Jacob van Maerlant was born near Bruges. He became sacristan of Maerlant, in the island of Oostvoorne, where he lived for some time, employed as a sexton, whence his surname “de Coster”. Later he resided at Damme, near Bruges, where, according to tradition, he held the position of town clerk.
His early works are Middle Dutch translations of Frenchromances. Jacob’s most serious work in the field of romance was his Historie van Troyen (c. 1264), a poem of some forty thousand lines, translated and amplified from the Roman de Troie of Benoît de Sainte-Maure.
From this time Jacob rejected romance as idle, and devoted himself to writing scientific and historical works for the education and, enlightenment of the Flemish and Dutch nobility. His Heimelicheit der Heimelicheden (c. 1266) is a translation of the Secreta secretorum, a manual for the education of princes, ascribed throughout the Middle Ages to Aristotle. Van der Naturen Bloeme is a free translation of De natura rerum, a natural history in twenty books by a native of Brabant, Thomas of Cantimpré; and his Rijmbijbel is taken, with many omissions and additions, from the Historia scholastica of Petrus Comestor. He supplemented this metrical paraphrase of scripture history by Die Wrake van Jherusalem (1271) by Josephus. He also translated a Life of St. Francis (Leven van St. Franciscus) from the Latin of Bonaventure. Jacob’s most extensive work is the Spiegel Historiael, a rhymed chronicle of the world, translated, with omissions and important additions, from the Speculum historiale of Vincent de Beauvais. It is dedicated to Count Floris V and was begun in 1283, but was left unfinished at the poet’s death. Continuations were given by Philip Utenbroeke and Lodewijc van Velthem, a Brabant priest. He wrote three Arthurian works: Torec, which survives in the massive Lancelot-Compilatie;, and two romances based on the works of Robert de Boron, Historie van den Grale and Boec van Merline, which tell the stories of Joseph of Arimathea and Merlin.
Jacob is also the author of a number of strophic poems, which date from different periods of his life. Of these the best known is the Wapene Martijn (“Alas! Martin”) so called from the opening words. It is a dialogue on the course of events held between the poet himself and a character named Martin. Altogether there are three parts, of which the above-mentioned is the first. The other two parts are known as Dander Martijn (“Second Martin”) and Derden Martijn (“Third Martin”).
Other poems of this kind are Van ons Heren wonden, a translation of the hymn Salve mea! o patrona; Die Clausule van der Bible, an allegorical poem in praise of the Virgin Mary; the Disputacie van onser Vrouwen ende van den helighen Cruce, which bewails the sad situation of the Holy Land. Jacob’s last poem Van den Lande van Oversee was written after the fall of Acre (1291) and is a stirring summons to a crusade against the infidels, with bitter complaints about abuses in the Church. The Geesten were edited by Franck (Groningen, 1882). Complete editions of the strophic poems were given by E. Verwijs (Groningen, 1880) and by J. Franck and J. Verdam (Groningen, 1898).
Based on doctoral research (Van Anrooij 1997), it is now thought likely that Jacob was also the author of the hitherto anonymous Van neghen den besten (“On the Nine Worthies”). This would be his last work. It is one of the few works with European distribution whose source text was written in Middle Dutch. The work had a profound and lasting impact on the honor code of the Western European knightly elite.
Jacob died in the closing years of the 13th century. The greater part of his work consists of translations, but he also produced poems which prove him to have had real original poetic faculty. Among these are Die Clausule van der Bible, Der Kerken Clage, imitated from a Complainte of Rutebeuf, and the three dialogues entitled Martijn, in which the fundamental questions of theology and ethics were discussed.
Although Jacob was an orthodox Roman Catholic, he is said to have been called to account by the priests for translating the Bible into the vulgar tongue. In spite of his orthodoxy, Jacob was a keen satirist of the corruptions of the clergy. He was one of the most learned men of his age, and for two centuries was the most celebrated of Flemish poets.