12.10.09, Obrist and Caiazzo, eds., Guillaume de Conches: Philosophie et science au XIIe siècle

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Constant Mews

The Medieval Review 12.10.09

Obrist, Barbara and Irene Caiazzo. Guillaume de Conches: Philosophie et science au XIIe siècle. Micrologus' Library. Florence: SISMEL, Edizioni del Galluzzo, 2011. Pp. xxii, 521. ISBN: 978-88-8450-413-5.

Reviewed by:
Constant Mews
Monash University

William of Conches is an important thinker who tends to be remembered in a variety of different ways. For readers of the Metalogicon of John of Salisbury, he is the teacher celebrated by John for transmitting the humanist values of Bernard of Chartres. For historians of science, he is important as a theorist of the workings of nature from a naturalistic perspective. Yet William also wrote commentaries on Priscian that have inspired historians of linguistic thought in a quite different direction. There is no question about William's importance in that movement of cultural renewal commonly labelled "the twelfth-century" renaissance and conventionally associated with the school at Chartres. The sizeable volume of essays edited by Barbara and Obrist and Irene Caiazzo (a few of which are much longer than others) provides an important opportunity to take stock of our analysis of a thinker whose range of intellectual interests is larger than that of most of the specialists who tackle one aspect or other of his prolific output.

The greater number of the papers in the volume focus on William's scientific writing. There are just a couple of papers relating to his extended discussions of Priscian's Grammatical Institutes (by Margareta Fredborg and Julie Brumberg-Chaumont), but there are no considered efforts to draw any significant lines of connection between his interest in both natura and in language. Perhaps because the papers are organized thematically, rather than according to the chronological evolution of William's writing, it is not easy to gain a sense of the development of his thought in its entirety, which embraces both the arts of language and of the natural world while also being sensitive to their relationship to the authority of Scripture and Christian teaching. While devoting his early career to commenting in the 1120s on core classical texts studied at Chartres (Priscian, Macrobius, Plato, Juvenal), he is unusual among the disciples of Bernard of Chartres for creating not just one synthesis of cosmological learning, the Philosophia (c. 1130), but a radical deepening of that work, which he called his Dragmaticon (c. 1147-1149), written in Normandy for the future Henry II. Like Thierry and Gilbert of Poitiers, William was a thinker nurtured on the philosophical vision of Boethius and other late antique authors, but was significantly open to a number of new authors, some only recently translated into Latin from the Greek or the Arabic. In this respect William is a key figure in the Western intellectual tradition prior to the impact made by new translations emanating from Spain in the second half of the twelfth century, and becoming influential in Paris only in the late twelfth and early thirteenth centuries. The contribution of Alexander Fidora to this volume, arguing that William was indeed a key intellectual influence on Gundissalinus, patron of so much translation activity in Toledo, is particularly significant in highlighting William's key contribution to the evolution of scientific awareness in the West.

The opening introduction by Barbara Obrist and Irene Caiazzo hints at some of these complexities, without offering a detailed overview of William's career, so much of which is still obscure to us. Perhaps the most perplexing issue relating to William of Conches is not given detailed attention in a volume that focuses on issues of the transmission of ideas rather than the broader cultural geography of Normandy, Blois, and France in the twelfth-century. Given that John of Salisbury is notoriously unspecific about where William was teaching in the years 1138-1141, the question--of great importance for our understanding of the cultural geography of the larger region of what is now loosely called "northern France"--an perhaps only be resolved by close attention to William's writings and his connection with other scholars influenced by Bernard of Chartres. The editors simply say that William, a Norman by birth, "probably taught originally at Chartres and perhaps at Paris" before becoming a teacher of the young Henry, Duke of Anjou. It certainly makes sense for William to have taught at Chartres, capital of the county of Blois, politically linked to Normandy in the first half of the twelfth century, before becoming the tutor of the future Henry II by the late 1140s. Unfortunately, none of the papers in the volume focus on the question of where William taught, or on his intellectual relationship to Bernard of Chartres, Thierry of Chartres and Gilbert of Poitiers--the group of thinkers identified by John of Salisbury as intellectually much broader than the logicians under whom he studied in Paris.

