14.10.28, Novikoff, The Medieval Culture of Disputation

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Atria Larson

The Medieval Review 14.10.28

Novikoff, Alex J.. The Medieval Culture of Disputation: Pedagogy, Practice, and Performance. The Middle Ages Series. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2013. Pp. 327. ISBN: 9780812245387 (hardback).

Reviewed by:
Atria Larson
Saint Louis University

Novikoff's first book takes a cultural-historical approach to the practice of disputation, which he never quite defines but comes closest to doing so when he identifies it as "the formalized debate techniques of the medieval university" (1). In contrast to studies that utilize scholastic disputations as evidence for a particular author's views, or cultural histories that often present a micro-history of a particular person, place, or concept in order to elucidate larger cultural phenomena, Novikoff's work attempts to understand "the evolution and diffusion of that most scholastic method itself--disputation--especially its extension into other, related spheres of cultural activity that did not immediately depend on the schools in which it first developed" (3). Novikoff more than once refers to Erwin Panofsky's Gothic Architecture and Scholasticism of 1951, which drew connections between the order and harmony of great Gothic cathedrals and the ideas and values underlying scholastic practice in the universities. In one sense, his work can be understood as a large-scale application of Panofsky's approach. In another sense, his work attempts to fill out a comment made by Giles Constable in The Reformation of the Twelfth Century: "Dialogue and dialectic--the science of doubt as it has been called--played a fundamental part in the thought processes of the eleventh and twelfth centuries. It underlay the discipline of disputation that developed in the schools and was applied to almost every branch of intellectual inquiry" (cited at 2). Novikoff's broad cultural approach is a welcome one, allowing him to incorporate texts and other cultural artifacts such as music that will be of interest to a wide range of scholars. The climax of the book comes in the sixth chapter, an examination of one particular form of debate beyond the classroom walls, the Jewish-Christian disputation, the development of which is worked into the earlier chapters.

Because Novikoff is engaging in a cultural history, his thesis has two layers, historical and anthropological. The thesis relies on an enigmatic connection (he never teases out what the precise connection is) among dialogue, dialectic, and disputation, the three elements cited by Constable. The historical layer of his thesis presents the following trajectory of development: dialogue and disputation have a long history in the western and Christian tradition (chapter 1); after a lull in their development, the monastic school of Bec and especially Anselm of Canterbury revived the reliance on reason and the usage of the literary genre of the dialogue in such a way that propelled the development of the scholastic form of disputation (chapter 2); the type of teaching and learning practiced at Bec expanded to cathedral and other schools, allowing the development of a more formal and systematic disputation (chapter 3); the logica nova of Aristotle "helped to catalyze this new and controversial use of disputation by providing models of dialectic argumentation" (226) and began to make its presence felt in vernacular genres such as debate poems (chapter 4); then disputation reached the height of its systematization within the institutions of the university and the Dominican Order (chapter 5); finally disputation influenced cultural forms outside the university including counterpoint and polyphony in music, motets, the debate poems of the trouvères (end of chapter 5), and public debates between Christians and Jews (chapter 6). The anthropological layer of the thesis presents this trajectory as a movement from an idea and a literary form of an intellectual elite to a cultural practice among a broad swath of society, from private practices and notions to public displays, and from pedagogy to performance.

The book has several praiseworthy features. First, it is overall very well written and will undoubtedly be appreciated simply due to the ease of its style. Second, certain chapters are, on the whole, of fine quality and could be assigned to graduate and even undergraduate students. Chapter 1 provides a succinct introduction to public debate and the dialogue genre in antiquity through the mid-eleventh century. Novikoff rightly points to both secular and Christian antecedents (especially Cicero, Augustine, and Boethius) and he repeatedly notes the connection between the dialogue genre and a didactic purpose. Chapters 5 and 6 are also commendable. Though covering a wide array of source material, chapter 5 hangs together well and would be good reading for a course covering thirteenth-century institutions and culture. Although the final chapter has problematic points, it would serve well as an introduction to Jewish-Christian dialogues and disputations in the twelfth and thirteenth centuries (including vernacular ones), and it adds to the scholarly understanding of the public disputes of 1240 (Paris) and 1263 (Barcelona). Novikoff's emphasis on the pedagogic functions of dialogues and disputations throughout the book puts him in a good position to argue that these public displays were not primarily related to political shows and alliances but rather to a desire to educate the Christian public and, in the case of the Barcelona incident, to help train young Dominicans.

