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From The Rise of Universities, by Charles Homer Haskins; Henry Holt and Company, New York; 1923; pp. 37-78.



IN the last lecture we considered the mediaeval university as an institution. We came now to examine it as an intellectual centre. This involves some account of its course of study, its methods of teaching, and the status and freedom of its teachers. The element of continuity, so clear in institutions, is often less evident in the content of learning, but even here the thread is unbroken, the contrast with modern conditions less sharp than is often supposed.

The basis of education in the early Middle Ages consisted, as we have seen, of the so-called seven liberal arts. Three of these, grammar, rhetoric, and logic, were grouped as the trivium; the remaining four, arithmetic, geometry, astronomy, and music, made up the quadrivium. The 38 first group was the more rudimentary, but the second was rudimentary enough. The number was fixed and the content standardized during the decadence of ancient learning, and the whole conception reached the Middle Ages chiefly in the book of a certain Martianus Capella, written in the early fifth century. These later ages of classical antiquity, in condensing and desiccating knowledge for their own more limited intelligence, were also unconsciously preparing for later times those small and convenient packages which alone could be carried as a viaticum through the stormy times of the Dark Ages. It was almost wholly as formulated in a few standard texts that the learning of the ancient world was transmitted to mediaeval times, and the authority of these manuals was so great that a list of those in use in any period affords an accurate index of the extent of its knowledge and the nature of its instruction. It was a bookish age, with great reverence for standard authorities, 39 and its instruction followed closely the written word.

In the monastic and cathedral schools of the earlier period the text-books were few and simple, chiefly the Latin grammars of Donatus and Priscian with some elementary reading-books, the logical manuals of Boethius, as well as his arithmetic and music, a manual of rhetoric, the most elementary propositions of geometry, and an outline of practical astronomy such as that of the Venerable Bede. Of Greek, of course, there was none. This slender curriculum in arts was much enlarged by the renaissance of the twelfth century, which added to the store of western knowledge the astronomy of Ptolemy, the complete works of Euclid, and the Aristotelian logic, while at the same time under the head of grammar great stimulus was given to the study and reading of the Latin classics. This classical revival, which is noteworthy and comparatively little known, centred in such cathedral schools as Chartres and Orleans, where 40 the spirit of a real humanism showed itself in an enthusiastic study of ancient authors and in the production of Latin verse of a really remarkable quality. Certain writings of one of these poets, Bishop Hilldebert of Le Mans, were even mistaken for “real antiques” by later humanists. Nevertheless, though brilliant, this classical movement was short-lived, crushed in its early youth by the triumph of logic and the more practical studies of law and rhetoric. In the later twelfth century John of Salisbury inveighs against the logicians of his day, with their superficial knowledge of literature; in the university curriculum of the thirteenth century, literary studies have quite disappeared. Toward 1250, when a French poet, Henri d’Andeli, wrote his Battle of the Seven Arts, the classics are already the ancients, fighting a losing battle against the moderns:

Logic has the students,
Whereas Grammar is reduced in numbers
     ·       ·       ·       ·       ·       ·       ·       ·       ·       ·
41 Civil Law rode gorgeously
And Canon Law rode haughtily
Ahead of all the other arts.

If the absence of the ancient classics and of vernacular literature is a striking feature of the university curriculum in arts, an equally striking fact is the amount of emphasis placed on logic or dialectic. The earliest university statutes, those of Paris in 1215, require the whole of Aristotle’s logical works, and throughout the Middle Ages these remain the backbone of the arts course, so that Chaucer can speak of the study of logic as synonymous with attendance at a university —

That un-to logik hadde longe y-go.

