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13.04.07, Young, Crossing Boundaries at Medieval Universities

13.04.07, Young, Crossing Boundaries at Medieval Universities

This volume originated as a conference held in May 2008 to honor William Courtenay, the foremost historian in North America of the medieval universities, upon his retirement from teaching at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. The notion of "crossing boundaries" seems apt, for Bill Courtenay has himself proven agile in crossing the many boundaries of our discipline. His work moves back and forth between the history of philosophy and theology and the history of institutions. He appears at home whether writing about France, England, or Italy. He seems indifferent to whether he's working with manuscript books or with archival documents. The collection is thus a fitting tribute to Courtenay's versatility as a scholar, and to his work on the fourteenth century, which looms large in many of these studies.

The volume includes twelve articles, mostly by senior scholars, organized unevenly under the headings "Philosophical and Theological Boundaries" (five articles), "Crossing Disciplinary Boundaries" (six articles), and "Town and Gown" (one article). In fact the four traditional university faculties (arts, medicine, law, and theology) serve to orient most of the articles. Of course medieval scholars were crossing disciplinary boundaries all the time, and yet we know very little about how this took place. Bill Courtenay himself exposed the problem a few years ago when he asked an assembly of experts on the medieval university, "Where and when did theologians receive their training in canon law?" A straightforward question, yet no one knew the answer. [1] This volume does not answer that question (which was posed a few months after the conference in Madison), but it makes an important contribution by focusing on the problem of boundaries in the medieval university, disciplinary and otherwise, for perhaps the first time.

The first five articles proceed chronologically. David Luscombe describes how the study of the liberal arts changed across the twelfth century and then as they entered the university around 1200. The growing importance of logic weakened the integrity of the trivium as a whole. The quadrivium fared much worse, in fact "fell apart" (9) with the recovery of Aristotle's writings on natural philosophy. Luscombe's discussion of the changes to the study of the liberal arts once they entered the university, especially the displacement of the quadrivium by natural philosophy, psychology, and ethics, reveals incidentally how little we really know about the exact place of the liberal arts in the early universities.

Marcia Colish is also interested in the early history of the University of Paris, specifically its curriculum and order of studies. But she finds little order to the shape of learning. Masters come and go as they please, and produce works one after another in no logical sequence. A figure such as Alain de Lille shows the difficulty of generalizing for this early period. He taught theology, but who knows where? The arts informed his approach to theology, but exactly how? The problem is not so much our own lack of understanding, but that contemporaries themselves did not agree about what the theological curriculum should look like.

Chris Schabel moves to the period of high scholasticism, but shows convincingly that according to a purely quantitative analysis of scholastic genres, the high point of scholasticism came in the early fourteenth century rather than sooner--the traditional narrative has of course always privileged the mid-thirteenth century. This is an important finding, and consistent with my own work on the subject (though Schabel is much more exhaustive than I was in his analysis of scholastic production). The question in my mind has always been how we deal with and characterize the late fourteenth and fifteenth centuries. Schabel explains the decline of scholastic production with reference to plague and warfare--the usual suspects--and, in a concluding sentence, to intellectual exhaustion. Yet he also shows that the decline in production began well before the Black Death, and he provides no real explanation for the shift in focus. (In fairness, this is more my project than his.) Perhaps it would have been better to leave this shift as an open question rather than to reinforce the old narrative of late medieval decline.

Articles by Maarten Hoenen and Kent Emery, Jr. take us into the fifteenth century. Hoenen writes about a notebook that contains the record of a disputation held in 1480 at the University of Cologne. The disputation holds particular interest because the disputing master, Johannes Alen, put forward Nominalist views that the Realists in attendance could not accept. Defending William Ockham's position on the Trinity, he flatly contradicted that of Thomas Aquinas. Thus we have a marvelous example of the fifteenth century Wegestreit, and indeed Hoenen's article provides an excellent introduction to developments in fifteenth-century theology faculties in the Empire. Above all, it confirms the importance--one might say "canonicity"--of earlier authorities in debates there, particularly Aquinas, Albert the Great, and Ockham. Kent Emery, Jr. turns to Denys the Carthusian, "the most prolific writer of the Middle Ages" (145), and his reading of earlier authorities. Using his questions on the Sentences, Emery investigates how Denys opposed Durandus of Saint-Pourçain to a consensus of thirteenth-century doctors on cognitive issues such as the "scientific" status of theology. We can see incidentally a kind of periodization forming here: that this search for consensus worked in chronological fashion to privilege thirteenth-century doctors and to exclude Durandus and John Duns Scotus.

