The ‘Liber Floridus’ by Lambertus van Sint-Omaars

The autograph of Liber Floridus has been in Ghent since the 13th century. The author of this medieval encyclopedia is Lambertus of Saint-Omer, a canon of Church of Our Lady of Saint-Omer. It is assumed Lambertus completed his manuscript around 1121. In the 12th century, Saint-Omer was one of the leading economic and cultural centers of the County of Flanders. A crucial fact, since Lambertus’ Liber Floridus, as an encyclopedia, contains a compilation of extracts from other books to which he had access in Saint-Omer. For example, Lambertus extensively uses and copies the much older and, at that time, leading encyclopaedias of Isidorus of Seville, Beda Venerabilis and Rabanus Maurus, and almost a hundred other sources. In turn, Lambertus’ work was copied several times, as shown by the many preserved later copies.

A medieval encyclopaedia in which the content was apparently not organised in any way, the chapters sometimes following each other in a random order, with the intention of preventing the loss of ‘knowledge’. Lambertus noted 161 chapters in his table of contents. Often these are merely lists of names of popes, peoples, kings, inventors, provinces, founders of cities, genealogies and the glorious deeds of the Counts of Flanders and many other princes. Eschatology is never far away and at the end of time awaits a new and heavenly Jerusalem. This beautiful autograph of Lambertus is unique in and of itself, and it is perhaps the oldest richly illustrated encyclopedia. Lambertus follows a long-standing tradition by depicting himself writing at the beginning of the manuscript (f 13r). Some of the images are commonly considered masterpieces of Romanesque art.

A very typical example of this are the trees of virtues and vices on f.231v-232r. This beautiful artwork covers two pages where the roots of the trees touch each other in the fold of the book. Morality and natural history are captured in one image. The different branches of the tree of virtues bear different leaves representing a specific virtue, and female figures in the respective medallions. The colorful tree is directly identified with the Church of the believers. Diametrically opposite this flowering tree stands the arid tree of the vices. No female representations in the medallions, only a textual representation of the various sins. As virtues are identified with the Church, Lambert’s anti-Semitism is revealed by the identification of the arid fig tree with the Synagogue.

[Hendrik Defoort, Ghent University]

See Albert Derolez, The Making and Meaning of the Liber Floridus. A Study of the original Manuscript, Ghent, University Library MS 92, London/Turnhout, 2015.

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