Vincent of Beauvais and Political Education in the Middle Ages

Vincent of Beauvais (1190 – 1264?) was a French scholar, encyclopedist and Dominican Friar. / Public Domain

Analyzing  political education in the late Middle Ages, centring on the Latin work Tractatus de morali principis institutione, written in 1263 by the Dominican Vincent of Beauvais to provide guidance for princes on political affairs.


By Dr. Francisco Javier Vergara Ciordia (left) and Dr. Miguel Angel Rumayor Fernández (right)
Ciordia: Professor of Education and History,  UNED. Madrid-Spain
Fernández: Professor of Education, University Panamericana Guadalajara-Mexico


This paper analyses political education in the late Middle Ages, centering on the Latin work Tractatus de morali principis institutione, written in 1263 by the Dominican Vincent of Beauvais to provide guidance for princes on political affairs. Although there have been a few sporadic studies of this subject, it can be said that this work remains largely unknown. Its central thesis is built around two fundamental ideas. First, the prince is regarded as a pedagogical model in literary and religious terms. The second principle is the subordination of the temporal to the spiritual power. In this, the prince’s education is crucial: he must be endowed with a markedly moral, even Messianic character, his ultimate purpose being to cooperate with the Church in its co-redemptive mission.

Moral and Co-Redemptive Nature of Medieval Courtly Literature

14th-century fresco of Vincent of Beauvais at the church of San Nicolò, Treviso / Wikimedia Commons

One of the most significant areas of literary production in the middle ages is that surrounding the education of princes or “Fürstenspiegel”. This pedagogical intention, arising in the context of a thoroughly hierarchical society, informs a wide range of works which can be classified in terms of addressees and readers, mutatis mutandis, as following three main models: works intended to shape the education of noble youths or future rulers; writings designed to guide the training of rulers who had already come to power; and last of all, treatises on knightly behaviour, to direct the training of men who exercised justice or took part in military affairs.

These models have a common denominator: the markedly moral and co-redemptive tone which characterises them. It should be borne in mind that courtly literature came into being in parallel with the emergence of the first early medieval kingdoms. In this era, western Christianity saw the consolidation of a clerical, sacralised and theocratic culture born from the disintegration of the Roman Empire and the establishment of the Church as the only sound, enduring source of principles, be they doctrinal, social or cultural. In this framework, the prince, knight or noble is considered to be a pedagogical model in both literary and religious terms. He is a Christ at prayer in miniature, a gallant friend, a loyal knight and worthy ruler who, adorned with human and supernatural virtues, pursues the aim of cooperating with the Church to achieve the eternal salvation of all his subjects.

The Tractatus de morali principis institutione


Tractatus de morali principis institutione / Public Domain

In this context, it comes as no surprise that one of the most representative pedagogues of medieval scholasticism, the Dominican Vincent of Beauvais,[1] friend and confessor of Louis IX of France, should address what he himself believed to be a moral duty: to write about how to shape and guide the education of a prince. This is the origin of the Tractatus de morali principis institutione, which was written between 1260 and 1263.

The book has twenty-eight chapters which are strongly moral in flavour. In terms of the subjects discussed, these chapters can be grouped under three headings: the nature of government and its conditions; the training of the ideal ruler; and the education of men who play a part in public administration.

The Nature of Government

Vincent sets out by analysing first the nature of political power and the conditions that make it legitimate. He devotes the initial nine chapters to this, which are divided into three sections: the first one lays the foundations for his theory of the State, the next two explain the unnatural condition of political government, and the last six explain why this is legitimate on grounds of reason and justice.

