Monday, May 26, 2008


Nearly 1,000 years ago, Lambert of St. Omer summarized all of human knowledge in a book called the Liber Floridus (Book of Flowers). Lambert spent 30 years filling his book with fabulous illustrations of beasts, plants and subjects "biblical, chronological, astronomical, geographical, theological, philosophical and natural."

The Liber Floridus even explains how the world will end: when a descendant of the Emperor Charlemagne climbs Mt. Zion, the antichrist will appear and do battle, triggering the Second Coming.

This is where I first learned that the antichrist owns a pet, the antidog.

Today, a modern equivalent of the Liber Floridus is being compiled. The scientist E. O. Wilson is working with the Smithsonian Institution to compile the Encyclopedia of Life, a database of all knowledge about the world's 1.8 million known species of plants and animals (including several hundred species of ants).

You may note that the illustrations in the EOL look different from those in the Liber Floridus. Rather than painting illuminations with gold leaf and pigments from crushed precious stones, the EOL has decided to go with digital photography. (Another damn market that illustrators have lost to photography!) The EOL also uses new mashup software to combine multiple sources of information, including genetic code and the latest scientific data bases.

A comparison of these two magnificent accomplishments shows how our perception of the world has changed. The mechanical clock and the magnetic compass eliminated much of the mystery in the world by making time and space concrete. Other instruments of precision have similarly brought the world into sharper focus. We have rolled back the domains of folklore, magic and astrology that were so central to the explanations of the world in the Liber Floridus.

Today it's safe to conclude that the EOL is more "true" than the Liber Floridus. But we should keep in mind the warning of the great H.L. Mencken:
Penetrating so many secrets, we cease to believe in the unknowable. But there it sits nevertheless, calmly licking its chops.
As we distract ourselves by inventing increasingly accurate ways to measure time, time inexorably continues to chew up our brief lives, undeterred and unimpressed.

Which brings me back to the abiding message of the Liber Floridus. Lambert had 30 long years while he was working on his encyclopedia to think up an appropriate title. He chose to call it the Book of Flowers rather than the Book of Truth or the Book of Facts. It seems that Lambert was less concerned with what the clock indicates than with what eternity indicates. As a result, even after the Liber Floridus ceases to be factually true, its beauty continues undiminished.

PS-- for those who enjoy illuminated manuscripts as I do, I cannot recommend highly enough the great BibliOdyssey blog.