In a sense this is perfectly just, for logic was not only a major subject of study itself, it pervaded every other subject as a method and gave tone and character to the mediaeval mind. Syllogism, disputation, the orderly marshalling of arguments 42 for and against specific theses, these became the intellectual habit of the age in law and medicine as well as in philosophy and theology. The logic, of course, was Aristotle’s, and the other works of the philosopher soon followed, so that in the Paris course of 1254 we find also the Ethics, the Metaphysics, and the various treatises on natural science which had at first been forbidden to students. To Dante Aristotle had become “the Master of them that know,” by virtue of the universality of his method no less than of his all-embracing learning. “The father of book knowledge and the grandfather of the commentator,” no other writer appealed so strongly as Aristotle to the mediaeval reverence for the textbook and the mediaeval habit of formal thought. Doctrines like the eternity of matter which seemed dangerous to faith were explained away, and great and authoritative systems of theology were built up by the methods of the pagan philosopher. And all idea of literary form disappeared 43 when everything depended on argument alone.

If the study of the classics became confined to examples and excerpts designed to illustrate the rules of grammar, rhetoric had a somewhat different fate by reason of its practical application. The intellectual life of the Middle Ages was not characterized by spontaneous or widely diffused power of literary expression. Few were able to write, still fewer could compose a letter, and the professional scribes and notaries on whom devolved the greater part of the labor of mediaeval correspondence fastened upon the letter-writing of the period the stereotyped formalism of a conventional rhetoric. Regular instruction in the composition of letters and official acts was given in the schools and chanceries, and numerous professors, called dictatores, went about from place to place teaching this valuable art — “often and exceeding necessary for the clergy, for monks suitable, and for laymen honorable,” as one rhetorician 44 tells us. By the thirteenth century such masters had found a place in certain universities, especially in Italy and Southern France, and they advertised their wares in a way that has been compared to the claims of a modern business course — short and practical, with no time wasted on outgrown classical authors but everything fresh and snappy and up-to-date, ready to be applied the same day if need be! Thus one professor at Bologna derides the study of Cicero, whom he cannot recall having read, and promises to train his students in writing every sort of letter and official document which was demanded of the notaries and secretaries of his day. Since, as we shall see in the next lecture, such teachers specialized in the composition of student letters, chiefly skilful appeals to the parental purse, their practical utility was at once apparent. “Let us,” says one writer, “take as our theme today that a poor and diligent student at Paris is to write his mother for necessary expenses.” Would not every 45 listener be sure that here at least he had found “the real thing”? The professor of rhetoric might also be called in to draft a university prospectus, like the circular issued in 1229 by the masters of the new University of Toulouse setting forth its superiority to Paris — theologians teaching in the pulpits and preaching at the street corners, lawyers magnifying Justinian and physicians Galen, professors of grammar and logic, and musicians with their organs, lectures on the books of natural philosophy then forbidden at Paris, low prices, a friendly populace, the way now prepared by the extirpation of the thorns of heresy, a land flowing with milk and honey, Bacchus reigning in the vineyards and Ceres in the fields under the mild climate desired by the philosophers of old, with plenary indulgence for all masters and students. Who could resist such an appeal from the South?

With grammar and rhetoric reduced to a subordinate position and the studies of the quadrivium receiving but scant attention, 46 the arts course was mainly a course in logic and philosophy, plus so much of the natural sciences as could be apprehended by the scholastic study of the “natural books” of Aristotle. Laboratories there were none until long after the Middle Ages were past, and of history and the social sciences nothing was heard in universities until still later. Hard, close drill on a few well-thumbed books was the rule. The course in arts led normally to the master’s degree in six years, with the baccalaureate somewhere on the way. Graduation in arts was the common preparation for professional study, being regularly required for theology and usual for intending lawyers and physicians. A sound tradition, to which the American world has given too little attention!

Contrary to a common impression, there were relatively few students of theology in mediaeval universities, for a prescribed theological training for the priesthood came in only with the Counter-Reformation. 47 The requirements for admission were high; the course in theology was long; the books were costly. True, these books were commonly only the Bible and the Sentences of Peter Lombard, but the Bible in the Middle Ages might run into several volumes, especially when accompanied by gloss and commentary, and the copying of these by hand was a tedious and costly business. An ambitious student at Orleans who asks for money to buy a Bible and begin theology is advised by his father to turn rather to some lucrative profession. At the best, complain the Paris chancellors, students come late to theology, which should be the wife of their youth.