Hugh of Saint Victor / Wikimedia Commons

In the first section, Vincent defends a conception of politics which is highly hierarchical and functional. The traditional division of society into clerics and laymen facilitates this approach. He would agree with Hugh of St Victor that churchmen form the hierarchy of the mystical body of Christ, and are representatives of Christ himself, imbuing political action with religious and spiritual meaning. Laymen, particularly the nobility, make up the secular State.[2] This is a centralist, aristocratic State headed by an intangible princely figure who is at once learned and religious. Below him, we find his subjects in strict order of hierarchy, living in perfect harmony and interdependence.[3]

In the second section, Vincent indulges in developing a kind of preternatural theory which leads him to propose that political government goes against nature. This is a concession to political theory, which asserts that power is not natural, being an immediate consequence of original sin, specifically, of ambition, the amor dominandi. In the third section, Vincent forgets the preternatural dimension and devotes himself to legitimising the existence of power as a necessary evil, which God permits in order that earthly goods should be administered with justice and reason, and human beings should be elevated to their ultimate end, that is, eternal salvation.

This benefit or lesser evil is called government or kingly power, and it takes on formal legitimacy when it is supported on the four pillars which form the basis of Vincent of Beauvais’s political theory, namely: divine dispensation, agreement among those governed, or consensus populi, the approval of the Church, and a long period of government in the faith.

What is divine dispensation? In our writer, this must be understood as God’s placet or approval of the ruling power. This is present when political action is organised to seek God’s justice and greater glory. Vincent justifies this idea by quoting from St Paul: “all things are yours; And ye are Christ’s; and Christ is God’s” [I Cor., 3, 22-23]. This principle leads him to maintain “that if God made man to serve Him, and the world to serve man, it is evident that only the faithful, as servants of God, can in justice be those who govern in the world”. For this reason, in chapter IV he concludes with an idea that has major consequences for political stability: “the kingdoms of the infidel were not stable, strictly speaking, not only because they are not worthy to reign, but also because, since God permits matters in accord with what they and their peoples deserve, they normally seize control of their realms by deceit and violence and may even invade others’ territory without fearing God or respecting justice.” In this text, Vincent delivers an extremely negative verdict on non-Christian society. His opinion even leads him to assert, supported by Prosper’s Sententiae, that “the entire life of the infidel is sin”.[4]

Pseudo-Clemens: I Homiliene møter Clemens både Barnabas, apostelen Peter og Simon Magus / Wikimedia Commons

The consensus populi or agreement of those governed is the second criterion by which power is legitimised. This is the people’s validation of political government, which is fundamental as well as essential. It would be absurd, Vincent maintains, to have a government that was not supported by the subjects. Such a government would not encourage them to be responsible, and would descend into tyranny. This principle, however, is far from meaning that sovereignty proceeds from and resides in the people. For Vincent, all sovereignty emanates entirely from God, and it is by His consent that both Christians and non-Christians govern. However, the legitimation of government, regardless of how those concerned came to power (by violence, by usurpation or by a popular rising), is achieved by the practice of justice and reason, that is, by the law.

The third criterion is the approval of the Church. For Vincent, this is an undeniable fundamental criterion which, together with the previous one, is enough to legitimise the existence of power. We cannot understand a government which lacks the approval of the Church, in that the Church represents Christ Himself, and is the moral and spiritual inspiration behind the world order. In this, Vincent takes a radical stance, going straight to the point. Here, the hierarchy of powers comes to the forefront. He illustrates this principle with a large number of quotations in which kings and emperors are deposed by popes and bishops in accord with their spiritual superiority. With Pseudo-Clement he states: “St Peter ordered that all the kings of the earth and all other men should obey the bishops.”[5] Quoting Innocent III, he concludes that when God made the world, “he instituted in it two great lights or powers which are papal authority and royal power. But the one which presides during the day, that is, in spiritual matters, is greater, while that of the night, that is, the material one, is less important, so that it should be known that the difference between the sun and the moon is the one that exists between Popes and kings.”[6]

The last criterion he mentions which legitimises political government is that of a long period of government in the faith. This principle means, in Vincent’s terms, validating and encouraging governments which have been favourable over the years to Popes, bishops and the Church hierarchy in general, insofar as the Church is, by vocation and charisma, the luminary and representative of truth. For Vincent, this principle is confirmed and ratified by history, since just and humble men are kept in power, in accord with the Old Testament principle that God changes the circumstances and hands over kingdoms in accord with men’s merits [Deut. 2, 21].