Despite these positive aspects of the book, it should be utilized with caution and would not, in its entirety, make for a reliable text for undergraduates. Some problems are individual errors of little import for Novikoff's overall narrative (e.g. identification of wrong verb tense at 198) or points where the connections Novikoff wants to make are tenuous, such as when he discusses the three parts of the Paris disputation or "Talmud Trial" of 1240 (disputation, inquiry, judgment). He claims that "the two-part disputation and trial, followed by the official verdict, evokes the now-established pattern of the university disputation and final determination" (197). Novikoff seems to be making a parallel between the three stages of the 1240 Parisian events and three stages of a formal disputation: arguments by one student, objections and counter-arguments by another student, and the master's final determinatio. But the comparison of an inquiry into the content of books (the "trial") to a stage of a disputation where a second student opposes the arguments of a first student seems dubious at best. Moreover, the possibility that the final judgment is related just as much to a judicial sentence as to a determinatio quaestionis disputatae, though hinted at earlier (194), deserved much more explicit mention. The fact that Novikoff draws a parallel exclusively to the scholastic determination in this instance is part of a larger problem in which Novikoff squeezes the source material into his narrative scheme.

Novikoff's interpretative judgment of texts often seems to become clouded by his desire to prove his narrative. It happens in his citations from secondary literature, such as when he acts as if his questions and Sally Vaughn's quoted questions about Bec are the same when they clearly are not (34). The problems are worse for his interpretation of primary texts, and many of these instances are connected to a more fundamental problem in Novikoff's analysis, namely a lack of conceptual clarity about what he and his medieval authors mean by the term "disputation." Examples abound, but given Novikoff's emphasis on Anselm of Bec, I will focus there. Novikoff rightly highlights Anselm's use of literary dialogues, but he then proceeds to pick out passages where a form of the Latin disputatio appears and to act as if Anselm's usage of the term corresponds to whatever his own notion of it is. Repeatedly Novikoff pushes his reader to think of Anselm as describing a confrontational debate between opponents when Anselm is describing nothing more than a typical dialogical discussion proceeding by rational argumentation advanced through a series of questions and answers with the aim of removing doubt and acquiring confident knowledge of the truth. This is a very traditional, even Ciceronian, usage of the term, as Lewis and Short's entry on disputo demonstrates, and fits well with the connection of disputatio to the trivium subjects of rhetoric and dialectic in the definitions of Alcuin, mentioned by Novikoff (26). While Novikoff acknowledges briefly that Anselm's usage at times meant something like "conversation" (48), he insists that Anselm's usage is critically important for the development of scholastic disputations. This argument is necessary for Novikoff since he roots so much of scholastic disputational methodology in the emphasis on dialectic in Anselm's dialogues, and he insists that the dialogues demonstrate that disputations, in the stronger sense of "disputes" or "debates," were central to Anselm's method of teaching. Besides the dialogues themselves, Novikoff's evidence comes from R.W. Southern's summary of contemporary reports: "Gundulf listened to him at Bec, Guibert of Nogent listened to him on his visits to Flay, Eadmer at Canterbury, and they all said the same thing--his talk was irresistible." Novikoff's imaginative interpretation of this evidence is that "everyone wanted [Anselm] to talk and to dispute, leaving no difficulties unraveled and no student unconvinced" (48). Novikoff's emphasis on debate leads him to translate several instances of disputare or disputatio with the English "dispute" or "disputation." Such translation is misleading; far better are the translations of Hopkins and Richardson, who use the more neutral but fitting "discussion." [1] The consistent reading of disputatio as debate leads Novikoff to surprise when discussing Adelard of Bath, who is a supposed example of how Anselm's teaching influence extended to dialogues on secular topics (68). Adelard's dialogues on science and philosophy have "no sense of a debate beyond a friendly and affectionate discussion," so Novikoff muses that "it is curious that Adelard refers to the discussion in [his] Quaestiones naturales as a disputatio and ends De eodem et diverso asking his nephew to 'judge for yourself whether I have disputed rightly'" (69). Adelard's usage of the term is entirely traditional, but still Novikoff wants to see a notion and practice of debate underlying all this. He notes that Adelard's prologue to his dialogue on hawking was meant to make an expert of anyone who "has this disputation in hand" (70). Inexplicably, for Novikoff this means that "'disputation' must, therefore, mean something more than just a friendly but informed conversation, for Adelard seems to be referring both to the subject matter (hawking) and the method for imparting that subject (debate)" (70). There is nothing inherent in the notion of expertise that requires debate and no evidence here of some "relation between the dialogue as a literary form and disputation as a social practice" (70). With these and similar texts, Novikoff misses the opportunity to trace the different and evolving meanings of the term disputatio, which could have added much depth and nuance to his work, even from the perspective of cultural history.

