03.01.32, Evans, Fifty Key Medieval Thinkers

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Chris Schabel

The Medieval Review baj9928.0301.032


Evans, G. R.. Fifty Key Medieval Thinkers. Series: Routledge Key Guides. London: Routledge, 2002. Pp. xxxiv, 183. ISBN: 0-415-23663-0.

Reviewed by:
Chris Schabel
University of Cyprus

This is a strange book in a strange series. The back cover exclaims: "ROUTLEDGE KEY GUIDES the keys to success," and p. ii calls them "the ultimate reference resources for students, teachers, researchers and the interested lay person." For Fifty Key Medieval Thinkers the back cover asserts that "this volume is an invaluable reference resource and introductory guide for all those who wish to explore the thought of this fascinating period in European history." These claims are false when applied to the book under review. In Evans' defense, no slim volume covering over eleven centuries of intellectual history could ever be the "ultimate" reference resource for teachers and researchers. The trouble is that this book is too sloppy and has too many philosophical and historical errors for it to be an "invaluable reference resource and introductory guide" for students and the interested lay person.

Evans has made a praiseworthy attempt to exploit and even circumvent the awkward structure of the book to present a more unified and comprehensive intellectual history of the Middle Ages. In addition, because this is the type of book that could have been written by any one of hundreds of scholars, Evans is to be applauded for having the courage to compose a work that could hardly satisfy any reader who is active in the field. Fifty medieval thinkers have been chosen and presented in separate entries placed in roughly chronological order, from Augustine of Hippo (354-430) to Gabriel Biel (ca. 1420-95). Each entry, averaging about three pages in length, begins with a section on Life and times, followed by Work and ideas, and sometimes Influence, ending with Notes, Bibliography, and Further reading. "Fifty is an arbitrary number," she writes (viii), but her choices are sensible. Perhaps one third of her figures would appear in just about everyone's selection: Augustine of Hippo, Boethius, Gregory the Great, Isidore of Seville, Bede, Johannes Scotus Eriugena, Anselm of Canterbury, Maimonides, Peter Abelard, Averroes, Peter Lombard, Robert Grosseteste, Bonaventure, Albertus Magnus, Thomas Aquinas, Johannes Duns Scotus, William of Ockham, and Nicholas of Cusa. Another third would be on many such lists: Ambrose of Milan, Jerome, Ps-Dionysius, Cassiodorus, Gerbert of Aurillac, Peter Damian, Hugh of St Victor, Bernard of Clairvaux, Hildegard of Bingen, Roger Bacon, Dante Alighieri, Ramon Llull, Meister Eckhart, John Wyclif, Jean Gerson, and Gabriel Biel. The final third are still all sensible choices: Paschasius Radbertus, Hincmar of Rheims, Remigius of Auxerre, Berengar of Tours, Adelard of Bath, Ivo of Chartres, Rupert of Deutz, William of Conches, Anselm of Havelberg, John of Salisbury, Joachim of Fiore, Francis of Assisi, Siger of Brabant, Thomas Bradwardine, Baldus of Ubaldis, and Pierre d'Ailly. In some ways the list is deceiving, because Evans has managed to sneak in about ten more figures. For example, the long entry on Paschasius Radbertus (7.5 pages) also contains treatments of Alcuin, Rhabanus Maurus, and Walafrid Strabo.

It is true that both the selection of names and the treatment of topics reflects Evans' expertise in the twelfth century and her preference for theology rather than logic, metaphysics, and natural philosophy. But there are only fifty slots available, and any author would have expressed her intellectual preferences somehow. Besides, Evans does try to approach most important issues in a balanced way. As the above list shows, Evans has tried to distribute the entries chronologically, so that each phase of the Middle Ages is covered. She is also to be congratulated for choosing thinkers outside the "mainstream" (e.g. Llull, Dante, and Eckhart) in order to illustrate the richness of medieval thought. More importantly, Evans succeeds in using her lengthy introduction and the fifty entries to bring up events, trends, and themes that are important to medieval intellectual history. The result is, therefore, less disjointed than the title might lead one to believe.

