19.09.39 Monagle, The Scholastic Project

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Bénédicte Sère

The Medieval Review 19.09.39

Monagle, Clare. The Scholastic Project. Past Imperfect. Kalamazoo, MI: ARC Humanities Press, 2017. pp. xiii, 92. ISBN: 978-194240107-0 (paperback).

Reviewed by:
Bénédicte Sère
University of Paris Nanterre

This thin book by Clare Monagle has been published in the recent series Past Imperfect at ARC Humanities Press, which aims to provide an accessible critical overview of a specific field for non-specialists. It also aims to present the latest research provocatively. Last, it aims to draw out unambiguously the topic's resonances and impacts today. Its word-length limits are thus understandable given the desire to ensure that books can be accessible and affordable for students and scholars alike. That is why this seventy-five-page book is, as stated, both polemical and accessible. The author does not consider scholasticism as a method, as every academic has done at least since Martin Grabmann and his Geschichte der scholastischen Methode (1911); rather, she envisages it as a project--that is to say, as a whole system--and as complete anthropology more than particular practices or intellectual methods. More precisely, she portrays scholasticism from a theological perspective, putting aside the logical or dialectical adoption of scholastic method. In a word, scholasticism can be compared--according to Clare Monagle--to orthodoxy, that is to say to a dominant, hierarchical, and prominent power which dictates who is in and who is out.

This production of exclusion especially concerns three figures of "others": the Woman, the Heretic and the Jew. The book is divided into these three parts, elaborating upon the works of Dyan Elliott, R. I. Moore, and David Nirenberg respectively. In a provocative but subtle manner, Monagle denounces the western criterion of the rational white man inherent to the scholastic project. To demonstrate that the history of scholasticism is a history of privilege and power constructing the authority of the rational white man in the Middle Ages, the author explores medieval authors and texts such as Peter Lombard's Sentences, Thomas Aquinas' definitions, and Duns Scotus's revolutions, to quote only a few of them. Following Moore's famous assumptions, she does not hesitate to claim that the figure of the Other (such as women, heretics or Jews) was constitutive for the production of orthodoxy in the Middle Ages. "Order and exclusion," in the phrase of Dominique Iogna-Prat, signified that western Christendom needed to exclude difference in order to organize its Christian society better.

The book, conceived as an introduction to medieval Christian theology addressed to students and undergraduates who are not familiar with the theological sphere and medieval texts, definitely aims at a better understanding of medieval society in its ideological contours. Indeed, introducing the gendered categories in scholastic thought is one of Clare Monagle's specialties: "Sexing scholasticism" is her title for another project. Thus she can conclude that the examples of both Eve and Mary, in the Christian theological tradition, show the degree to which the two major female figures in that tradition were instrumentalized in the making of doctrine. At the beginning of the scholastic period, Peter Lombard argued that the best measure of the degree of sin was a sinner's capability for reason. That is, the higher the capacity a sinner had to choose their sin in a rational manner; the graver his or her error was considered to be. Yet Lombard abandoned this logic to explain Eve's culpability, arguing that her very lack of reason rendered her more vulnerable to the advances of the serpent and thus worse than Adam. In doing so, Lombard pathologized women as innately and intimately driven to sin. At the other end of the scholastic project, Duns Scotus, speaking of Mary, told a story of feminine perfectibility, the Immaculate Conception, that is understood as being entirely exceptional, a complete act of divine sovereignty. In her second part, Clare Monagle closely links Aquinas' scholastic definition of the heretic and the Dominican order, founded in 1216 to fight heresy. In other words, the best and greatest scholastic intellectual nourished a definition of heresy derived from an orthodox and official point of view. Last, Jews are characterized by Scotus from an intolerant perspective. His theology of the Jews shows scholasticism in its most reactionary mode, ideologically aligned with the persecuting society studied by R.I. Moore. A limited number of Jews should be separated--ghettoized--for the spiritual comfort of the Christian population, while the rest should be forced into the Christian community. Forcible baptism could be licit if the person being baptized ceased to protest during the baptism. To put it differently, the absence of protest constituted assent.

To be deliberately provocative, Monagle's book is innovative not with respect to its content--which is, in a way, only the following the approach laid down by R.I. Moore in his Formation of a Persecuting Society--but with respect to the audacious comparison the author draws between the scholastic project and the Enlightenment project. They bear fundamental things in common such as the sovereignty of reason and the criterion of the western masculine subject as the one who has the best access to rationality and ideological dictates upon opinion. Against all appearances, scholasticism and Enlightenment are built of same beliefs and the same contradictions: while universalizing languages of liberation, they naturalize western masculinity as the default subject, excluding those who are "others" to Christian masculinity. In any case, one should not affix moral judgments to a history that mixed up hegemonic authority and contestation of that hegemony. Scholasticism was the site of both ideological contestation and negotiation, both complicity with authority and influential criticism of it, in which we can see core issues of the time playing out. Rarely has a scholar shown with that emphasis how linked the medieval past is to the very present.

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