Jacob van Maerlant is one of the major Dutch poets of the thirteenth century and the founder of didactic literature in the Low Countries. His translations of important encyclopedic works from Latin into the vernacular met the growing need of the lay people - nobility as well as wealthy middle classes - who were taking an ever increasing interest in knowledge and learning. He translated three long didactic poems, Der Naturen Bloeme, the Rijmbijbel, and the Spiegel Historiael, of which the last one is considered undisputedly his highest achievement. It is an adaptation of Vincent van Beauvais's Speculum Historiale, which he started in 1283 at the request of Floris V, Count of Holland. The Speculum described the history of the world from the Creation until the year 1250, in four parts, called ‘Partiën’ by Maerlant. He had only finished the adaptation of the first, third and part of the fourth ‘Partie’ when he had to stop working on it, possibly for reasons of health. The translation was later on completed by two younger contemporaries, one of whom added a fifth ‘Partie’.
De text of the Spiegel Historiael has not come down to us in full. The Hague manuscript is the only one in which all parts adapted by Maerlant himself, have survived in toto. It is, moreover, the only copy that was illuminated: it contains nineteen historiated initials and forty-three miniatures. The majority of the latter cover a horizontal strip over the full width of the three columns of text, at the bottom of the page. The last miniature depicts the capture of Jerusalem by Godfrey of Bouillon in 1099. The miniature shows the knights storming Jerusalem from all sides, to the right with ingeniously made offensive equipment, and in the middle with little boats across the moat. Godfrey himself, recognizable by the Brabant lion on his apparel and shield, is forcing his way in on a ladder. To the left a group of crusaders, headed by St. George, watch the event. The language of the text in this manuscript indicates that this copy was made in West Flanders, and in all probability it was also illuminated there.
Spiegel Historiael. Jacob van Maerlant. West Flanders, c. 1325-1335. Vellum, 258 leaves, 320 x 233 mm. Provenance: on loan from the Royal Netherlands Academy of Arts and Sciences, 1937. - KA XX, fol. 255r