The only real problem I have with her choice of thinkers is the way she justifies the almost complete exclusion of medieval Greek, Muslim, and Jewish thinkers (on the first page of the Preface, vii): "This book is concerned not only with what medieval thinkers contributed to these long-standing debates but also with the interconnectedness of their work and its place in the heritage of western thought. For that reason, the focus is mainly upon the 'Latin West'." So far, so good, but Evans does not leave it at that. For the Greeks she maintains that "the Church in the East very early set its face against novelty. It is difficult to do innovative work where new ideas are heresy even if they are right" (italics mine). The Orthodox faithful would certainly reject this opinion, and it is doubtful that any medieval Greek would agree with it. When Evans then mentions the Greek stance in the Filioque controversy as an example, she again takes a Latin perspective (as she seems to do later, on p. 98). Therefore, for someone who has authored or edited six books on ecumenical theology, Evans is rather unsympathetic to the most important non-Western theological tenet of one of the largest and oldest branches of Christianity. Small slips elsewhere reinforce the impression that Evans is not much concerned with Byzantium, as when she has the thirteenth-century Emperor Michael Palaeologus reigning in 827 (51). In any event, her justification still does not explain the exclusion of the early Greek Fathers and John of Damascus, who certainly had an impact on later Western thought, although the Pseudo-Dionysius is covered.

Evans' justification for excluding Muslims and Jews, also on the first page of the Preface, is problematic for other reasons: "Similarly, we shall look at the work of Arabic and Jewish Scholars chiefly as it impinged on that Western world which was to draw it into its own internal debate. For Western thinkers argued with one another a great deal, as we shall see, and pointed backwards to the work of their predecessors and, often with a sense of daring, to the seductive non-Christian authorities, among the secular authors of the classical world." If this is an attempt to explain the exclusion of Avicenna and Algazali, or Gersonides and Crescas, it is difficult to understand. Not only did these figures make permanent contributions to Western thought (e.g. via Spinoza, for the Jews), but they also used classical authors and debated with each other. Indeed, Algazali's Tahafut al-Falasifah and Averroes' Tahafut al-Tahafut are paradigmatic examples of such internal debate. Nevertheless, Evans does include Maimonides and Averroes, but this may have been as an afterthought: the basically chronological arrangement of the book is disrupted by the insertion of Maimonides (1138-1204) before Rupert of Deutz (ca. 1075-1130), Peter Abelard (1079-1142), William of Conches (ca. 1080- ca. 1154), Bernard of Clairvaux (1090-1153), and Anselm of Havelberg (ca. 1100-58), after which we find the entry for Averroes (1126-98). Then again we drift back in time to Peter Lombard (ca. 1100-60). In any case, scholars of medieval Islamic and Jewish thought deserve a different justification for the focus on the Latins, and Avicenna (980-1037) in particular, called a "twelfth-century Moslem scholar" (125), could have been added.

In general, however, Evans' goals and choices are admirable, and with some more work and polishing, this book could have been a success. But the execution is not always successful. Evans is one of the most prolific medievalists in the world, but writing two or three books a year takes its toll. Fifty Key Medieval Thinkers appears to be at best a penultimate draft. One can start with the table of contents (v-vi): the entry "Peter Lombard" is omitted in the left-hand column, but not the page number in the right-hand column, with the result that the next 20 entries are assigned incorrect pages (the last two entries are correct again). Next, at some stage after the index was compiled, an abbreviations sheet was inserted, taking up two pages (xi-xii) and causing all index references to the next 20 pages (xiii-xxxii) to be off by two pages. This is all the more unfortunate given that there are only four abbreviations listed (including "CCCL = Corpus Christianorum Continuatio Redievalis," rather than Mediaevalis), and in many cases the abbreviations are not even employed. The index is very incomplete: Avicenna is also on pp. 123 and 125, at least; Gottschalk also on pp. 53-4; Holcot on p. 146; and Walafrid Strabo on p. 45; and so on. In the case of Kennyngham, listed for p. xxx (actually p. xxxii), he is also discussed at length on pp. 160-1, although the name is spelled "Kenningham" there. The odd entry "xxviii, 42??" placed between "self-evident truths" and "sense perception" should be "Seneca xxx, 42." Many entries are missing: Devotio Moderna, Merton College, Wetti, Mainz, Orbais, Michael Palaeologus, etc. The Great Schism gets two consecutive entries, depending on how it1s referred to in the text: "schism 166, 168" and "Schism, Great 157, 159" (it is actually mentioned on pp. 157, 159-60, 165-8, 170, 172).

In this age of camera-ready publishing by the author, a certain number of such errors is to be expected, but there are way too many here. The notes and bibliographies following each entry are especially troublesome, not surprisingly. For example, Evans seems to have had difficulties deciding what should be in italics and where quotation marks and parentheses should go. An extreme case is on p. 117, where four books in the same series are cited consecutively in four different formats. Various bibliographical elements are often missing: for instance, on p. 71 we read of a book edited by "G.R. Evans and Brian." On p. 120 there is the note: "Analecta Franciscana 3 (1897), p. 360," with no further information. On p. 150: "Crosby," is the note. Something may have been excised from the Introduction at some stage, because there is no marker for note 19 on p. xxi, and unlike most notes number 19 does not give full bibliographical information: "J. Werckmeister, 'The Reception of the Church Fathers in canon law', Backus."

