Thomas of Cantimpré (Latin: Thomās Cantimpratensis or ThomāsCantipratensis) (Sint-Pieters-Leeuw, 1201 – Leuven, 15 May 1272) was a Flemish Roman Catholic medieval writer, preacher, theologian and – most important – a friar belonging to the Dominican Order. He is best known for the encyclopedia on nature De natura rerum, for the moral text Bonum universale de Apibus and for his hagiographic writings.
Latin is a classical language belonging to the Italic branch of the Indo-European languages. The Latin alphabet is derived from the Etruscan and Greek alphabets and ultimately from the Phoenician alphabet.
Sint-Pieters-Leeuw is a Dutch-speaking municipality of Belgium located in the province of Flemish Brabant.
Leuven or Louvain is the capital of the province of Flemish Brabant in Belgium. It is located about 25 kilometres east of Brussels. The municipality itself comprises the historic city and the former neighbouring municipalities of Heverlee, Kessel-Lo, a part of Korbeek-Lo, Wilsele and Wijgmaal. It is the eighth largest city in Belgium and the fourth in Flanders with more than 100,244 inhabitants.
Thomas of Cantimpré was born of noble parentage in 1201, at Sint-Pieters-Leeuw (a little city near Brussels), in the Duchy of Brabant.
Brussels, officially the Brussels-Capital Region, is a region of Belgium comprising 19 municipalities, including the City of Brussels, which is the capital of Belgium. The Brussels-Capital Region is located in the central portion of the country and is a part of both the French Community of Belgium and the Flemish Community, but is separate from the Flemish Region and the Walloon Region. Brussels is the most densely populated and the richest region in Belgium in terms of GDP per capita. It covers 161 km2 (62 sq mi), a relatively small area compared to the two other regions, and has a population of 1.2 million. The metropolitan area of Brussels counts over 2.1 million people, which makes it the largest in Belgium. It is also part of a large conurbation extending towards Ghent, Antwerp, Leuven and Walloon Brabant, home to over 5 million people.
The Duchy of Brabant was a State of the Holy Roman Empire established in 1183. It developed from the Landgraviate of Brabant and formed the heart of the historic Low Countries, part of the Burgundian Netherlands from 1430 and of the Habsburg Netherlands from 1482, until it was partitioned after the Dutch revolt.
In 1206 his father (returning from Palestine, where he fought next to Richard I of England) sends him to Liège: here Thomas starts mastering the difficulties of the trivium and quadrivium, studying from age 5 to age 11; in Liège he also has the chance to meet Jacques de Vitry, who was preaching in those places.
Palestine is a geographic region in Western Asia usually considered to include Israel, the West Bank, the Gaza Strip, and in some definitions, parts of western Jordan.
Richard I was King of England from 1189 until his death. He also ruled as Duke of Normandy, Aquitaine and Gascony, Lord of Cyprus, Count of Poitiers, Anjou, Maine, and Nantes, and was overlord of Brittany at various times during the same period. He was the third of five sons of King Henry II of England and Duchess Eleanor of Aquitaine. He was known as Richard Cœur de Lion or Richard the Lionheart because of his reputation as a great military leader and warrior. He was also known in Occitan as: Oc e No, because of his reputation for terseness.
Liège is a major Walloon city and municipality and the capital of the Belgian province of Liège.
In 1217, at the age of 16, he enters the Canons Regular of St. Augustine in the Abbey of Cantimpré(near Cambrai), where he then gets the priesthood. Thomas spends fifteen years in Cantimpré, being a constant source of edification for his brethren.
Cambrai, formerly Cambray and historically in English Camerick or Camericke, is a commune in the Nord department and in the Hauts-de-France region of France on the Scheldt river, which is known locally as the Escaut river.
Later, in 1232, Thomas of Cantimpré enters the Dominican Order in Leuven (again in the Brabant), and in 1233 he is sent by the Order in Cologne, so that he can pursue the superior theological studies: here, Thomas has the opportunity to study and improve under the aegis of Albertus Magnus.
Cologne is the largest city of Germany's most populous federal state of North Rhine-Westphalia and the fourth most populous city in Germany after Berlin, Hamburg, and Munich. With slightly over a million inhabitants within its city boundaries, Cologne is the largest city on the Rhine and also the most populous city both of the Rhine-Ruhr Metropolitan Region, which is Germany's largest and one of Europe's major metropolitan areas, and of the Rhineland. Centered on the left bank of the Rhine, Cologne is about 45 kilometres (28 mi) southeast of North Rhine-Westphalia's capital of Düsseldorf and 25 kilometres (16 mi) northwest of Bonn. It is the largest city in the Central Franconian and Ripuarian dialect areas.
