All About Glass

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Bartholomaeus Anglicus, De Proprietatibus Rerum

All About Glass

The encyclopedia titled De Proprietatibus Rerum (On the properties of things) was one of the most influential and widely published pedagogical works of the late medieval period. Originally written in Latin in the mid-13th century, it contained 19 books in a single volume that was meant to encompass all of the knowledge—from philosophy to the sciences—that had been accumulated to that time. The sciences covered in this work included medicine, astronomy, botany, mineralogy, and metallurgy. Glass is discussed in more than one of these sections. The author, Bartholomaeus Anglicus (Bartholomew the Englishman), had studied at Oxford, taught theology at the University of Paris, and later joined a French order of Franciscan monks. He wrote De Proprietatibus Rerum for students and for a literate public.

De Proprietatibus Rerum (On the properties of things) Bartholomaeus not only drew upon the writings of earlier scholars in compiling his encyclopedia, but he also listed them in his introductory pages. Thus we see the names of Aristotle, Galen, Strabo, Seneca, Virgil, Zeno, and Pliny the Younger, among many others. To explicitly recognize his intellectual predecessors in this way suggests an unusual awareness of how knowledge builds upon itself. In describing the medicinal properties of glass, for example, the author cites the 11th-century physician Avicenna, who said that the dust of powdered glass is “highly clean to the teeth,” can help to cure a form of corneal inflammation, and, when mixed with wine, can relieve kidney stones. Similarly, Bartholomaeus borrows from the seventh-century scholar Isidore of Seville to extol the transparency of glass, which allows fluids to be “revealed on the inside as on the outside” and makes “manifest” whatever is enclosed in it. Indeed, he says, such a property is unique to glass, and this makes it superior to silver and gold for drinking vessels.

De Proprietatibus Rerum (On the properties of things)

Several copies of De Proprietatibus Rerum existed in manuscript before the work was first printed about 200 years later. Its popularity as an educational text prompted multiple printings and translations into several European languages between 1472 and 1500. The Rakow Library’s copy has a distinguished publication pedigree. It was printed in 1492 by the German Anton Koberger, one of the period’s most skilled and successful typographers. Koberger, who lived at about the same time as his famous countryman Johannes Gutenberg (about 1400–1468), is perhaps best known for The Nuremberg Chronicle. An acknowledged masterpiece among early printed books, the Chronicle was in production (1491-1493) concurrently with De Proprietatibus Rerum.

Diane Dolbashian

This essay is part of a series on Treasures in the Rakow Research Library.

Bartholomaeus Anglicus. De Proprietatib[us] Rerum. [Nuremberg: Anton Koberger, 1492].

Seymour, M. C., and others. Bartholomaeus Anglicus and His Encyclopedia. Aldershot, England: Ashgate Publishing Company, 1992.

Steele, Robert. Medieval Lore from Bartholomew Anglicus. New York: Cooper Square Publishers Inc., 1966.

Published on June 24, 2013