Things are not always thought through, and there are inconsistencies between the entries. For example, Evans opens the Nicholas of Cusa entry by saying (172): "Nicholas of Cusa was educated by the Brothers of the Common Life," and she concludes the entry thus: "[T]here are aspects of the devotio moderna, the currently fashionable rather methodological spirituality of the interior life, in his thought" (173). Therefore she draws no connection between the Brothers and the devotio moderna, although the next entry states (174) that Gabriel Biel "belonged to the Brethren of the Common Life (the devotio moderna)."

As an historian, Evans specializes in the twelfth century. Although reviews in theological journals have been positive with respect to her books on earlier and later periods, such as those on Gregory the Great and the Reformation, these works have had a negative reception in historical journals. Accordingly, and as the example of the devotio moderna suggests, Fifty Key Medieval Thinkers is historically the weakest for the period after 1200. For instance, she has difficulties with the mendicant orders. Evans begins her entry on Duns Scotus (135): "The Scottish Franciscan Johannes Duns Scotus was ordained priest in the diocese of Lincoln in 1291," adding slightly later: "His ordination in England rather than Scotland seems to require explanation." A complex explanation about the Scottish Franciscans is then given, but the real reason is inadvertently revealed at the beginning of the next paragraph: "Scotus was at Oxford in 1300, probably having begun his theological studies there in 1288." That is, he was ordained in the Lincoln diocese because he was studying theology in that diocese at Oxford. Likewise, Evans claims that the Dominican Holcot was a Mertonian (146), and that the Franciscan Ockham was ordained subdeacon "of Southwark," rather than simply "at Southwark" (although Evans is repeating Marilyn McCord Adam's words here).

The case of the Great Schism highlights Evans' evident discomfort with the University era and the Late Middle Ages (1200-1500), as well as the lack of consistency of the book. A series of entries indicates that Evans does not know when the Great Schism occurred (1378-1417), and she never even defines it for the general reader. On p. 157, for Baldus of Ubaldis, she writes: "When the Great Schism began he was lecturing at Perugia, but he then moved to the University of Padua," but earlier in the same paragraph, listing his posts, she has him at "Perugia again (1365-76), Padua, Perugia once more and then Pavia again from 1390," suggesting that the Schism started in the penultimate Perugia period, 1365-76.

The next entry, John Wyclif, begins (158-9): "Wyclif probably began to teach at Oxford in the 1350s. His first writings on logic survive from 1361-71, and he was then already making a name. He perhaps encountered no real challenge at Oxford from anyone who could argue him down. Much of the hardest intellectual effort of the day was now going into discussion of the Great Schism, which was keeping the papacy in exile in Avignon, and that may have allowed Wyclif to get away for a time with publishing what was already noticeably radical material without being condemned by a Church too wrapped up in its divisions to focus squarely on what he was saying.

Perhaps Evans erroneously conflates the Great Schism with the Avignon papacy, or "Second Babylonian Captivity" (1309-77), when one could say that the papacy was "in exile." At any rate she implies here that it had begun by 1371. Thus when she adds just below: "In 1377 Bulls of Gregory IX (read "XI") reached London, in which nineteen errors of Wyclif were listed," all this really shows is that the papacy was already dealing with Wyclif before the Schism of 1378. On the next page (160) one reads: "A thinker such as Wyclif was much harder to deal with at a time when the leadership of the Church was in dispute because of the Great Schism and when the conciliarist movement, which had hoped to restore the leadership of the bishops, was running into difficulties" (italics mine). But since Wyclif died in 1384, it is difficult to understand which phase of the conciliarist movement Evans is referring to.

All logic is lost when, in the following entry on Pierre d'Ailly, Evans relates (165): "1378-84 was the period of build-up to the Great Schism, and a time of controversy in Paris" (italics mine), but then we are told (167): "Pierre d'Ailly's theological writings concentrate on issues raised by the Great Schism, which occurred early on in his time as a theological student." D'Ailly's theological studies ended in 1381, however, according to an item in Evans' "Further reading" for d'Ailly, which also assigns his Sentences lectures -- from which stems his main theological writing -- to 1376-77 (Guenée, p. 112). So in the same entry the Great Schism begins after 1384 and before 1376.