Medicine likewise was studied in books, chiefly Galen and Hippocrates with their Arabic translators and commentators, among whom Avicenna held the first place after the thirteenth century. Indeed Avicenna was still more firmly intrenched in the East, for as late as 1887 a majority of the native physicians in the 48 Persian capital “knew no medicine but that of Avicenna.”1 Except for some advance in anatomy and surgery at certain southern schools, like Bologna and Montpellier, the mediaeval universities made no contributions to medical knowledge, for no subject was less adapted to their prevailing method of verbal and syllogistic dogmatism.

In law the basis of all instruction was inevitably the Corpus Juris Civilis of Justinian, for the customary law of mediaeval Europe was never a subject of university study. The central book was the Digest, summarizing the ripest fruits of Roman legal science, and it was their mastery of the Digest that gives preeminence to the mediaeval civilians. They brought the resources of the whole Corpus to bear on each passage in an elaborate gloss, and they showed refinement and subtlety of legal thought analogous to that of the scholastic philosophers. After all, “law is a form of scholasticism.” But 49 whereas the scholastic method in philosophy has lost hold on much of the modern world, the work of the glossators still survives. “In many respects,” says Rashdall,2 “the work of the School of Bologna represents the most brilliant achievement of the intellect of mediaeval Europe. The mediaeval mind had, indeed, a certain natural affinity for the study and development of an already existing body of Law. The limitations of its knowledge of the past and of the material Universe were not, to any appreciable extent, a bar to the mastery of a Science which concerns itself simply with the business and the relations of every-day life. The Jurist received his Justinian on authority as the Theologian received the Canonical and Patristic writings, or the Philosopher his Aristotle, while he had the advantage of receiving it in the original language. It had only to be understood, to be interpreted, developed, and applied. . . . The works of these men are, perhaps, the only 50 productions of mediaeval learning to which the modern Professor of any science whatever may turn, not merely for the sake of their historical interest, not merely in the hope of finding ideas of a suggestive value, but with some possibility of finding a solution of the doubts, difficulties and problems which still beset the modern student.”

The canon law was closely associated with the civil, indeed for many purposes it was desirable to graduate in both these subjects as a Doctor utriusque juris, or as we say a J.U.D. or an LL. D. Canon law was condemned by the theologians as a “lucrative” subject, which drew students away from pure learning toward the path of ecclesiastical preferment. By the thirteenth century the mediaeval church was a vast administrative machine which needed lawyers to run it, and a well-trained canonist had a good chance of rising to the highest dignities.3 No 51 wonder canon law attracted the ambitious, the wealthy, even the idle, for at Paris we are told that the lazy students frequented the lectures of the canonists in the middle of the morning, rather than the other courses which began at six. The standard textbook in canon law was the Decretum of Gratian, supplemented by the decretals of subsequent popes, especially the great collection which Gregory IX in 1234 distributed to the principal universities. The methods of studying these texts were the same as in the civil law, giving rise to the rich canonistic literature of the later Middle Ages and the marginal glosses for which, according to Dante, “the Gospel and the great doctors are deserted.”

Of the textbooks needed in all these subjects the university undertook to secure a supply at once sufficient, correct, and cheap, for the regulation of the book trade was one of the earliest and most valued of university privileges. As books were costly they were commonly rented, 52 at a fixed price per quire, rather than owned; indeed the sale of books was hedged in by close restrictions designed to curb monopoly prices and to prevent their removal from town. The earliest Paris tariff, ca. 1286, lists for rent copies of one hundred and thirty-eight different books. In course of time many students came to have books of their own — a Bible, or at least some part of it, a piece of the Digest, perhaps even the “twenty bokes clad in blak or reed” of Chaucer’s Oxford clerk. Whether rented or owned, the supply was not inconsiderable; on the Bolognese monuments each student has a book before him. So long as each copy had to be made by hand, accuracy was a matter of much importance, and the university had its supervisors and correctors who inspected periodically all the books for sale in the town. Moreover, at Bologna a constant supply of new books was secured by the requirement that every professor should turn over a copy of his repetitions and disputations to the stationers 53 for publication. The principal books of law and theology were the natural outgrowth of university lectures. With demand and supply so largely concentrated in the universities, it is not surprising that these should have become the chief centres of the book trade and, as we should say, of the publishing business. So long as students could rent the books they required, there was less need for libraries than we might at first suppose, and it was quite natural that for long the university as such should have no library. In course of time, however, books were given for the use of students, chiefly in the form of bequests to the colleges, where they could be borrowed or consulted on the spot. By 1338 the oldest extant catalogue of the Sorbonne, the chief Paris library, lists 1772 volumes, many of them still to be seen in the Bibliothèque Nationale, while many an Oxford college still preserves codices which belonged to its library in the Middle Ages.


