Bartholomew the Englishman (Bartholomaeus Anglicus, fl. 1231) was a teacher and a writer who reached out to busy, not terribly well-educated people. Calling them rudes et mei consimiles, he thought of his audience as being much like himself.  His great encyclopedia, De proprietatibus rerum (On the Properties of Things) , was, he claimed, intended for the simple and the poor. It was immensely popular as well as enormously ambitious, covering everything there was to know in the thirteenth century.

Bartholomew did not intend his encyclopedia to be an original work. Instead, he reprised the works of earlier encyclopedists such as Isidore of Seville and great authorities from former times, pagan as well as Christian: 

  • Aristotle
  • Galen
  • Pliny
  • Seneca
  • Gregory the Great
  • Jerome

The encyclopedia enjoyed incredible popularity not just in Bartholomew's own times, but for centuries thereafter. It was copied, printed, and reprinted in Latin as late as the seventeenth century, and translated into English, French, Italian, Spanish, and other vernacular languages.

Bartholomew was educated at Paris, where he lectured on the Bible cursorie, for students starting their theological studies.  In 1231 he left Paris, a city that impressed him favorably, to lecture in Saxony.  At the time Saxony was a new Franciscan province, whose members lived in great poverty.  Bartholomew, however, liked Saxony.  A decade after he left Paris to travel east to Saxony, he either died young or abandoned his writing for the cares of an administrator.  If he became an administrator, he headed up the Franciscan provinces of Austria and Saxony.

cursorie: summary introductory or "running" lectures

Bartholomew's Life -  Sources

The little we know about Bartholomew's life comes from two main sources: Jordan of Giano and Salimbene de Adam, the former being the more important.  Salimbene wrote nearly two decades after Jordan and did not himself know Bartholomew.  Jordan, on the other hand, probably knew Bartholomew personally, but his chronicle was prepared at least twenty years after the events he relates occurred. 

Nothing is known of Bartholomew's early life, except what we can gather from his name: Bartholomeus Anglicus means "Bartholomew the Englishman."  So Bartholomew was from England, but anything further is based on conjecture.

University of Paris

Around 1285, Salimbene de Adam noted in his chronicle that in 1237 Emperor Frederick II used an elephant in battle. After some Biblical and historical references to elephants, Salimbene added in an offhand manner that Bartholomew discussed the elephant in his treatise on the properties of things (De rerum proprietatibus) .   Salimbine seems to have known what he was talking about, since he says that De rerum proprietatibus was divided into nineteen books.  His brief reference is less specific than usual, however, and nothing indicates that Salimbene ever met Bartholomew. Still, Salimbene traveled widely, loved talking with people, and had access to many sources of information.  So we can trust his report that Bartholomew was considered a great cleric who had lectured on the whole Bible cursorie at Paris -- Magnus clericus fuit et totam Bibliam cursorie Parisius legit.

At the University of Paris in the thirteenth century, students undertook a determinatio to become bachelors, then could become licensed bachelors, and then if they were accepted as inceptors, they could become masters. So, what was the determinatio? Disputations (disputationes) were formal debates in which students took one side or the other of a question, either endorsing or opposing the thesis.  After years of study, they could request permission (by interview or by test) to determine the solution to questions argued in those disputations. Normally, a master would determine the correct answer, so being able to answer a question by oneself marked a major step forward in students' education.

With experience, bachelors could apply for licenses to teach anywhere (licentia ubique docendi). If successful, they were then “licensed bachelors,” and if they were further accepted into the company of university masters then they were “licensed masters.”  Since students became bachelors at about the age of 20, we can calculate that Bartholomew was probably born in 1210 or earlier because he was lecturing at Paris in 1230.  Such lectures could be given either by licensed or unlicensed bachelors, often when they were studying for a higher degree.

Administrative Cares

Jordan of Giano tells us that he himself suggested that Bartholomew be sent to Saxony to lecture after the death of Simon the Englishman in 1230.  Jordan also suggested that John of Reading (John the English) be chosen to lead the Franciscans in Saxony as Minister Provincial.  Franciscan leaders were supposed to serve their subordinates, to minister to them, so administrative titles often include the term 'minister'.  The head of each Franciscan province was called the Minister Provincial, and the head of the order was the Minister General.

When Jordan's suggestion was accepted, he sent John of Penna and Adeodatus the Parisian to Paris to lead John of Reading and Bartholomew to Saxony "with due reverence" in 1231. So Bartholomew left Paris for Saxony in the same year that the great theologian and regent master, Alexander of Hales from Gloucestershire, England, became a Franciscan.  At the time Saxony was a new Franciscan province, whose members suffered hardship.  Its chronicler, Jordan of Giano, was himself frightened to be sent there, which may be why he sent a special escort to "lead" Bartholomew and a more distinguished, older companion from Paris to Saxony.