Educating Princes

Cats in Art and Illustration: Boulogne-sur-Mer, Bibliothèque municipale, ms. (Vincent of Beauvais, Speculum historiale, France ca. / British Library, Creative Commons

The second part of the work, which contains the greatest pedagogic interest, tackles the operative channel for the effective articulation of power (Chapters Ten to Eighteen). In Vincent’s view, whether this is effective or not depends entirely on the strength of the prince’s education. With the book of Wisdom, he states: “Love the light of wisdom all ye who rule the people” [Wisdom. 6, 26]. With Boethius’ Consolation of Philosophy he asserts that: “the nations will rejoice when they are governed by the wise, or when their rulers desire wisdom”.[7] It is thanks to Wisdom that “kings reign and princes decree justice” [Prov. 8, 15].[8] On the other hand, “an ignorant king will lose his people”,[9] “a conceited king sitting on his throne is a monkey on the roof”,[10] “an illiterate king is a crowned ass”.[11] Vincent rounds off these aphorisms quoting Helinand of Froidmont: “it befits the prince more than anyone else that he should have wider and deeper knowledge”.[12] However, this is not a simple art, but the hardest science of all, since “although it is extremely difficult to know how to be governed, that is, to obey one’s ruler, it is much more difficult to know how to govern others. Truly it seems to me that governance of men is an art of arts or a science of sciences, because of all living beings, man is the most varied in his customs and most diverse in his will.”[13]

Once the importance and pertinence of educating rulers has been established, Vincent moves on to look at the curriculum, listing nine essential virtues which a prince needs in order to govern his subjects effectively: “first [he must concentrate on] ordering his own customs; then on how to rule subject peoples; third, on giving and receiving advice; fourth, on exercising judgement; fifth, on establishing precepts or laws; sixth, on choosing friends, counsellors or ministers; seventh, on selecting people to hold office; eighth, on how to wage war; and ninth, on gaining thorough knowledge of what has been written, particularly Sacred Scripture.”[14] These virtues are rounded out with the need to be feared, to depend on God, and to be loved.[15]

By formulating this last idea, Vincent proclaims the synthesis of the three crucial fronts on which the moral formation of princes should be tackled, namely: excelling his subjects in power (fortitudo et potestas), holiness (bonitas –by which we understand justice- et humilitas), and above all, in wisdom (sapientia). He would therefore agree with Valerius Maximus: “It is an aberration if those whom you excel in dignity outstrip you in virtue”.[16]

Training of Royal Counsellors and Aides

Saint Dominic burning the books of the Albigensians, miniature from Le Miroir Historial by Vincent of Beauvais, manuscript, France 15th Century / Public Domain

The third and final part, which consists of the last ten chapters, is about how to train in the practice of virtue royal counsellors, members of the feudal nobility and estates, who participate in exercising the ruler’s power. However, this is a section which transcends the courtly environment and becomes a genuine treatise on practical morality in the purest Stoic style, written for educated people by a cleric who seems more like a Cistercian monk than a mendicant Dominican.

His didactic analysis presents an extremely negative view of the Court, to which he repeatedly refers as a “temple of pleasure” or “temple of the idolatrous worship of food and drink”.[17] This institution is infected with six vices that weaken and deform it to an excessive degree: denigration, defamation, adulation, envy, ambition and credulity. In denouncing these, Vincent has a dual purposes: he is both exposing the useless knight and corrupt nobleman, and
emphasising the correct workings of regal authority.

First of all, he denounces the deep-rooted custom of denigration or negative criticism of the prince and of courtiers. This divisive vice both ignores the high dignity and worth that befit the ruler, in accord with Samuel’s saying: “Here is the Lord’s chosen one, there is not among the children of Israel a goodlier person than he”;[18] and also epitomises an attitude which tends to reaffirm the perpetrator’s own convictions and customs rather than to seek the truth. He thus asserts: “if such persons had to choose their prince, they would elect him to match their own customs rather than by standards of truth and justice.”[19]