The second part of the volume begins with a short article in which John Murdoch attempts to rehabilitate fourteenth-century logical analysis as an original and brilliant field of study, though held in disdain by most sixteenth-century humanists. Two articles on medicine and theology follow. In the first, Michael McVaugh explores the relationship between arts and medicine during the thirteenth century at Paris and at Montpellier. We know that medical students were not required to receive any training in the arts faculty until 1426. But what about earlier? Using statutory evidence that was always in plain view but that no one had ever thought to compare, McVaugh shows that medical students who had a degree in arts were required to spend slightly less time before they could teach or be examined for the license. Thus long before the fifteenth century, contemporaries began to recognize that training in the arts had some benefit for medical students. In the second article, Danielle Jacquart explores the porous boundaries between medicine and theology in the medieval universities. Jacquart finds evidence over time--and certainly by the fifteenth century--for a growing openness to theology students who had studied and even practiced medicine. Even priests might practice or teach medicine (215). Likewise, Jacquart finds a great deal of compatibility between the very texts that theologians and medical students studied. Questions that arose in theology--the body, generation, nutrition-- frequently crossed over into medical matters. Even a topic such as the Incarnation could open the door to medical questions. By the mid- fourteenth century, medical concepts had become widely diffused, though at the same time medical training was becoming more professional, more devoted to the "training of practitioners" (221).

The next two articles take us from medicine to law. Kenneth Pennington provides a helpful orientation to the distinction between lex naturalis and ius naturale. Lex, writes Pennington, was "a plebeian hod carrier of the law"; ius was instead "a term rich in resonances…the source of justice, equity, and rights" (232). Lex was about leges or statutes; ius underlay justice itself. In this case, crossing boundaries led to confusion when Thomas Aquinas failed to grasp this important distinction. His mistake, says Pennington, led to centuries of confusion on the issue. Karl Shoemaker then turns to the rivalry between canon law and theology in an article that explores a curious but overlooked genre, the Processus Sathanae, in which a demon from Hell and the Virgin Mary plead before Christ for the legal title to the human race. Here then is one way that fourteenth-century canon lawyers were thinking about issues such as "justice and grace, and law and power" (275) that pertained also to theology.

In the final article of this section, Robert Lerner investigates a work that many scholars have talked about but few have read carefully, the De victoria Christi contra Antichristum of Hugo de Novocastro. Lerner adds to our factual knowledge about Hugo himself, including his nationality and some details of his career, and he securely establishes the dating of the De victoria and the nature of the two recensions. But perhaps the real interest for many historians will be that Hugo chose to write about Antichrist not in a prophecy but in a kind of handbook, the first of its kind. But the genre did not prevent Hugo from a certain creativity in his approach to Antichrist, a willingness to bend and expand the tradition in various ways. Here we have a "hard-headed Parisian theologian" (300) who nonetheless took radical apocalpytic teaching quite seriously. We have come a long way from Peter Lombard and Thomas Aquinas, and indeed Lerner sees the emergence of a work such as this as evidence for an "intellectual climate change" in the university (292). In Lerner's clever phrase: "Antichrist comes to the Latin Quarter."

The final article of the book, by Jürgen Miethke, is really the only one that falls under the heading of institutional history in its strict sense. Professor Miethke uses the case of the University of Heidelberg to show how Marsilius of Inghen, with the support of the ruling prince, Ruprecht II, engineered a "financial reconstruction of the university" (330). The key to making this happen, sadly, was the expulsion of Jews from the city which opened the way for a university quarter. Here as elsewhere (some of the English colleges come to mind) the foundation of universities went hand-in-hand with persecution of heretics and Jews.

The introduction, while helpful as a brief overview of the contents, might have done more to expand on the issues raised in the volume, and in fact the reader might benefit from Spencer Young's report of the original conference, published in the Bulletin de philosophie médiévale 50 (2008): 333-340.



1. At the conference "Philosophy and Theology in the Studia of the Religious Orders and at the Papal Court," 8-10 October 2008, Notre Dame, Indiana. See the conference report in Bulletin de philosophie médiévale 50 (2008): 389. Sylvain Piron suggested the next day that theology students studied canon law during vacation periods (Ibid., 393).