Turning from books to professors, we should note at the outset that the Middle Ages produced many excellent and renowned teachers. The mechanism of learning was still comparatively simple, its content not yet overwhelming, and, in spite of the close adherence to texts, there was a large scope for the personality of the instructor. Thus, long before the days of universities, Alcuin was the moving spirit in the revival of education at the court of Charlemagne and the monastery school of Tours, and two centuries later Gerbert of Rheims roused the wonder of his contemporaries by his skilful use of the classics in the study of rhetoric and by devices for the teaching of astronomy so ingenious that they seemed in some way “divine.”4 From the period of university origins we get a fairly clear impression of Abelard as a teacher and ‘classroom entertainer,’ bold, original, lucid, 55 sharply polemical, always fresh and stimulating, and withal “able to move to laughter the minds of serious men.” His procedure as exhibited in his Sic et non was to marshal authorities and arguments for and against specific propositions, a method which was soon imitated in Gratian’s Concord of Discordant Canons, and, reënforced by the New Logic of Aristotle, was to culminate in the scholastic method of St. Thomas Aquinas and stamp itself upon the thought of many generations. Sharpening to the wits as this method was in the hands of Abelard and his successors, the very antagonism of yes or no as he formulated it left no room for intermediate positions, for those nuances of thought in which, as Renan pointed out, truth is usually to be found.

For a contemporary impression of the teachers of the twelfth century, nothing is so good as the oft-quoted passages in which John of Salisbury describes his Wanderjahre in France from 1136 to 56 1147, chiefly at Paris and Chartres.5 Learning the rudiments of dialectic from Abelard, he continued under two other teachers of this art, one over-scrupulous in detail, perspicuous, brief, and to the point, the other subtle and profuse, showing that simple answers could not be given. “Afterward one of them went to Bologna and unlearned what he had taught, so that on his return he also untaught it.” John then passed on to Chartres to study grammar under William of Conches and Bernard. The humane yet thorough teaching of literature here excited his warm admiration — close study, memorizing choice extracts, grammar taught by composition, imitation of excellent models but merciless exposure of borrowed finery, qualities which made Bernard “the most copious source of letters 57 in Gaul in modern times.” Returning to Paris after twelve years’ absence, John found his old companions “as before, and where they were before; nor did they appear to have reached the goal in unravelling the old questions, nor had they added one jot of a proposition. The aims that once inspired them, inspired them still: they had progressed in one point only: they had unlearned moderation, they knew not modesty; in such wise that one might despair of their recovery. And thus experience taught me a manifest conclusion, that, whereas dialectic furthers other studies, so if it remain by itself it lies bloodless and barren, nor does it quicken the soul to yield fruit of philosophy, except the same conceive from elsewhere.”

The teachers of the thirteenth century who talk most about themselves are the professors of grammar and rhetoric like Buoncompagno at Bologna, John of Garlande at Paris, Ponce of Provence at Orleans, and Lorenzo of Aquileia at Naples and almost everywhere, but we 58 shall make sufficient acquaintance with their inflated writings in other connections. More significant is the account which Odofredus gives of his lectures on the Old Digest at Bologna:

“Concerning the method of teaching the following order was kept by ancient and modern doctors and especially by my own master, which method I shall observe: First, I shall give you summaries of each title before I proceed to the text; second, I shall give you as clear and explicit a statement as I can of the purport of each law [included in the title]; third, I shall read the text with a view to correcting it; fourth, I shall briefly repeat the contents of the law; fifth, I shall solve apparent contradictions, adding any general principles of law [to be extracted from the passage], commonly called ‘Brocardica,’ and any distinctions or subtle and useful problems (quaestiones) arising out of the law with their solutions, as far as the Divine Providence shall enable me. And if any law shall seem deserving, 59 by reason of its celebrity or difficulty, of a repetition, I shall reserve it for an evening repetition, for I shall dispute at least twice a year, once before Christmas and once before Easter, if you like.

