Der naturen bloeme, Jacob van Maerlant

This medieval manuscript of Jacob van Maerlant's Der naturen bloeme (ca. 1350) is the medieval version of our Wikipedia - with beautiful illustrations and, perhaps even more important, it was written in Dutch as opposed to the usual Latin.

Jacob van Maerlant (1230/1235-c.1291) is arguably the most important Dutch poet from the thirteenth century. He produced a verse translation of the bible (the Rijmbijbel), and made an adaptation (Spiegel historiael) of the Speculum historiale by Vincent of Beauvais, a world history to the year 1250. The manuscript shown here, Der naturen bloeme, is an adaptation of De natura rerum by the philosopher and theologian Thomas of Cantimpré (c.1200-c.1272).

De natura rerum ultimately derives from classical sources, the oldest of which is the Physiologus, a Greek text written in Alexandria in the second century A.D., in which some fifty animals, monsters and minerals are described. For his Dutch translation, Jacob van Maerlant somewhat shortened the text by Thomas of Cantimpré; in thirteen books, he consecutively discusses man, quadrupeds, birds, fish and other sea creatures, reptiles and insects, trees, medicinal herbs, sources, gems and metals. The order is roughly alphabetical by the Latin names.

In the KB manuscript, Der naturen bloeme is preceded by a calendar for Utrecht and a number of short treatises, for instance De natuurkunde van het geheelal (‘the Natural history of the Universe’) by one Gheraert van Lienhout, an astrological work and a small number of recipes. Van Maerlant’s work begins on fol. 38r.

The manuscript was produced around 1350 in either Utrecht or Flanders; the precise location is difficult to ascertain. It contains some 460 miniatures besides a number of drawings of the heavenly spheres (from fol. 9r), some of which are unfinished. The most striking illuminations are those of ‘homines monstruosi’, strange races that were said to live in distant lands. Among them are cannibals and cyclopses, and people with only one leg and feet so large that they could be used as a parasol.

The manuscript of Der naturen bloeme is part of the extensive loan from the Koninklijke Academie van Wetenschappen (Dutch Academy of Sciences), given to the KB in 1937.
Not much is known about the manuscript’s provenance: The KNAW acquired it in 1812 from the estate of G.Th. van der Capellen and his wife F.J. d'Hangest d'Yvoy. The earliest reference to the manuscript is in a catalogue of an auction held in The Hague on 6 September 1779, which shows that it was in the possession of the Hague bookseller Cornelis van Buuren. In that catalogue, the manuscript is described as ‘very old, but clean and well-kept’ and as ‘an excellent show-piece’.

For more illustrations and a bibliographical description, see Der Naturen Bloeme (Dutch).