Closely linked to denigration, we find a second defect: defamation. This vice becomes particularly insidious when it attacks the good standing of noble personages. He gives two reasons why this should be eradicated: slander can affect many people who benefit from the good name of public figures, as they are “like the mirror of all those who are under their authority”; secondly, it attacks the honour and reverence which is owing to them on religious
grounds, since God dispenses all authority, in accordance with the precept stated in Exodus that “thou shalt not revile the gods, nor curse the ruler of thy people”.[20]

The third vice is adulation. This is regarded as the forerunner of ambition, covetousness and envy, in that it intrinsically reinforces one’s inner pride. Adulation is feigned praise, two-faced behaviour whereby people remain silent and later talk against their ruler. It leads to people who extol others and tell lies in order to benefit themselves, generating false expectations of affirmation and pride with the empty pleasure of flattery. This is one of the vices that proves most harmful to the res publica, not only because it devalues justice, but because it clothes the soul with pleasurable sensibility. This is why Vincent calls adulators “the devil’s chamberlains”. “Have no fear of harsh words,” he says with Seneca, “but fear sweet ones. Be benevolent to all, but flattering to none.”[21]

A first-century AD bust of Cicero in the Capitoline Museums, Rome / Photo by José Luiz Bernardes Ribeiro, Wikimedia Commons

Ambition is the fourth vice. This is a disgrace to political life, defined as “a disordered appetite for earthly honour, for office and grandeur”,[22] which ought to be corrected by ensuring that politics is truly conducted in a spirit of service, guided by justice and charity, for the good of the subjects. However, reality offers us a very different picture: the thirst for power and personal prestige. At this time, this was widespread, and no one was immune, not even those who sought to be scorned. He reminds us of Ovid’s words, that “we too are susceptible to honour […], even we gods are an ambitious crowd”.[23] This is a deadly sin which is characterised by the torment, anxiety and frustration that it generates. The ambitious man, in Vincent’s view, is never satisfied, never feels that he has received enough recognition. “For the ambitious, it is not so much agreeable to see the many who are below them, as annoying to see one person above them. Ambition is in itself unstable, a tormented desire which always begins at the end.”[24]

The fifth vice, envy, is defined by Cicero as “the bitterness of spirit caused by others’ prosperity”[25] and by Vincent as the pinnable of all evils. Among the reasons he gives is that it is a pure evil. The envious man, in St Jerome’s words, “is torn between two passions: one, because he is in a situation he does not want to be in; and another, because when he sees someone who is better off, he suffers because he is not like him”.[26] Secondly, it is directly opposed to the two noblest virtues: charity and compassion. In fact, “charity […] rejoiceth not in iniquity, but rejoiceth in the truth” [1 Corinthians, 13, 6]. Envy, by contrast, does just the opposite. It darkens with the light of truth, and rejoices in the darkness of evil. When others are cheerful, it grows sad, and when others weep, it exults. Finally, it is especially diabolical, because it bears the devil’s own hallmark. Vincent summarises all this using an image from Ovid. The envious person “never looks straight ahead […], his tongue is full of poison, he never smiles except when he sees suffering, he does not sleep peacefully […], he is not cheerful, he is consumed by envy when others are successful, he scourges others and is at once scourged, and this is his peculiar torment.”[27]

The last vice analysed by Vincent is credulity. This is an attitude touching on ingenuity which, “because it is so widespread”, ostensibly damages government. He defines it as “the lightness of the soul that makes it inclined to believe whatever it has heard, at once, without consulting the reason”.[28] In the same vein, he also condemns the opposite of this, which is incredulity.

These counsels confirm the critical, negative style of the stoical Vincent who, with notable pedagogical optimism and refined moral voluntarism, attempted to transform political action into something that was more spiritual than worldly. His attitude shows that rather than a treatise on political morality, what he was really writing was a treatise on religious or monastic morality, aimed indiscriminately at friars, monks and rulers. We must not forget that for him, ecclesiastics and laymen were hierarchical components of the same body, Christ, in which political action attained its most elevated meaning when it was directed towards cooperating with the Church in the redemption of every individual subject.