“I shall always begin the Old Digest on or about the octave of Michaelmas [6 October] and finish it entirely, by God’s help, with everything ordinary and extraordinary, about the middle of August. The Code I shall always begin about a fortnight after Michaelmas and by God’s help complete it, with everything ordinary and extraordinary, about the first of August. Formerly the doctors did not lecture on the extraordinary portions; but with me all students can have profit, even the ignorant and new-comers, for they will hear the whole book, nor will anything be omitted as was once the common practice here. For the ignorant can profit by the statement of the case and the exposition of the text, the more advanced can become more adept in the subtleties 60 of questions and opposing opinions. And I shall read all the glosses, which was not the practice before my time.” Then comes certain general advice as to the choice of teachers and the methods of study, followed by some general account of the Digest.

This course closed as follows: “Now gentlemen, we have begun and finished and gone through this book as you know who have been in the class, for which we thank God and His Virgin Mother and all His saints. It is an ancient custom in this city that when a book is finished mass should be sung to the Holy Ghost, and it is a good custom and hence should be observed. But since it is the practice that doctors, on finishing a book should say something of their plans, I will tell you something but not much. Next year I expect to give ordinary lectures well and lawfully as I always have, but no extraordinary lectures, for students are not good payers, wishing to learn but not to pay, as the saying is: All desire to know but 61 none to pay the price. I have nothing more to say to you beyond dismissing you with God’s blessing and begging you to attend the mass.”6

Important as was the formal lecture in those days of few books and no laboratories, it was by no means the sole vehicle of instruction. A comprehensive survey of university teaching would need also to take account of the less formal ‘cursory’ or ‘extraordinary’ lectures, many of them given by mere bachelors; the reviews and ‘repetitions,’ which were often given in hospices or colleges in the evenings; and the disputations which prepared for the final ordeal of maintaining publicly the graduation thesis.

The class-rooms in which these lectures were given have long since disappeared. If the master’s house had no suitable room, he literally hired a hall in some convenient 62 neighborhood. At Paris such halls were mostly in a single street on the Left Bank, the Vicus Stramineus or Rue du Fouarre celebrated by Dante, apparently so-called from the straw-covered floor on which the students sat as they took notes. At Bologna the class-rooms were rather more ambitious. Here Buoncompagno, writing in 1235, has described an ideal lecture hall, quiet and clean, with a fair prospect from its windows, its walls painted green but with no pictures or statues to distract attention, the lecturer’s seat elevated so that he may see and be seen by all, the seats of the students permanently assigned by nations and according to individual rank and fame; but he adds significantly, “I never had such a house myself and do not believe any of this sort was ever built.” Our knowledge of the realities of the Bolognese class-room is derived chiefly from the monuments and miniatures of the professors of the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries, in which the master is regularly seated at a desk 63 under a canopy on a raised platform, while the students have flat or inclined desks on which their books lie open. The professors, in medicine as in law, regularly have an open volume before them.