Since the Schism was the existence of two rival popes (three after 1409) and the division of Europe into different allegiances, it is strange that in the d'Ailly entry and the next one on Jean Gerson Evans implies that there is still only one pope. For d'Ailly she writes (165-6): "In the years 1398-1403 the University withdrew its obedience from the Pope," and for Gerson (169): "In 1388, at the age of only twenty-four, he went with the embassy from the University to the Pope in exile in Avignon to explain to the Pope..." Since earlier (151) Evans had referred to John XXII (1316-1334) as "the Pope-in-exile," the general reader, at least, will continue to assume that the Great Schism is simply the Avignon papacy.

The confusion reaches new heights with the next entry, on Nicholas of Cusa, who lived from 1401 to 1464. Evans concludes the Life and times section (although the subtitle is missing here) as follows (172): "In 1438 Nicholas separated himself from the conciliar movement and gave his full support to the papal party. His lifetime therefore extended from the period of the Great Schism to that of the burning of John Hus, one of the forerunners of the sixteenth-century Renaissance." Since Nicholas died 26 years after 1438, the latest date mentioned in the entry, it is difficult to understand the "therefore" in the above passage. More importantly, John Hus was burned in 1415, when Nicholas was still a child, during the Great Schism, at the Council of Constance, which was in fact called to end the Schism. As for the "sixteenth-century Renaissance," one assumes that "Reformation" is meant.

Finally, besides historical troubles, Evans has philosophical difficulties, especially in the University era when many issues are taken to a new level. Evans' preference for Biblical theology is reflected in her occasional slips related to problems in natural philosophy, logic, metaphysics, and philosophical theology. For example, in the entry for Bradwardine, Evans deals briefly with the problem of instantaneous velocity (148): "Aristotle had claimed that velocity varies according to the proportion between the power of the mover and the power of the thing moved. Averroes had added the view that it was necessary to begin from a force resistant to the moving power." But of course the idea of the resistance of the medium is already present in a famous passage in Aristotle's Physics IV.8, where he proves that a void space is impossible.

Also in the Bradwardine entry, concerning the new popularity of Euclid and demonstration in geometry, and their connection with Aristotle's Posterior Analytics, Evans writes (147): "There was also an active interest in [geometry's] uniquely successful demonstrative method, and the question whether that method could be adapted to other subjects. This was seen to be desirable because the demonstrative method proceeded from self-evident truths to necessary conclusions, which was obviously better than dealing with mere probabilities as ordinary syllogistic arguments did." This ignores the fact that, for Bradwardine's contemporaries, demonstrative syllogisms did pretty much the same thing as geometrical proofs, and as long as the premises were self-evidently true, the conclusions were necessary. Moreover, Aristotle himself deals with such demonstrative syllogisms in the very work mentioned, the Posterior Analytics.

When Evans talks in the Pierre d'Ailly entry about the insolubilia literature and "the semantic paradox, of the 'cretan liar' type" (166), she claims: "Of special interest in the thirteenth and fourteenth centuries was the apparent paradox in Amos 7.14 where a prophet says 'I am not a prophet'," and she devotes several lines to her example. It may have been a popular Biblical passage in exegetical discussions, but not in the insolubilia literature, neither in d'Ailly's treatise, nor, I am told, in any later-medieval text on insolubles. The main reason is that it is not a paradox at all, but simply a false statement by the prophet, if he is a prophet.

Similar confusion can be found in the section on future contingent propositions, again in the Bradwardine entry (148-9), and these examples could be multiplied. Elsewhere complex topics like the nominalist-realist debate (166) -- apparently no longer a big philosophical issue, in her mind (xxvii) -- are treated too cursorily and incompletely to be of use to anyone. In some cases, to be fair, the confusion may result from the use of outdated and problematic secondary sources, such as Gordon Leff's Bradwardine and the Pelagians of 1957. Thus with Bradwardine, it is surprising that Evans mentions a disputation with Baconthorpe over foreknowledge when there is no word of the much more famous debate Bradwardine had with Buckingham over the same issue. This is all the more surprising in that Evans is the editor of a recent volume (Mediaeval Commentaries on the Sentences of Peter Lombard [Leiden, 2002]), in which Jean-François Genest, the author of Prédétermination et liberté créé à Oxford au XIVe siècle. Buckingham contre Bradwardine (Paris 1992), contributes a new overview of Bradwardine's pertinent writings. That same volume would have provided more correct information on Scotus, Ockham, and d'Ailly as well. Similar help is available in Routledge's own recent Medieval Philosophy and Encyclopedia of Philosophy, not to mention the on-line Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy.

In sum, this book was not quite ready for publication. Although the subject matter does not require the author to be an expert in all the issues and periods covered by the book, it does require much more time and care.

Article Details

Author Biography

Chris Schabel

University of Cyprus