Like all Vincent’s works, the De morali principis institutione has the historical character which is peculiar to medieval encyclopaedic writing. It is a characteristic, rather pronounced feature that the ideas expressed seem not to be those of the author himself, but borrowed from others. Our author appears to assume the role of collecting or copying ideas from authoritative historical figures. These copies occasionally take leave of their literal meaning and contextual relevance to serve Vincent’s own ends. He often cites discontinuous quotations, presenting them as a continuum, shortening them when he considers it appropriate, mixing ideas from several works and attributing them to a single one. All of this is done with one concrete aim: to support and reinforce an ethical concept.

In some sense, this practice might be thought to detract from the work’s originality and merits. However, Vincent, was responsible for gathering the material, selecting the texts, organising them and interpreting them. A different question is that as to why he built his work in this way. The answer is simple: this was the habitual way of thinking and writing in the late medieval period. Thirteenth-century man learnt, reflected and wrote within the didactic system of the lectio, the quaestio and the disputatio. Vincent is clearly an exponent of the first two. The disputatio hardly forms part of his mental or literary structure. The outcome of this is that his work bears witness to the purest historicism of his era.


The Tractatus de morali principis institucione is an assorted set of quotations, many of which are very colourful, even though they are often repetitive and may sometimes seem unsystematic. There are 737 sententiae from 65 different authors, plus 372 Biblical references, which together account for over 70% of the contents. The quotations are taken from eight main source areas, though not in equal measure:

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The sources are not used in equal measure. The preponderance of Biblical material is striking, with 372 references and a marked preference for the Old Testament, particularly the books of wisdom and prophecy, which supply the main moral teachings from Biblical sources. No less important is the presence of Gregory the Great and Augustine of Hippo, with 34 and 23 citations respectively. These authors lay the foundations for Vincent’s political thought. They are followed by St Jerome and St Ambrose, with 18 and 12 quotations illustrating the importance of princely education. By contrast, Seneca, Cicero and Ovid are used to provide the basis for the moral education of those who will play a part in the Court.

Click image to enlarge

Click image to enlarge

Influence of the Work

The De morali principis institutione is not one of Vincent of Beauvais’s best known works. In comparison with other books by the same writer, there are far fewer extant manuscripts. Vincent’s master work is undoubtedly the Speculum maius, made up of three opuscula, around three hundred pre-fifteenth-century copies of which survive. There are reported to be 240 manuscripts of the Speculum historiale, 50 of the Speculum naturale and 20 of the Speculum doctrinale.[29] Around thirty manuscripts are preserved of his educational work De eruditione filiorum regalium. However, there are only ten manuscript30s of the De morali.

Although the number of manuscripts of De morali that survives is small, this does not mean that it is devoid of interest. Many of the ideas it contains — particularly those of a moral nature — are to be found in the Speculum doctrinale and the De eruditione filiorum regalium; and the ideas about power also provide a common thread in the Speculum historiale. It should not be forgotten that this opusculum projects an image of History resting on the guiding role of monarchies that are vicars of Christ. The ecclesiastical hierarchy and the monarchy itself were both eager to promote this view. This was a vertical, sacralised image of power inspired by one soul, the Church, and with one undisputed executive arm, the monarchy.


Historically speaking, the Tractatus de morali principis institutione may be regarded as one of the most important treatises on political education in the Middle Ages. Its value lies in the fact that it summarises the basic ideas in the political tradition and moves them forwards on their way towards Renaissance humanism, through its influence on authors as important as Thomas Aquinas and Giles of Rome, whose works helped to shape Renaissance political thought.

The Tractatus analyses an important academic topic: it attempts to answer three major questions that are always relevant: What is the origin of power, how can we say that it is legitimate, and what is its purpose? What is the mission of the king or political leader? Who should participate in governing the people? The answer to the first of these is clear: someone can come to power in many different ways, but the legitimacy of this depends on the practice
of justice, the recognition of the Church and the consensus populi; the purpose is equally clear: seeking the common good and cooperating with the Church to achieve the eternal salvation of the subjects. This ultimately means using political power for sacred purposes. The answer to the second question regarding the mission of the king and of governors is also quite clear. They should give an example to their subjects, being a model of justic, fortitude and goodness. These three qualities bring together all the political wisdom of the Middle Ages. Finally, the response to the question concerning who should take part in governing the people is also obvious: the best people. These should be people chosen by the king for their proven technical, moral and religious competences. This could be achieved by ensuring that those who aspired to being politicians had a thorough grounding in the humanities, in morality and in technical areas.