The nature of the final examination is best illustrated at Paris, where it is described in the De conscientia of that genial moralist, Robert de Sorbon, founder of the Sorbonne, by means of a suggestive parallel with the Last Judgment. Taking as his text Job’s desire that his “adversary had written a book,” and outlining his headings in the approved fashion of his time, Robert begins with the statement that if any one decides to seek the licentia legendi at Paris and cannot be excused from examination — as many of the great, by special favor, are — he would much like to be told by the chancellor, or by some one in his confidence, on what book he would be examined. Just as he would be a crazy student indeed, who, having found out which book this was, should neglect it and spend his time on others, 64 even so is he mad who fails to study the book of his own conscience, in which we shall all, without exception, be examined at the great day. Moreover, if any one is rejected by the chancellor, he may be re-examined after a year, or it may be that, through the intercession of friends or by suitable gifts or services to the chancellor’s relatives or other examiners, the chancellor can be induced to change his decision; whereas at the Last Judgment the sentence will be final and there will be no help from wealth or influence or stout assertion of ability as canonist or civilian or of familiarity with all arguments and all fallacies. Then, if one fails before the chancellor of Paris, the fact is known to but five or six and the mortification passes away in time, while the Great Chancellor, God, will refute the sinner ‘in full university’ before the whole world. The chancellor, too, does not flog the candidate, but in the Last Judgment the guilty will be beaten with a rod of iron from the valley of Jehosaphat through the length of hell, 65 nor can we reckon, like idle boys in the grammar-schools, on escaping Saturday’s punishment by feigning illness, playing truant, or being stronger than the master, or like them solace ourselves with the thought that after all our fun is well worth a whipping. The chancellor’s examination, too, is voluntary; he does not force any one to seek the degree, but waits as long as the scholars wish, and is even burdened with their insistent demands for examinations. In studying the book of our conscience we should imitate the candidates for the license, who eat and drink sparingly, conning steadily the one book they are preparing, searching out all the authorities that pertain to this, and hearing only the professors that lecture on this subject, so that they have difficulty in concealing from their fellows the fact that they are preparing for examination. Such preparation is not the work of five or ten days — though there are many who will not meditate a day or an hour on their sins — but of many 66 years. At the examination the chancellor asks, “Brother, what do you say to this question, what do you say to this one and this one?” The chancellor is not satisfied with a verbal knowledge of books without an understanding of their sense, but unlike the Great Judge, who will hear the book of our conscience from beginning to end and suffer no mistakes, he requires only seven or eight passages in a book and passes the candidate if he answers three questions out of four. Still another difference lies in the fact that the chancellor does not always conduct the examination in person, so that the student who would be terrified in the presence of so much learning often answers well before the masters who act in the chancellor’s place. Nothing is here said of the pubic maintenance of a thesis against all comers, an important final exercise which still survives as a form in German universities.

At Bologna there was first a “rigorous and tremendous examination” before doctors, each sworn to treat the candidate 67 “as he would his own son.” Then followed a public examination and inception which a letter home described as follows: “ ‘Sing unto the Lord a new song, praise him with stringed instruments and organs, rejoice upon the high-sounding cymbals,’ for your son has held a glorious disputation, which was attended by a great multitude of teachers and scholars. He answered all questions without a mistake, and no one could prevail against his arguments. Moreover he celebrated a famous banquet, at which both rich and poor were honored as never before, and he has duly begun to give lectures which are already so popular that others’ class-rooms are deserted and his own are filled.” The same rhetorician also tells of an unsuccessful candidate who could do nothing in the disputation but sat in his chair like a goat while the spectators in derision called him rabbi; his guests at the banquet had such eating that they had no will to drink, and he must needs hire students to attend his classes.


The social position of mediaeval professors must be seen against the background of the social system of a different age from ours. We come perhaps nearest to modern conditions in the cities of Italy, where there is evidence in the Middle Ages as now of the distinguished position of many professors of medicine and civil law. Many theologians and teachers of canon law reached high places in the church such as bishoprics and cardinalates. Among the theologians and philosophers those of highest distinction were regularly university professors: Thomas Aquinas, Albertus Magnus, Bonaventura, all the great array of doctors angelic, invincible, irrefragable, seraphic, subtle, and universal. That these were also Dominicans or Franciscans withdrew them only partially from the world.

If, as some reformers maintain, the social position and self-respect of professors involve their management of university affairs, the Middle Ages were the great age of professorial control. The 69 university itself was a society of masters when it was not a society of students. As there were no endowments of importance there were no boards of trustees, nor was there any such system of state control as exists on the Continent or in many parts of the United States. Administration in the modern sense was strikingly absent, but much time was consumed in various sorts of university meetings. In a quite remarkable degree the university was self-governing as well as self-respecting, escaping some of the abuses of a system which occasionally allows trustees or regents to speak of professors as their “hired men.” Whether the individual professor was freer under such a system is another question, for the corporation of masters was apt to exercise a pretty close control over action if not over opinion, and the tyranny of colleagues is a form of that “tyranny of one’s next-door neighbor” from which the world seems unable to escape.

