19.11.02 Toswell, Today's Medieval University

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Joel T. Rosenthal

The Medieval Review 19.11.02

Toswell, M.J. Today's Medieval University. Past Imperfect. Kalamazoo, MI: ARC Humanities Press, 2017. pp. x,108. ISBN: 978-1-942401-17-9 (paperback).

Reviewed by:
Joel T. Rosenthal
Stony Brook University (emeritus)

This is a short study--almost a long essay--on the links between the medieval and the modern university. The bridge between the two has been considerably strengthened by a "medievalizing impulse" (14) that has been a player in the game even well before current interest in medievalism had become a serious affair. Serious-minded Victorians like Cardinal Newman, as well as Tolkien buffs, have long had a soft spot for this kind of historicized narrative.

Toswell, who has published on Old English psalters and codicology as well as on contemporary medievalism, may not say a great deal that is unfamiliar to a medievalist who has looked at the universities of the 13th and following centuries, but she does offer many insights into the links between the old and the contemporary and she does so with both acumen and sardonic wit. Some aspects of the medieval university that are well known are nevertheless given an emphasis here so as to highlight the power and longevity of their earlier legacy as well as the derivative DNA of their 21st century shape and form. For example, Toswell reminds us several times of the democratic aspects of the medieval university; elections between and by the masters (and between and by students, as at Bologna) for the choice of their chairman or their head of department or their spokesman to speak for them to the bishop or his chancellor; think "dean" or "provost" and elections to the faculty senate and/or student government. This element of self-governance was the logical outcome of the independence from external authority that European universities sought to gain, and usually with considerable success and sometimes with help from kings and even from popes. Now, as then, the routines of university life were largely determined by internal considerations and decisions, though today we do have such external bodies as state commissions and boards of regents, happy to impose a level of standardization that once, perhaps, had been largely covered by the ius ubique docendi of a gild or corporation of the academic masters. And at the pedagogical level, when we think of the basic undergraduate curriculum, one medieval university was not so different from another and we could say much the same thing if we set the first two years of introductory courses at Oregon against the first two years of those courses at Georgetown.

One aspect of university life that is perhaps too readily taken for granted or not fully appreciated is the extent to which "liturgy and ritual" underlie so much of our routines. As Toswell points out, both touching daily life and those high-profile moments like final exams and graduation or convocation, with the appropriate liturgical trappings of music, ceremonial robes, a mace, an ordered procession, repetitious speeches, and the hierarchical positioning of students and faculty (and parents). This kind of focus takes us to that realm of aspects of our history that, in a sense, we knew but rarely stepped back to articulate so precisely. Toswell makes comparable points about such basic elements of higher education as the classroom lecture, still holding its own against technology and with a general reliance, at least in introductory surveys, on fairly standard readings, much as the basic 13th century syllabus led young men to the mysteries by way of Aristotle, Boethius, Irnerius, and the like. Funding institutions and their many tiers of personnel is another perennial problem. If the 13th and 14th century colleges of Paris and Oxford were designed in part to offer housing to impecunious students, a comparable amount of time and energy spent is now spent towards this same end, taking inflation into account.

The pragmatic nature of the medieval university is too easily overlooked in the rosy glow of "gladly would he learn and gladly teach." Toswell is no romantic on this, and if today's students have the option of a semester abroad, and a summer-school course taught from a distance, and a for-credit internship for some kind of service as they lean toward the STEM curriculum, their earlier counterparts--often beginning their studies while still in their mid-teens--had the protection of benefit of clergy and then a certain freedom to wander across Europe as they moved on from the studium generale to "graduate school" in law or medicine or theology. And by the standards of the day, within the university there was at least a modicum of academic freedoms as befits a self-governing corporation. Here, in fairness, our current license for academic freedom is broader than it was in those good old days, though the chances are that it was tested then just as it is tested now.

To her credit, in this kind of one-the-one-hand, on-the-other Toswell does not push the chain of descent, precedent, and connection beyond what seems fair and reasonable. If the old saw is that cathedrals, parliaments, and universities are a legacy of the Middle Ages, we can probably offer that the third of these seems to be holding up as well as, or better than the other two. Toswell points out, in closing, that much that we think we have invented may well have deep roots that reach back to Paris and Oxford and Bologna and Salerno. In troubled times this is a comforting thought, at least to the medievalists of the academy.

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