The world according to Velthem

The world according to Velthem

struck by temporary blindness

The village priest Lodewijk van Velthem completed his Spiegel historiael, a chronicle in verse of the world up till 1316, with an ingeniously composed poem in praise of the Holy Virgin Mary. This was a long standing promise. When Velthem had been working on his chronicle, he was struck by temporary blindness. In desperation he prayed to Mary, promising to pay her homage in poetic verse after his recovery. And so it happened.

Velthem’s story and poem are characteristic for his personal touch to his history of the world, that had started as a continuation of a project that the great Jacob van Maerlant had left unfinished. Maerlant’s Spiegel historiael, dedicated to Floris V, count of Holland, was an adaptation in verse of the giant Speculum historiale by the Dominican Vincent of Beauvais. When Velthem finished Maerlant’s translation for his patron Maria van Berlaer, an aristocratic widow who lived near Antwerp, the Spiegel had reached the middle of the thirteenth century – where Vincent had stopped. Velthem decided to carry on, leaving Vincent’s eschatological end of history aside until he had reached his own days.

Velthem’s narrative of contemporary history is a mixture of politics, war and battles (for which he consulted eye witnesses), natural disasters and local history, including two miracles connected to the Saint Laurentius that was the patron of his own church in Velthem (near Louvain). The most famous chapters in Velthem’s continuation of the Spiegel historiael is his account of the ‘Battle of the Golden Spurs’ (1302), but probably most interesting are the final chapters with a series of apocalyptic prophesies, which reveal that for Velthem the end was always near – even after Mary had cured him.

Nowadays there is only one full copy of Velthem’s continuation of the Spiegel historiael, the Leiden manuscript BPL 14 E, that is shown here. The manuscript is even more important now that it has been argued the book might have been produced in circles close to the author. A recent publication on Velthem and his work is B. Besamusca et al. (eds.): De boeken van Velthem. Auteur, oeuvre en overlevering. Hilversum 2009. At the presentation of this book, Leiden University Libraries published a digital facsimile of the Velthem manuscript in the database Digital Special Collections.

Post by Geert Warnar, Lecturer at the Faculty of Humanities of Leiden University