There remains the question of the professor’s 70 intellectual liberty, the right to teach truth as he sees it, which we have come to call academic freedom. It is plain that much depends here, as with Pilate, on our conception of truth. If it is something to be discovered by search, the search must be free and untrammelled. If, however, truth is something which has already been revealed to us by authority, then it has only to be expounded, and the expositor must be faithful to the authoritative doctrine. Needless to say, the latter was the mediaeval conception of truth and its teaching. “Faith,” it was held, “precedes science, fixes its boundaries, and prescribes its conditions.”7 “I believe in order that I may know, I do not know in order to believe,” said Anselm. If reason has its bounds thus set, it befits reason to be humble. Let not the masters and students of Paris, says Gregory IX, “show themselves philosophers, but let them strive to become God’s learned.” The dangers of intellectual pride and reliance 71 upon reason alone are illustrated by many characteristic stories of masters struck dumb in the midst of their boasting, like Étienne de Tournay, who, having proved the doctrine of the Trinity, “so lucidly, so elegantly, so catholically,” asserted that he could just as easily demolish his own proof. Mediaeval orthodoxy looked askance at mere cleverness, partly because much of the discussion of the schools led nowhere, partly because a mind that played too freely about a proposition might easily fall into heresy. And for the detection and punishment of heresy the mediaeval church organized a special system of courts known as the Inquisition.

Such being the general conditions, what was the actual situation? In practice freedom was general, save in philosophy and theology. In law, in medicine, in grammar and mathematics, men were normally free to lecture and dispute as they would. As there was no social problem in the modern sense and no teaching of the social sciences as such, a fruitful source of 72 difficulty was absent. So far as I know, no mediaeval professor was condemned for preaching free trade or free silver or socialism or non-resistance. Moreover, while individual treatises might be publicly burnt, as in the later Roman Empire, there was no organized censorship of books before the sixteenth century.

Now as to philosophy and theology. The trouble lies of course with theology, for philosophy was free save when it touched theological questions. But then, philosophy is very apt to touch theological questions, and all through the twelfth and thirteenth centuries there was an intermittent fight between Christian theology and pagan philosophy as represented by the works of Aristotle. It began with Abelard when he tried to apply his logical method of inquiry to theology, and it went on when his contemporary, Gilbert de la Porrée, directed still more of the Aristotelian logic toward theological speculation. By the end of the twelfth century, the New Logic 73 was pretty well assimilated, but then came Aristotle’s Metaphysics and natural philosophy, with their Arabic commentators, the study of which at Paris was formally forbidden in 1210 and 1215. In 1231 the Pope requires them to be “examined and purged of all suspicion of error,” but by 1254 they are a fixed part of the curriculum in arts, not expurgated but reconciled by interpretation to the Christian faith. A generation later there is a recrudescence of Averroism, emphasizing the doctrine of the eternity of matter and the determination of earthly acts by the heavenly bodies; and two hundred and nineteen errors of this party were condemned in 1277 by the bishop of Paris, who took occasion to lament incursions into theology on the part of students of arts. Throughout this period the whole of Aristotle was taught and studied at Paris, and his method was used by Thomas Aquinas to rear his vast structure of scholastic theology. Others reserved for themselves a wide range of 74 philosophic speculation, and in case of trouble they could save themselves by falling back on the doctrine that what was true in philosophy might be false in theology, and vice versa.