The next time Jordan's chronicle mentions the name Bartholomew is in 1262, in the entry recording the death of the Saxon Minister Provincial.  We learn that on April 29, on the very first ballot, Bartholomew, Minister of Austria, was unanimously elected Provincial of Saxony.  What is more, we are told that one of Bartholomew's first acts as Minister of Saxony was to press Jordan to write his chronicle.  Too bad we cannot be sure this was the same Bartholomew who lectured in Saxony from 1231!

Places in Bartholomew's Life

Bartholomew has good things to say about his experience in France and especially the cement-paved streets of Paris, which struck him as a wonder. Since we would expect dirt, mud, or cobblestones at best, we should be impressed too.

Bartholomew also seems to have been happy in Germany, which he praises in his encyclopedia.  He also praises many cities in northern and eastern Europe:
  • Livonia, Lithuania, parts of what are now Latvia, and Estonia, all to the north and east
  • Denmark, Norway, and even Iceland to the north.
  • Bohemia, Romania, Russia. 
  • He did not like Slavia, in which he includes Poland and other territories.

Where Bartholomew relies exclusively on Biblical or historical sources, we can probably assume he had no firsthand experience. For Hungary, for example, he uses nothing but historical references, including the fact that the Huns had once occupied it, hence Hun-gary.  China appears as Seres, a name taken from Isidore of Seville's Etymologiarum (IX.ii.40). The Mongols play no part in Bartholomew's account of China, which is puzzling, as we shall see later.

Bartholomew does not seem to have been homesick.  What he has to say about England is vague, and only the county of Kent is mentioned. Indeed, Bartholomew seems to have liked Scotland better than England. 

Determining Bartholomew's Death Date: Missing Information

The Mongols - the Golden Horde - had been ravaging Russian lands for nearly two decades when Kiev fell in 1240 and opened the way for them to enter Eastern Europe.  They reached Vienna in 1241, but withdrew to China.  Pope Innocent IV sent John of Piano Carpini and Benedict of Poland to find out what was happening.  The two friars carried a letter from the pope dated March 9, 1245, which they eventually presented to Kublai Khan after a journey of 4000 miles.  On their return, John and Benedict apparently gave presentations on their experiences.  Since they passed through German lands, it seems likely that Bartholomew would have heard these stories and included them in his encyclopedia if he were still writing it.

But Bartholomew does not mention the Mongols or their eastern lands at all. We would expect to find something in Book XV, where he discusses the various lands of the world.  Most of these reports come from his written sources, but sometimes he seems to present first- or second-hand information, as we saw.  Certainly he would have revised the contents had he heard of the Mongols' invasion or listened to any of the lectures (or even reports of them) by John de Piano Carpini in the late summer of 1245.  So, though Jordan of Giano's chronicle -- which reports John of Piano Carpini's other activities -- also makes no mention of these events, we should probably conclude that Bartholomew's encyclopedia De rerum proprietatibus was either completed by 1242, or that he had died.

Death at about the age of 32 seems surprising early.  What explanations can we consider?  We can only guess:

  • Bartholomew could have been on a Franciscan mission to the east when he was among those overridden by the Mongols, but there is no evidence to support that guess.
  • Bartholomew may have finished his encyclopedia and been sent back somewhere to Western Europe--there is a thirteenth-century Bible donated to a monastery (not Franciscan) by one “Brother Bartholomew" -- but there is no evidence to support this guess either.
  • Bartholomew may just have stopped working on the encyclopedia and continued his other duties, and nobody bothered to revise what everyone assumed was a completed work.
monastery: a community bound by a vow to observe a religious life

The last guess seems most probable, but there are huge gaps in the record.  Thus, we seem to know only four things about his life:

  • Bartholomew lectured in the early years of the Franciscan studium in Paris
  • He was sent to Magdeburg in 1231 to lecture at the Franciscan house of study there
  • He compiled and wrote the massive encyclopedia De rerum proprietatibus in Paris, Magdeburg, or both.
  • His encyclopedia was made available and was used in manuscript copies and in printed copies all the way into the seventeenth century, in Latin as well as in English, French, Italian, Spanish, and other vernacular languages.
studium: a particular house of study, usually run by a religious order, within a medieval university

For a humble Franciscan in the early years of the order, that is an amazing accomplishment. Would that we could do as well!