16.08.20, Young, Scholarly Community at the Early University of Paris

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Neslihan Senocak

The Medieval Review 16.08.20

Young, Spencer E. Scholarly Community at the Early University of Paris: Theologians, Education and Society, 1215-1248. Cambridge Studies in Medieval Life and Thought: Fourth Series, 94. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2014. pp. x, 260. ISBN: 9781107031043 (hardback).

Reviewed by:
Neslihan Senocak
Columbia University

Once upon a time in Paris, academics tended to be public intellectuals. It was not like now when many of us in academia, often either suspicious or shy of mediatic visibility, dread the push to do more public engagement via public lectures, trade-press books, op-eds, and television documentaries to fight off the "crisis in the humanities." The faculty in theology in twelfth- and thirteenth-century Paris would have been puzzled by our hesitation and reluctance. Faced with the pressure of justifying their intellectual work and of attracting students (in fact, just as modern academics in nonlucrative disciplines are), medieval theologians embraced public engagement. Their brilliance in exhausting every possible means of engaging with the intelligentsia and influencing the public policy would be the envy of a modern PR specialist. They preached their opinions from the pulpit and in the town squares, and taught how to preach to would-be public preachers in schools. They did town-hall meetings, known to us as quodlibetal disputations, when anyone in the audience could, free of censor, ask the wildest question, such as whether God existed, and receive an honest answer. They went on publishing the live recordings of these town-hall meetings, presenting the ever-growing literate public with a well-rounded set of op-eds on diverse social problems of their times. They won the trust of kings and princes, sat in their courts, and advised them in the business of governing the realm.

Their yet more significant public influence was through the close alliance they formed with the popes, best exemplified in the decrees of the famous Fourth Lateran Council, which opened up new job prospects for the theologians by a renewed insistence on priestly learning and teaching instead of instruction through liturgy. The stars of the firmament, as Honorius III called them in his bull Super specula, were indeed brilliant in that they put down the intellectual foundations of the "universal church," thus simultaneously exalting the pope and his authority vis-à-vis the bishops of the local churches, and their own jobs as teachers of theology as a religious service superior to the local pastoral work. Thus, akin to the military-industrial complex that became the modern state, the thirteenth-century Church has become the papal-theological complex, promoting a vision of Christianitas, which was often at odds with the ways cultic practices had evolved over centuries in the cities and villages of Europe, and one that they claimed to be superior to the latter.

Therefore, neither the modern doctrine of the Roman Catholic Church nor the religious history of medieval Europe can fully be understood without an excursus into the minds of the theologians, grasping their social and cultural visions, and the techniques they employed in affecting public policy. Scholarly Community at the Early University of Paris by Spencer E. Young, who has previously edited the important volume entitled Crossing Boundaries in Medieval Universities is in this regard a most-welcome undertaking, as it takes its lawful place among the recent, meticulously researched, exciting, and very scholarly monographs by Ian Wei and Nathalie Gorochov on the thirteenth-century theologians in Paris and their culture. [1]

As Young tells us in the introduction, while the twelfth- and fourteenth-century history of the University of Paris is better known, thanks in great part to the works of John W. Baldwin and William J. Courtenay (who was Young's dissertation advisor), its development in the thirteenth century has received relatively little attention, and when it did, the mendicants often stole the show. Thus, Young focuses on the period of 1215-1248, which is marked respectively by the publication of first university statutes by Robert Courçon and "the ascendance by mid-century of the mendicant orders in both institutional influence and intellectual eminence" (7). This period seems to be some kind of "Middle Ages" (my term) squeezed between two periods of brilliance, the former marked by the Peter the Chanter circle, and the other by the arrival at the university of mendicant theologians such as Thomas Aquinas and Bonaventure. Young often refers to the theologians, who were active in this middle period as the parens scientarum generation." The name is inspired by the papal bull with the same title, issued by Gregory IX in 1231, that ended the Great Dispersion of masters away from Paris in 1229-1231.

The distinctiveness of Young's book from many other studies concerning Paris theologians in the thirteenth century is, in his words, that "whereas most previous studies have tended to accentuate only those ideas or figures deemed significant to a broader intellectual historical narrative, this work instead...approaches all members of the faculty of theology during this period as participants in an intellectual community engaged in a shared conversation." This is certainly a most welcome approach, and before Young, Ian Wei's Intellectual Culture in Medieval Paris adopted a similar methodology. In my view, there is a lot to be gained from studying the culture of the schools: the similarities between the worldviews, for example, of mendicants and secular masters, despite their apparent falling-out, are surprisingly many. An exaggerated preoccupation with heresy, a matter-of-fact exaltation of book learning and school education, the resulting contempt for uneducated folk and parish priests, and an unwavering interest in arguing for the superiority of their chosen religious life are only a few of the traits shared by all seculars and mendicants actively teaching in Paris. Though Young does not particularly focus on the points I have made here, his book provides the very necessary background knowledge we need to observe the particular cultural orientation that emerged within this community.

