12.10.24, Mews and Crossley, eds. Communities of Learning

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Hans-Werner Goetz

The Medieval Review 12.10.24

Mews, Constant J. and John N. Crossley. Communities of Learning: Networks and the Shaping of Intellectual Identity in Europe, 1100-1500. Europa Sacra. Turnhout: Brepols, 2011. Pp. vii, 366. ISBN: 978-2-503-53233-2.

Reviewed by:
Hans-Werner Goetz
University of Hamburg

Whereas older research on the history of ideas distinctly concentrated on individual learning and doctrine, recent studies have inquired more and more particularly into intellectual networks to form a "community of learning." [1] The editors of the present volume then can assume in their introduction that learning is always done within a communicational network and that there is a development from a more informal phase in the twelfth to more institutionalized networks in the thirteenth century. This volume considers 15 contributions (eight Australians, seven of whom are from Monash University, four American, two German, and one English) dealing with particular case studies from the twelfth to the fifteenth century. While the papers are organized in chronological order, some happen to form thematic clusters. The first three chapters are devoted to Spanish translators in the twelfth century. Charles Burnett ("Communities of Learning in Twelfth-Century Toledo") doubts the existence of a Toledo "school of translators" and, with an interesting suggestion, claims that most "translations" were actually new works and that the intellectuals who were teaching at the cathedral school did not so much form a firm community; rather, they had multifaceted backgrounds and contacts with a common openness, though towards new methods of learning. In contrast to this Alexander Fidora ("Religious Diversity and Philosophical Translations of Twelfth-Century Toledo") emphasizes the peaceful cohabitation of the different religions in Toledo even after its Christian conquest in 1095, without a strict separation of philosophy and religion. (Of course, one would not expect anything different in the twelfth century). The translations reveal a mutual reception and a dialogue between the religions. Nevertheless, one also should take into account the specific purpose of the translations. The third paper on this topic by Amos Bertolacci ("A Community of Translators: The Latin Medieval Versions of Avicenna's Book of the Cure"), even goes so far as to find an "Andalusian Avicennism" while comparing two phases of translations in Burgos and Toledo. Notwithstanding the fact that these three papers are brilliant contributions shedding new light on the intellectual milieu of translators in twelfth-century Spain, one also might state that an approach which analyses the reception of Aristotle is neither new nor does it tell us anything about the concrete way networks of learning functioned, although it may at least be regarded as a proof of their existence.

The same reservation applies even more to the next contribution by Willemien Otten ("Nature and the Representation of Divine Creation in the Twelfth Century"), which is a fine piece on the rise of the philosophy of nature in this period and its cosmological overview (in William of Conches and Thierry of Chartres), on the personification of nature, and on its "polyvalence" (in Bernardus Silvestris and Alanus of Lille). Nevertheless, it contributes little to our knowledge of intellectual networks. I also would be reluctant to accept the conclusion that the flawed emphasis on creation opens up the possibility of a return to divinely ordered stability: rather, up till then, authors have never departed from this assumption, as far as their own convictions and criteria are concerned.

The next two papers deal with letters which do indeed bear valuable information on networks. Carl J. Nederman ("Textual Communities of Learning and Friendship Circles in the Twelfth Century: An Examination of John of Salisbury's Correspondence") examines the rules of dealings with friends in John's letters (again, rather than the "rules" of networks). When John accuses his friends of not having respected such rules, the theory seems to be put into practice. Jason Taliadoros ("Communities of Learning in Law and Theology: The Later Letters of Peter of Blois [1125/30-1212]") finds a change of paradigm in Peter's later letters, after 1184, and a communication with different circles, that is, the disciplines of law and theology (which might be a modern distinction anyway).