It would be churlish, however, to complain about what is missing in a volume that offers much food for thought about a thinker who deserves to be distinguished with more clarity than simply as a representative of "the school of Chartres." Of particular importance are the essays that delineate how William had become aware of Latin translations of Greco-Arabic science by the Philosophia and even more fully by the Dragmaticon. Caiazzo supports the idea that William might have developed his notion of elementatum from a commentary on the Isagoge Iohanitii, a Latin adaptation of Ibn Ishaq on medicine. Other important influences are the translation of Nemesius of Emesa by Alfanus of Salerno and Constantine the African, who also drew on Arabic sources. Caiazzo notes that by the time of the Dragmaticon, the notion of elementatum had disappeared from his writing, but in its place there is a new awareness of primordial chaos and the created role of the four elements in a way that echoes ideas of Hermann of Carinthia (who certainly had links to Thierry of Chartres). Charles Burnett makes suggestive comparisons between the Philosophia of William and the Quaestiones naturales of Adelard of Bath, arguing that they may have used the same set of questions, probably at Chartres, and William may have drawn on the Quaestiones naturales in his Dragmaticon. Danielle Jacquart observes William's debt to medical writings, noting a similar dependency on medical writing with more detail in the Dragmaticon than in his earlier work. In a lengthy essay, Barbara Obrist focuses on William's development of an entire cosmology in his later writing, in part inspired by the newly translated Liber de orbe of Masha'allah.

The fact that the essays in the volume do not follow the chronological evolution of William's writings is slightly confusing. Thus after detailed studies of the Dragmaticon, there are studies of the much earlier Glosae super Macrobium According to Helen Rodnite Lemay, William's interest in astrological ideas is already evident here, even if he had not fully worked out his ideas. Patrick Gaultier-Daché considers how Macrobius helped shaped his understanding of the world as a sphere, while interpreting his thoughts about the Antipodes in a way that was coherent with the account in Genesis. Not the least interesting aspect of William's writing is his awareness of theological questions raised by his focus on the core elements underpinning nature, which earned a rebuke from William of Saint- Thierry, by whom he was accused of promoting heresy. William's awareness of the relationship between the physical world and theology is finely studied by Dominique Poirel, who explores the complexity of his relationship to Hugh of St Victor, with whom he engaged in protracted discussion about the nature of the original chaos from which creation was formed and its relationship to divine providence.

The final papers on William's discussion of grammatical theory demonstrate the breadth of his intellectual interests. William concerned himself not just with physical nature, but with the nature and meaning of the words by which we describe reality. Both Fredborg and Brumberg-Chaumont show how William was profoundly shaped not just by the Platonism of Bernard of Chartres, but by the anonymous Glosule on Priscian's Grammatical Institutes, a late eleventh-century of great influence in the early twelfth century, and certainly preserved in a now lost manuscript of Chartres, which we know had links to Saint-Evroul in Normandy. William extended the innovative teaching of this commentator in a way that shows his interest in formulating a distinctive grammar that drew on Aristotelian categories to revise the outline offered by Priscian. Brumberg-Chaumont argues that William used grammatical theory to formulate a definition of substance of philosophical interest, while defining a noun in a way that was unusual in separating what was applicable to all nouns from any attributes of a noun. Whether he maintained these grammatical interests of his Chartrian background or gradually transferred his focus to natural science is not certain. In any case, his interests ranged across the entire curriculum in a way that fascinated John of Salisbury, even if John never absorbed the detail of William had to say about the natural world.

William is clearly a thinker about whom we still have much to learn. The essays in this volume offer helpful guides in getting to know his oeuvre. Some are specific, such a focused contribution from Paul Dutton about the title of the Philosophia that signals enormous knowledge of the work's vast textual transmission. From a wider perspective, Jean Jolivet compares William of Conches to both Abelard and Alan of Lille as a way of identifying the distinct character of William's thinking about the creation. The editors of this volume are to be congratulated for opening up an intellectual journey that still has a long way to go.

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Constant Mews

Monash University