Albertus Magnus, also known as Saint Albert the Great and Albert of Cologne, was a German Catholic Dominican friar and bishop. Later canonised as a Catholic saint, he was known during his lifetime as Doctor universalis and Doctor expertus and, late in his life, the sobriquet Magnus was appended to his name. Scholars such as James A. Weisheipl and Joachim R. Söder have referred to him as the greatest German philosopher and theologian of the Middle Ages. The Catholic Church distinguishes him as one of the 36 Doctors of the Church.
After 4 years spent in Cologne, Thomas goes to Paris, at the Dominican studium of St. James, for further scientific studies, and to prepare for his preaching mission.
In 1240, Thomas of Cantimpré is finally back in Leuven, where – thanks to his studies – he is nominated Magister of philosophy and theology, a role that he covered with great distinction. Then, in 1246, Thomas becomes sub-prior and lector at Leuven.
Moved by the Dominican's distrust of studies in generale, or maybe by some sort of "conversion", Thomas dedicates the last part of his life to preaching. Thus, he undertakes missions ranging between the Brabant, Germany, Belgium and France: for his great success in this field, Thomas is also honored with the title of "General Preacher".
Thomas of Cantimpré died in Leuven, supposedly 15 May 1272.
Thomas of Cantimpré is the author of several writings of different types, all written in Latin; among his production, it's easy to distinguish a moral-encyclopedic strand and an hagiographic strand.
To the moral-encycolpedial strand belong the encyclopedic book De natura rerum, the moral text Bonum universale de apibus, discussed in detail down here.
On the other hand, in the hagiographic strand we have the Vita Joannis abbatis primi monasterii Cantimpratensis, a Supplementumad vitam Mariae Oigniacensis, and also three lives dedicated to holy women belonging to the Dioces of Liège, that are Vita S. Christinae virginis Mirabilis dictae, Vita preclare virginis Margarete de Ypris and Vita Piae Lutgardiae.
This partition does not include a Thomas' minor work – even just for its length (only 105 lines) – which is the Hymnus de beato Jordano, written in honor of the blessed Jordan of Saxony (died 1237), one of the key-people of the Dominican order.
The text De natura rerum (or Liber de natura rerum) may be Thomas' most significant work, as it's both the one he dedicated more time to (almost twenty years of work, between 1225 and 1244) and the one that had the largest posthumous fortune, as witnessed by the large number of codes that contain this work, but also by the many authors that took inspiration from it.
De natura rerum is an encyclopedic work – thus belonging to the encyclopedic genre, largely widespread on the Latin Late Middle Ages – that wants to represent a complete and exhaustive compendium of the previous scientific history, specifically for clergy.
A first 'stable' redaction of the work is dated between 1237 to 1240 (as to say, in the period when Thomas is located at the Dominica studium in Paris) and it's structured into nineteen books. Later, anyway, the author himself deeply revises the text, adding many interpolationsto it: this second redaction of De natura rerum, dated 1244, is organized into twenty book, of different topics:
Thomas of Cantimpré's De natura rerum depends on several sources, that include in primis the great philosopher Aristotle (a fundamental authority in the Middle Ages, particularly starting from XIII century) and two Latin authors, Pliny the Elder and Gaius Julius Solinus, respectively of the I and the III century. Other names shall be added to these three, for instance St. Ambrose and – coming chronologically closer to Thomas – also the one of Jacques de Vitry. Furthermore, the twentieth book (added in a second moment, as previously said), majorly comes from William of Conches's De philosophia mundi. In this work, Thomas himself also indicates an anonymous 'experimenter'. Apart from the few names easily identifiable, it's certain that Thomas of Cantimpré used a large number of different sources, that are not always easy to recognize.
As previously mentioned, the De natura rerum had a considerable fortune, especially during the Renaissance, when the text was frequently plagued, also for catalogs of stones and monsters, but mostly for catalogs of animals . Several vernacularizations and also a Dutch translation (Der Naturen Bloeme by Jacob van Maerlant) were realized. Furthermore, Conrad of Megenberg's Buch der Natur (1475) was also inspired by Thomas' De natura rerum.
Regarding the textual tradition, De natura rerum had a widespread diffusion, confirmed by the consistent number of codes that contain the text. However, to be more specific, between the hundred of manuscriptsof the work, only a few (actually, just two manuscripts) contain the whole work in its integrity, while the largest part of them has a shortened version: thus, the shorter one is the version of the De natura rerum that had the largest diffusion .
