

    Would have loved to hear your paper on Velthem tomorrow, but won’t be able to make it. to Berlin

    All the best


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