Novikoff's at times questionable interpretative judgment provides a major reason to avoid handing the book wholesale over to undergraduates. The other reason, and far more serious, pertains to his handling of developments in the late eleventh century, his near-exclusive and exaggerated focus on Anselm of Canterbury, and his neglect of other historical developments and personages that have long been recognized as playing a key role in the development of scholastic methodologies and a broader scholastically-tinged culture. The problems here, unfortunately for Novikoff, bring into question his overarching, anthropological thesis. Astonishingly, the Investiture Controversy finds no mention in the entire book. Monastic reform appears but briefly in connection with Peter Damian. The overthrow of traditional lords in cities leading to the establishment of communes with new, written constitutions likewise appears nowhere. These large-scale movements leading to intense polemical writings as well as to a focused reading of the tradition might not have involved public disputations in the nature of university quodlibetal questions or the Jewish-Christian dispute of 1263 but certainly involved heated debate, and if one wants to trace "the medieval culture of disputation," the various aspects of the conflict-ridden eleventh century are surely not irrelevant. There is even a remarkable witness to at least an attempted disputation in the presence of a king and queen (Robert II and Constance of Arles) at Orléans between a learned cleric and elusive heretics at the early date of 1023. [2] How do these public acts fit within Novikoff's overall schema of private to public, pedagogy to performance?

The developments within canon law, the re-reading of the sources, and the acknowledgement in this context of discordances among the canons are especially relevant for understanding the development of more formalized methods of asking questions and seeking answers through the consideration of opposing arguments all the while attempting to keep the Christian tradition intact as one, united whole. [3] (The notion of concordance remained strong in scholastic methodology and could have merited much more attention from Novikoff.) Gratian's work, which receives half a page of treatment by Novikoff, is the culmination of this process and the catapult within canonical jurisprudence for increasingly formal quaestiones.

Of at least equal importance for the development of the quaestio (never sufficiently connected to disputation by Novikoff despite the fact that the university disputations were technically quaestiones disputatae), are the school of Laon and its head, that other Anselm of the period. Anselm and Laon appear occasionally in Novikoff's work but never with focused attention. Anselm's circle has long been recognized as innovators in composing theological sententiae that not only asked a question and provided patristic texts in answer but that provided arguments pro and contra and a solutio. [4] Novikoff rightly highlights the dialogue genre but misses the importance of early sententiae and quaestiones. He rightly highlights the greatness of Anselm of Bec but misses the significance of a man who left few writings but a far more influential school. Among numerous examples, one needs merely remember that the school was responsible for at least most of the glosses that would form the Glossa ordinaria to the Bible. It is also important to note that some of what we do have from Anselm of Laon, the sententiae, are reports of his teaching, a much stronger type of evidence about personal teaching habits than dialogues written by Anselm of Bec. [5]

At times, Novikoff speaks relatively cautiously and wants to set Anselm of Bec in a broader context (226), but at other times, he wants to make an exclusivist argument. Perhaps his strongest statement comes at the close of his introduction to chapter 2: "This chapter aims to show that the scholastic dialectical methods, later so prominent in medieval universities, have their origins within the general milieu of monastic learning. More specifically, these methods will be shown to have their origins in Lanfranc's and Anselm's engagement with dialogue and disputation at the school of Bec" (35). If Novikoff expands his horizons beyond Anselm of Bec and engages the broader social, religious, and cultural context of the late eleventh century and early twelfth century and the--as Landau wrote in an essay cited by Novikoff--"new, intellectually critical mentality" it produced, he might have to expand or revise his anthropological thesis, for it would seem that a certain amount of public uproar and even practice preceded the pedagogical drive. [6]

Novikoff's project is a good one, and other scholars should take up the task alongside him. Although I am not convinced that his cultural-historical thesis is correct in all its particulars, it has some merits. The flaws of Novikoff's book, however, demonstrate how crucially important a close and careful reading of individual texts, in their appropriate contexts, remains to any kind of historical enterprise. A completely successful work of cultural history with a fully successful theory of cultural formation will start from that foundation.



1. Complete Philosophical and Theological Treatises of Anselm of Canterbury, trans. Jasper Hopkins and Herbert Richardson (Minneapolis: Arther J. Banning Press, 2000); for conclusion to De grammatico, 162 (cf. Novikoff, 43) and preface to the three dialogues, 163 (cf. Novikoff, 44).

2. An English translation by R.I. Moore may be found in Heresy and Authority in Medieval Europe: Documents in Translation, ed. Edward Peters (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 1980), no. 9, pp. 66-72, with explicit reference to the king and queen and to "the disputation" on p. 69 and an account of the rather failed disputation on p. 71.

3. Prefaces to Canon Law Books in Latin Christianity: Selected Translations, 500-1245, eds. and trans. Robert Somerville and Bruce C. Brasington (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1998), 105.

4. Artur Michael Landgraf, Introduction à l'histoire de la littérature théologique de la scolastique naissante, ed. Albert-M. Landry, trans. Louis-B. Geiger (Paris, 1973; translation of original German, 1948), 46.

5. See the fundamental work now of Cédric Giraud, Per verba magristri: Anselme de Laon et son école au XIIe siècle (Turnhout: Brepols, 2010), esp. chapter 1.

6. Peter Landau, "The Development of Law," in The New Cambridge Medieval History IV: c.1025-1198, Part I, eds. David Luscombe and Jonathan Riley-Smith (Cambridge, 2004), 113-147.

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Atria Larson

Saint Louis University