With Constant Mews' contribution on the history of universities ("Communities of Learning and the Dream of Synthesis: The Schools and Colleges of Thirteenth-Century Paris"), we reach the thirteenth century, rightly stating that each community of learning establishes its own synthesis. In Paris, the uniformity within the Faculty of Arts was reached by the reception of Aristotle. Nevertheless, within this community, we find different and even rival communities of learning which do not form a united institution. John N. Crossley and Carol Williams ("Studying Musica in Thirteenth-Century Paris: The Expectations of Johannes de Grocheio") deepen and extend this approach on the university of Paris by investigating the various influences on John's theory of music. In a similar study on the theory of music as an element of higher education ("The Exchange of Ideas About Music in Paris c. 1270-1304: Guy of Saint-Denis, Johannes de Grocheio, and Peter of Auvergne"), Catherine Jeffreys interprets Guy's treatise on music as a product of the philosophical tendencies of his epoch. She emphasizes once more the connections between different disciplines, and, equally, the importance of the reception of Aristotle, who, nevertheless, was misunderstood by John of Grocheio whose connections lead to Paris and Saint-Denis.

A quite different field is opened up by Earl Jeffrey Richards ("Marian Devotion in Thirteenth-Century France and Spain and Interfaces Between Latin and Vernacular Culture"), namely the reciprocal interrelations between Latin and vernacular, already underlined by Robert Curtius in the 1950s. The interrelations are analyzed here by the example of the veneration of the Virgin Mary in thirteen texts of the thirteenth century which, according to this author, are connected by strong links.

Similarly, the Aristotelian language plays an important part in Mary Elizabeth Sullivan's contribution ("The Bond of Aristotelian Language among Medieval Political Thinkers"). She interprets the sharing of the Aristotelian political terminology as a common bond between Ptolemy of Lucca and Dante Alighieri who, apart from this connection, have not only written very different works, but also show a different, and partly distorting, use of Aristotle. One may ask, therefore, what bond the language can offer to form an "Aristotelian community" when it is used so diversely and differs so markedly from its source. Peter Howard ("'Doctrine, When preached, Is Entirely Civic': The Generation of Public Theology and the Role of the Studia of Florence") chooses a different approach by regarding one literate group (the mendicants) of one town (Florence) in the fifteenth century and discovering the role of the sermons as a particular type of community and learning, which at the same time creates a bond between clergy and laity (although, as he admits, we do not know how it worked in practice). Here, the "community of learning" is created by their "environments of pulpit, parish, neighborhood, religious house, studium, library, along with the public theologies on usury, banking, governance" etc. (314). It would be interesting to learn how this really worked. Again, a completely different approach is provided by the last paper (Frankie Nowicki, "Creating a Union: Ritual and Music at the Council of Florence") with the question how a diverse Christian society, divided between the Latin and the Greek Church, could be unified by the rituals of feasting. Here, the council of Florence of 1439 is interpreted as "a stage for inter-cultural interaction between the East and West of Christendom" (337). The celebration of union was intended to "fuse" the identities of East and West--but it definitely failed.

The remarkable and welcome papers collected in this volume, with a broad spectrum of different approaches, no doubt extend our knowledge on learning and intellectuals in the later Middle Ages, although most approaches are not so new as they claim to be and some could be easily subsumed under labels such as the history of reception or of communication (and the contributions of the two editors of the volume are no exception to this conclusion). Most of them interpret certain bonds as "networks" when we would like to know more about how they functioned in practice, the particular circumstances, but also the (many) distinctions within these groups (and some of these are at least admitted by their authors, as in the paper by Constant Mews). To be honest, the phenomena considered in these papers certainly reveal some sort of a "community of learning" by the shaping of networks and an intellectual identity. However, these relations frequently seem rather far-fetched, and it is more or less implicit that the authors deliberately inquire not only into intellectual networks but also into their limits (as Burnett's paper does). In order to find out how intellectual networks really worked, we need more pertinent studies like the one by Sita Steckel referenced above (n. 1) which at the same time shows that intellectual networks existed well before the twelfth century.



1. See the comprehensive Ph.D. thesis by Sita Steckel, Kulturen des Lehrens im Früh- und Hochmittelalter (Autorität, Wissenskonzepte und Netzwerke von Gelehrten; Cologne and Weimar, 2011), on the early and high Middle Ages.

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Hans-Werner Goetz

University of Hamburg