Thomas of Cantimpré is also the author of the Bonum universale de apibus, a work of moral and spiritual edification– composed between 1256/57 and 1263, but probably in 1259 – which is based on the allegory of life in a community of bees to deal with issues related to moral conduct and to the duties of superiors and subordinates.
The Bonum universale de apibus is organized in 2 books: the first one (De prelatis) deals with the "prelates" (bishops, abbots and lords), while the second one (De subditis) deals with subordinates (both monks and laity). Each chapter presents at the beginning the exposition of a property of bees, followed by an allegorical interpretation of the same – generally of moral kind – and then by a series of exempla . While the passages on bees and allegorical interpretations are taken (as the author himself says) from 'other books', Thomas takes up the matter of each exemplum "from his own experience or from contemporary oral, religious or secular sources" . Overall, the text therefore represents "a treatise on practical theology and morals" .
Like the De natura rerum, the Bonumuniversale has had a great fortune: the manuscript tradition is indeed very wide, counting even in this case more than a hundred manuscripts. There were made also several prints: a print in Deventer before 1478, then one in Paris and three more (1597, 1605, 1627) in Douai. The text has also inspired many writers during the centuries, including Johannes Nider, who took inspiration from the Bonum universale for the structure of his Formicarius (1436–1438) .
To date, a modern critical edition of the work is still missing.
The Bonum universale de apibus subsequently had wide resonance also because it contains (in the paragraph Cur Iudaei Christianum sanguinem effundant quotannis) the first organic theorizing of the antisemitic question known as 'Blood Accusation': the Jews were accused of ritual murders of Christians. In an attempt to understand the reason behind these rituals, Thomas states that since the killing of Christ the Jews suffered from bleeding – remember Pilate's statement "May his blood be on us and on our children" (Mt 27:25) – and therefore they killed Christians, and then used their blood in rituals, because they believed that in this way they could heal. In fact, they had (erroneously) interpreted to the letter the indication of one of their prophets that "only Christian blood could alleviate this sorrow", when in reality the prophecy figuratively referred to the blood of Christ (only sanguine Christiano), symbolically drunk during the Eucharist: the only good for the Jews would therefore have been conversion to the true faith. Thomas says he learned about this from an unspecified "converted Jew", probably referring to Nicholas Donin.
Within the Bonum universale Thomas also mentions the blasphemous theory of the three impostors, according to which the founders of the three great religions – Moses, Muhammad and Jesus – would "subdue the world with their sects and their teachings: [...] Moses deceived the Jews, Jesus the Christians and Mohammed the Gentiles". Thomas of Cantimpré attributes this idea to the theologian Simon de Tournai (or Simon de Tornaco, as Thomas calls him), a master of theology at the University of Paris who, according to him, deserved (for having said that) a epileptic crisis that made him mute.
Thomas of Cantimpré is also the author of various hagiographic texts, for which he is considered one of the first great authors of mystical hagiography.
With the exception of Vita Joannis abbatis primi monasterii Cantimpratensis – composed between 1224 and 1228and relating to the founder and first abbot of the abbey of Cantimpré – Thomas writes mystical biographies on holy females, all linked to the Belgian territory.
His mystic hagiographies therefore represent a corpus of texts, composed roughly between 1231 and 1248, which appears as "a florilegium of lifes of the holy women living in the folds of Liège": through this set of hagiographic works, Thomas di Cantimpré offers "a mirror of the complexity and fluidity of the forms of religious life of the diocese of Liège" . It is also possible to analyze in detail the individual works that make up this hagiographic file .
The first hagiographic work by Thomas is actually an addition, a Supplementum, to the Life of Mary of Oignies, written in 1215 by Jacques de Vitry on the figure of Marie of Oignies .
Thomas writes the Supplementum ad vitam Mariae Oigniacensis around 1230 at the specific request of the community of Oignies (or rather "forced by the prior of Oignies"), who wanted to promote – thanks to the authorship of Thomas – its image.
In addition to being Thomas's first work on a holy woman, the Supplementum is also one of the first written records of life in a Beguine community. Marie of Oignies is in fact one of the most famous beguines: she belonged to those "small republics of semi-religious women [...] protected but together controlled by the ecclesiastical authorities [...] for the creativity of their religious and devotional practices".
Moreover, in the story that he tells of the life of Marie, Thomas shows that he was deeply impressed by her, so much so that he considered her as a teacher. With his first hagiographic work, Thomas of Cantimpré also wants to propose an ideal of Christianity: under the sign of Marie of Oignies, in fact, the author wants to indicate that "evil is not identifiable only in infidels and heretics, but it nestles in the hearts and in the very bosom of Christianitas".