The book has five chapters, along with an introduction and conclusion. The first chapter, "Constructing a Faculty of Theology," investigates the institutionalization of the faculty of theology in Paris. He draws attention to the Fourth Lateran Council's decrees on clerical education and Innocent's recognition of the title of "theologian," to the various papal privileges of the theologians, and how masters were expected to return these favors by going to Byzantium to teach (Innocent III) or to preach against Albigensian heresy (Honorius III). Here, perhaps Young could be bolder in working out more implications of this alliance, since papal support not only was a lifeline for this emerging community, but the particular nature of this support and of papal expectations also profoundly shaped the cultural aspects of the university and the interests of the masters. In the rest of the chapter, Young discusses the establishment of the curriculum and the growing self-consciousness of Paris theologians as religious authority, particularly after the Great Dispersion.

The second chapter, entitled "The Parens Scientarum Generation," is an investigation of the role of individual theologians in contributing to the four categories, that, for Young, constitute the main factors for the rising power of the theology faculty. These categories are positions of authority within the University, commitment to the University as exemplified in long regency or ideological fidelity, breadth of theological output, and incorporation of the Aristotelian corpus (72).

The third chapter in some sense introduces William of Auxerre as the new Peter the Chanter of the parens scientarum generation. Focusing on a series of quaestiones in BNF MS lat. 14726, which Young himself elsewhere identifies to be the reportationes of the disputed questions by William of Auxerre, he shows how William influenced other theologians in Paris, and how he stood out with his early utilization of Aristotelian natural philosophy. Here, Young provides a highly interesting analysis of the BNF manuscript juxtaposed with the edition of William's Summa aurea. It is here that we learn that William of Auxerre was one of the earliest theologians to discuss a question which was popular in the later quodlibetal disputes: Does an ignorant priest sin by assuming the pastoral office, because he cannot teach (111-112)? By answering the question positively, William of Auxerre seems to confirm the Parisian theological tradition that places the priest instead of the church services (the Mass, penance, baptism, Divine Office, blessings, etc.)--all of which had built-in moral and doctrinal instruction--at the center of religious education. The conclusion of this chapter, which focuses on the observation that Paris students were exposed to the ideas of many masters, strays therefore a little from its aforementioned purpose, which was to argue for the importance of William of Auxerre among the theologians of Paris.

Chapters 4 and 5 perform the function of illustrating Young's main argument, that the Paris theologians were concerned with the same set of problems, often social ones, notwithstanding their varying opinions on those problems, and that these shared interests coupled with the way they all came under the influence of the Aristotelian corpus, justify their treatment as a community. Chapter 4 focuses on what various theologians thought about almsgiving, particularly what it meant for souls, when money gained through sinful occupations such as prostitution or avaricious trade was given away as alms. Quite notably, Young shows how the ideas of William of Durham, one of the regent masters in Paris before 1229, on almsgiving were influenced by Aristotle, thus making us aware that the influence of Aristotle in Paris went beyond the purely theological realm and affected the outlook of masters to social and moral problems.

In the same spirit, chapter 5 takes up as its subject theologians' opinions on the seven deadly sins. Here, as in chapter 4, Young provides a very useful background analysis of the patristic writers' analyses of seven sins to demonstrate how the Paris theologians developed a new taxonomy of sins, which bore a distinct Aristotelian influence. Laudably, instead of giving us a bullet list of what various theologians thought about the seven sins, Young draws upon the commentaries on the seven sins "primarily for what they can reveal about theologians and the discipline of theology at the early University of Paris" (171).

Studying medieval university professors is not a straightforward task for modern academics. As intellectuals themselves, professors of medieval history are more likely to identify with the Paris schoolmasters, and to admire their intellectual work, than they are to identify with the archpriest of a rural pieve or with the cathedral canon chanting the Office to save souls. The past historiography of the medieval university sometimes bore the marks of this partiality, especially when the self-interested pastoral view of medieval masters, who held studying and teaching theology above other forms Christian life and openly said so, is interpreted as reform in the positive sense rather than a redefinition of pastoral care. Spencer Young is to be lauded for having escaped that trap. His book helps us grasp the story of emergence of Paris masters as a community and their growing influence without making them into heroes.

Overall, this is an excellent study that uses a wide range of sources, including many unedited manuscripts. It treats a slice of history that is tremendously important for the intellectualization of the Roman Catholic Church. It shows us how through the work of Paris theologians of this period, the Church has come under the influence of Aristotelian philosophy with its strict hierarchical understanding of the universe, and its relentless ordering of peoples, activities and forms of lives as superior or inferior--an understanding of society that is fundamentally incompatible with the idea of a community of equal believers, whose relative value could only be determined after death and by a supreme deity.



1. Ian P Wei, Intellectual Culture in Medieval Paris: Theologians and the University, c.1100-1330(Cambridge University Press, 2012) and Nathalie Gorochov, Naissance de l'université : Les écoles de Paris d'Innocent III à Thomas d'Aquin (v. 1200-v. 1245) (Etudes d'Histoire médiévale; Paris: Honoré Champion éditeur, 2012).

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