With an eye to this question of freedom of teaching, I have gone through all the documents of the thirteenth century in the Paris Chartularium. Outside of the great controversies just mentioned the result is meagre. In 1241 a series of ten errors was examined and condemned by the chancellor and the professors of theology, a very abstract series of propositions dealing with the visibility of the divine essence, angels, and the exact abiding-place of glorified souls in the next world, whether in the empyrean or the crystalline heaven. In 1247 it appears that a certain Master Raymond had been imprisoned for his errors by the advice of the masters of theology, and one John de Brescain had been deprived of his right to teach because of certain errors in logic “which seemed to come near Arian 75 heresy,” thus confusing the subjects of the two faculties, whose bounds had been set by the fathers. In and about 1255 Paris was in a ferment over the so-called ‘Eternal Gospel,’ an apocalyptic treatise which foretold a new era of the Spirit, beginning in 1260, in which the New Testament, the Pope, and the hierarchy should be superseded. Accepted by certain advanced Franciscans, these doctrines became the occasion of a long conflict with the Mendicant orders, but with no very decisive results. In 1277 Paris received notice of thirty errors in arts condemned at Oxford, not as heretical but as sufficient to cause the deposition of the master teaching them; but when we find among them the abolition of the cases of Latin nouns and the personal endings of verbs (ego currit, tu currit, etc.), we are likely to sympathize more with their unfortunate students than with the deposed masters. One is reminded of the modern definition of academic freedom as “the right to say what 76 one thinks without thinking what one says!”

With these as the only notable examples of interference with free teaching at the storm centre of theological speculation in the most active period of its history, we must infer that there was a large amount of actual freedom. Trouble arose almost entirely out of what was deemed theological heresy, or undue meddling with theological subjects by those who lacked theological training. Those who stuck to their job seem generally to have been let alone. As the great jurist Cujas replied in the sixteenth century when asked whether he was Protestant or Catholic, Nihil hoc ad edictum praetoris. Even within the more carefully guarded field of theology and philosophy, it is doubtful whether many found themselves cramped. Accepting the principle of authority as their starting-point, men did not feel its limitations as we should feel them now. A fence is no obstacle to those who do not desire to go outside, and many barriers 77 that would seem intolerable to a more sceptical age were not felt as barriers by the schoolmen. He is free who feels himself free.

Furthermore, for those accustomed to the wide diversities of the modern world, it is easy to form a false impression of the uniformity and sameness of mediaeval thought. Scholasticism was not one thing but many, as its historians constantly remind us, and the contests between different schools and shades of opinion were as keen as among the Greeks or in our own day. And if the differences often seems minute or unreal to our distant eye, we can make them modern enough by turning, for example, to the old question of the nature of universal conceptions, which divided the Nominalists and Realists of the Middle Ages. Are universals mere names, or have they a real existence, independent of their individual embodiments? A bit arid it all sounds if we make it merely a matter of logic, but exciting enough as soon as it becomes a 78 question of life. The essence of the Reformation lies implicit in whether we take a nominalist or a realist view of the church; the central problem of politics depends largely upon a nominalist or a realist view of the state. Upon the two sides of this last question millions of men have “all uncouthly died,” all unconsciously too, no doubt, in the majority of cases, unaware of the ultimate issues of political authority for which they fought, but yet able to comprehend them when expressed in the concrete form of putting the interest of the state above the interest of its members.

In his own time and his own way the mediaeval professor often dealt with permanent human interests as he sharpened men’s wits and kept alive the continuous tradition of learning.


1  E. G. Browne, Arabian Medicine (1921), p. 93.

2  Universities, I, pp. 254-255.


Sic heredes Gratiani
Student fieri decani,
Abbates, pontifices.

4  Richer, I, cc. 45-54; extracts translated in Taylor, Mediaeval Mind (1919), I, pp. 289-293.

5  Translated in R. L. Poole, Illustrations of the History of Mediaeval Thought, pp. 203-212; A. O. Norton, Readings in the History of Education, pp. 28-34. What we know of these masters is analyzed by Poole in the English Historical Review, xxxv, pp. 321-342 (1920).

6  Paris, Bibliothèque Nationale, Ms. Lat. 4489, f. 102; Savigny, Geschichte des römischen Rechts im Mittelalter (1834), III, pp. 264; 541, 553; cf. Rashdall, I, p. 219.

7  Alzog, Church History (1876), II, p. 733.


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