Thomas of Cantimpré writes his first 'autonomous' hagiography, even if it is already his second female portrait (after that of Marie of Oignies), on the life of Christina of St. Trond, a Belgian mystic (died 1224) known as Cristina the Astonishing: Thomas writes the work around 1232 starting from direct testimonies of those who had known it. In the figure of Cristina, he again wants to represent an ideal, in this case an "extreme and rarefaction model of perfection, [which] reproposes, after a millennial pause, the mystical horizons of holy madness" .
The 'historical' value of this Life is profoundly doubtful (as can be seen also from the comparison with the information that Jacques de Vitry gives on Cristina in the Prologue of the aforementioned Vita B. Mariae Oigniensis) but on the literary level for this type of texts does not count so much the 'historical' truth, but rather the model of sanctity that emerges from the work .
The Vita preclare virginis Margarete de Ypris (or Vita Beatae Margaritae Iprensis) is the second "autonomous" mystical hagiography of Thomas, dedicated to the life of Margaret of Ypres, a Belgian Blessed died in 1237.
The Vita Margaritae was composed – on commissionby the Dominican preacher Sigieri da Lilla – certainly before 1244 , but probably way before that year: in fact, the tone of the story gives a "feeling of proximity and immediacy" .
From the image that is given in the work, it is clear that through the figure of Margherita Thomas wants to propose an ideal of feminine devotion according to the Dominican vision; in the hagiography dedicated to her, in fact, Margherita represents the evidence that "feminine perfection is expressed in silence, in prayer and in submission". We do not want to propose a need for isolation: the blessed is indeed – again coherently with the Dominican ideals – deeply "tied to the new reality of the citizen presence of the Preachers" .
Here Thomas of Cantimpré clearly expresses the Dominican conception of the centrality of the female presence, which "has an irreplaceable value for the success of the mission", just as stated, in the same years, by the "general master of the Order Jordan of Saxony" .
The hagiographic masterpiece of Thomas, as a work "much more elaborate and complete than the previous texts", is certainly the Vita Piae Lutgardiae (or Vita Lutgardis). It is the life of Lutgardis of Tongres , who died in 1246 and later became the saint patron of Flanders. Thomas wrote the work in 1248, but later reworked it in 1254–1255.
Unlike the two previous Vitae, linked to figures of secular penitents, with the Vita Lutgardis Tommaso proposes the portrait of a Cistercian nun of Aywières: it is therefore "a cloistered portrait", that the author uses to explain "the mystical meaning of the enclosure, [...] atopic space in which it is possible to live the encounter with God in radical terms".
For the De natura rerum: Boese HELMUT (ed.), Liber de natura rerum, Berlin-New York, Walter de Gruyter, 1973.
For the Bonum universale de apibus: George COLVENEER (ed.), Bonum universale de apibus, Bellerus, 1597. Available online (https://archive.org/details/bub_gb_HS5SAAAAcAAJ/page/n3).
For the Hymnus de beato Jordano: AA.SS., Hymnus de beato Jordano, Februarii tomus II, februarii XIII, Parigi-Roma, 1867, pp. 739–740.
For the Vita Joannis abbatis primi monasterii Cantimpratensis: Robert GODDING (ed.), Une œuvre inédite de Thomas de Cantimpré: la «Vita Ioannis Cantipratensis» in «Revue d’histoire ecclésiastique», LXXVI, 1981, pp. 241–316.
For the Supplementum ad vitam Mariae Oigniacensis: Robert B. C . HUYGENS (ed.), Iacobus de Vitriaco, Vita Marie de Oignies. Thomas Cantipratensis, Supplementum, Turnhout, Brepols, 2012 (Corpus christianorum. Continuatio mediaevalis, 252).
For the Vita S. Christinae virginis Mirabilis dictae: AA.SS., Vita sanctae Christinae mirabilis, Iulii tomus V, iulii XXIV, Parigi-Roma, 1867, pp. 650–660.
For the Vita preclare virginis Margarete de Ypris: Giles MEERSSEMAN (ed.), Les frères Prêcheurs et le mouvement dévot en Flandre au XIIIe siècle, in «Archivium Fratrum Praedicatorum», XVIII, 1948, pp. 69–130, pp. 106–130.
For the Vita Piae Lutgardiae: AA.SS., Vita piae Lutgardis, Iunii tomus IV, Iunii XVI, Paris-Roma, 1867, pp. 187–210.
We indicate here some translations in modern languages:
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