Tracing the journey

It will be seen that the materials present a wide array of possible avenues for the scholar to explore: in the manuscript and printed material available across countries and continents; through the work’s association with the growth-years of an international religious order; and in the range of questions raised by existing studies. It is also hard to separate the functions of the continental and English translations made at a time when France and England were closely engaged through war and also through a shared chivalric culture. Here, a cross-section of available manuscripts and printed materials, testifying to the work’s status and function at key points in that story, form a longitudinal sample of the compilation’s English reception. These key points are: the time of its composition in the 1240s; of its translation into English in the 1390s and of subsequent manuscript production; and the era of change accompanying the Protestant Reformation and the growth of printing, from the 1490s to the 1580s. Such focal points allow us to examine how far it can be of use to the historian in defining the mental horizons of past readers; and to ask whether, as an account of the significance of things that fed into later-medieval and early-modern literature, it might help us to understand those cultures better. Different medieval readerships produced changes in content, dissemination and modes of production: for how long could ‘Properties’ remain valid as a library substitute, repository of knowledge and guide to salvation? During the English Reformation, why did this Catholic work find favour with sponsors and censors at a time of so much controversy about the English church and its doctrine? What continuities emerge to account for its survival?

The present book includes a survey of the modern literature on Bartholomew and his work, and outlines changes that have taken place in historians’ assessments of the character and worth of ‘Properties’. New light is still being thrown on the medieval literary compilatio, and on the place of Bartholomew within it. Chapter 2 points to significant recent and ongoing projects and locates the present study with reference to them. The aim has been to bring together English-language scholarship on and surrounding the subject, but some of the most significant work at the time of writing is being carried out in Belgium, Germany and France, and is gratefully acknowledged.

Figure 2: The 19 Books of De proprietatibus rerum. [27]

Book 1

De Deo

On God and the names of God

Book 2

De proprietatibus angelorum

On angels, good and bad

Book 3

De anima

On the soul and reason

Book 4

De humani corporis

On the bodily humours

Book 5

De hominis corpore

On the parts of the body

Book 6

De etate hominis

On daily life

Book 7

De infirmitatibus

On diseases and poisons

Book 8

De mundo

On earth and the heavenly bodies

Book 9

De temporibus

On time and motion

Book 10

De materia et forma

On matter, form and fire

Book 11

De aere

On the air and weather

Book 12

De avibus

On birds

Book 13

De aqua

On water and fishes

Book 14

De terra

On the earth and its surface

Book 15

De regionibus et provinciis

On regions and places

Book 16

De lapidibus et metallis

On rocks, gems and minerals

Book 17

De herbis et plantis

On plants and trees

Book 18

De animalibus

On land animals

Book 19

De accidentibus

On colours, smells and tastes, substances, measurements, numbers and music

The context of the early years of the Franciscan Order provides the starting-point for the story of ‘Properties’ and its journey through time. Chapter 3 sets the reader in the world of the book at a mundane level of household, vineyard and rural domain. It explores the notion that the reader may access Bartholomew’s work through more than one mode of interpretation, and not only by starting at the beginning. The first level of organisation apparent to the reader is the text’s ordered sequence of 19 Books, comprising headed chapters on topics from the esoteric to the mundane (see Figure 2). At this level, the headings and sequence of the 19 Books and their chapters signal the linear ordering of the compilation and reflect the hierarchy of the universe from God down to the humblest of earthly things. However, at another level Bartholomew creates a web-like structure, accessible at many points, based on relationships between people and objects through their biblical, symbolic and affective associations. Many of the topics are earthy and practical, and (it is argued) could be dipped-into and cross-referenced for subjects on which to reflect or prepare a sermon. This exploration is preparatory to an examination in Chapter 4 of ways in which the text could have functioned for thirteenth-century readers, especially the new Orders of friars, as world-book and library substitute in both spiritual and practical senses. These chapters explore the possibility that, while the work can be read sequentially or even piecemeal, an underlying complexity of content, connotation and levels of discourse amplifies the range of meaning available to contemplative readers. Bartholomew was writing for members of an innovative and controversial Order while being answerable to the highest authorities of the established church. It is arguable that the church’s campaign to teach and train orthodox preachers affects the way Bartholomew presents, to recruits of varying levels of education, Francis’ unconventional teaching on the properties of the created world, and prepares them for a form of religious life that pushes at the boundaries of accepted clerical practice.

[27] The Latin Book titles are abbreviated from those of DrP, which are more elaborate than the simple rubrics found in early mss.