The research method used was a historical content analysis, centring on explaining, interpreting and evaluating the ideas in the text in the light of their context and wider implications. The tables that are presented are particularly important, because they made it possible to analyse the sources for Vincent of Beauvais’ political ideas. The wisdom books of the Old Testament and the political thinking of St Augustine and St Gregory the Great are especially relevant. Finally, I would like to point out that the method used for the notes and references was that indicated by the ISBD (International Standard Bibliographic Description).

The reasons why a work of such importance has gone almost unnoticed in the historiography of education are very clear. Many of the ideas in it appeared previously in the Speculum maius, Vincent of Beauvais’s master work which overshadowed his other writings, as is the case with De morali. It would now be useful to rescue this book from obscurity, and the international prominence of WCE 2011 will provide an opportunity to enable us to do so.

Finally, I would like to state that this paper draws our attention to the need for those who take part in politics to base their action on a firm ethical and human commitment, backed up by technical know-how and a desire to serve others.


  1. A wide-ranging study of the life and work of Vincent de Beauvais can be found in VERGARA CIORDIA, J. and CALERO CALERO F.; Vicente de Beauvais y la Epístola consolatoria a la muerte de un amigo. Madrid, BAC-UNED, 2006.
  2. HUGH OF ST VICT., Sacr. 2,2,2,3.T.M.P.I., Ch. I.
  3. HELIN., Chron. 11, 38.T.M.P.I., Ch. I.
  4. PROSP. Sent. 106. T.M.P.I., Ch. IV.
  5. PS. CLEM., Epist. Decr. 1. T.M.P.I., Ch. IV.
  6. INNOC. III, Coll. I decr. T. 2. T.M.P.I., Ch. IV.
  7. BOETHIUS, Consolation of Philosophy, 1, 4, 5. T.M.P.I., Ch. XI.
  8. Prov. 8, 15. T.M.P.I., Ch. XI.
  9. Eccl. 10, 3. T.M.P.I., Ch. XI.
  10. BERNARDO, To Eugenio, lib. I, Hist. 28, 67, 4. T.M.P.I., Ch. XI.
  11. T.M.P.I., Ch. XV
  12. T.M.P.I., Ch. XI.
  13. GREGORY OF NAZIANZUS, Apologetics, 10,1, T.M.P.I., Ch. XI.
  14. T.M.P.I., Ch. XI.
  15. T.M.P.I., Ch. X.
  16. Mem. III, 2, 6.
  17. T.M.P.I., Ch. XX.
  18. I Sam. 9, 2. T.M.P.I., Ch. XVIII.
  19. T.M.P.I., Ch. XIX.
  20. Ex. 22, 28. T.M.P.I., Ch. XXII.
  21. SEN. Nat. 4, praef. 4.9. T.M.P.I., Ch. XXVII.
  22. T.M.P.I., Ch. XXIII.
  23. OVID. Fast., 5, 297-298. T.M.P.I., Ch. XXIII.
  24. SEN.,. Epist., 73, 3. T.M.P.I., Ch. XXIII.
  25. CIC.,.Tusc., 4, 8, 18. T.M.P.I., Ch. XXI.
  26. HIER., Gal. 3, 5. T.M.P.I., Ch. XXI.
  27. OVID., met. 2, 775-782. T.M.P.I., Ch. XXI.
  28. T.M.P.I., Ch. XXVIII.
  29. Cf. KAEPPELI, TH.; Scriptores Ordinis Praedicatorum Medii Aevi, 4 vols. Rome, 1970-1993, vol. 4..

Originally published by Procedia Social and Behavioral Sciences 15 (2011, 1824-1831) under the terms of a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 3.0 Unported license.