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21.08.08 Even-Ezra, Ecstasy in the Classroom

The Medieval Review

21.08.08 Even-Ezra, Ecstasy in the Classroom


Ecstasy in the Classroom is an unusual book, but one that is engaging in its content and ambition. It aims to investigate three related issues. First, the scholastic debate at the University of Paris in its first generation (to c.1245) concerning the nature of Paul's rapture and the theological knowledge that he had gained as a consequence. Second, the changing understanding of the self in the same period, viewed in connection to the discourse regarding the cognition of God in this life. Third, what we might call the social logic of these debates, locating the solutions that philosophical theologians found to the problems that arose within them in the context of broader changes in life and thought in the first half of the thirteenth century. That final subject of inquiry is especially welcomed, given the tendency to approach scholasticism as a discrete field of intellectual endeavour essentially divorced from the world around it. The structural consequence of this tripartite focus is that each chapter of Ecstasy in the Classroom has three different titles.

The central problem with which this study has to grapple, as the author makes her readers aware in the introduction, is that in relation to rapture and inspired knowledge, the scholasticism that emerged at the new universities did a very good job of making itself seem to be essentially divorced from the world around it. There are very few instances in which the academic theology of the schools and universities in the twelfth and thirteenth centuries demonstrably came into contact with the world of those who claimed direct divine inspiration. This is, of course, hardly to say that it did not do so, nor that academic theologians did not think about the nature of mystical experience. We may reasonably assume that they did. The problem is that they did not write very much about it. It is only late on in the thirteenth century, in the age of Henry of Ghent and Meister Eckhart and so well beyond the chronological purview of Ayelet Even-Ezra's study, that Parisian masters are first to be found who began to treat the question of mystical union directly. To borrow the words of Richard Cross, "scholastic theologians of the thirteenth century typically see ecstatic mystical union simply as a kind of prolepsis of the beatific vision, and thus offer little specific discussion of it beyond the treatment of the beatific vision." [1]

It makes sense, then, for Even-Ezra to take Paul's rapture as her focus of study, given that scholastic writers in the earlier thirteenth century certainly did consider this historical example of direct divine cognition, even as they shied away from the direct discussion of contemporary instances. In the first chapter, for example, Even-Ezra shows how Paul's rapture and the exact type of divine cognition that he had enjoyed became the lens through which the traditional classification of visionary experience, ultimately dependent on Augustine, came to be scrutinized, extended and further developed. There remains to my eyes, however, still a problem with this approach. It can feel oblique to the issues that the scholastic writers themselves debated. Many, for example, addressed the pressing issue of the status of theology as a science--a status that came under direct fire from those in the arts faculties--and how its fundamental principles were known. Some who tried to prove that theology was a science drew upon the figure of Paul, who had written so much of the Scriptures, and pointed to the knowledge that had been imparted to him in his rapture, which they understood as the necessary precondition for the profound theological insights expressed in his letters. They were not so much interested in Paul's rapture for its own sake as in its evidentiary value to underpin their argumentation about other issues; in this case, the degree of certitude with which the principles of theology could be known, and whence those principles were drawn. They sought in turn to prove by these means that theology was a valid science in the new institutional context that subjected this claim to testing scrutiny. That Paul's rapture was adduced in multiple contexts, then, is simultaneously a strength and a weakness for Even-Ezra's study. It turns up in relation to several different questions, which broadens the horizons of that study, but precisely because it does so, it complicates the ability to establish a coherent pattern across those examples of its use. One has the sense at times that the underlying questions that Paul's rapture was being used to address remain just slightly out of the reader's view. This sense is much less marked in the later chapters, when Paul's rapture itself fades out of sight, and attention turns instead directly to issues like the location of authority (chapter 4), the relationship between faith and certain knowledge (chapter 5), and whether theological knowledge was in itself a virtue (chapter 6).

The most tantalizing element to Even-Ezra's study is the consideration of the broader social logic of the responses that some of these early thirteenth-century scholastic theologians devised to the questions their study of these issues posed. Even-Ezra argues, for example, that the Dominican friars (and one Franciscan, John of La Rochelle) were more ready than were the secular Parisian masters to entertain the possibility of the direct cognition of God in this life, because the mendicant ethos fostered an understanding that perfection of the self might be attained in the world, and not solely in withdrawal from it. This contention, which is presented with greater nuance than I can summarize it here, has the feel of real plausibility, even if it remains ultimately unprovable. The academic debate surrounding the role of intermediary instances in the mental perception of objects, especially in the cognition of God, is located within the broader contexts first of a burgeoning interest evident in contemporary psychological texts about the constitution of the soul and its accessibility to the introspective individual, and second of the repeated attention to the (in)visibility of an individual's true nature, or essence, beneath the surface "clothing" of the self in thirteenth-century French vernacular literature: the poem Silence proves particularly important in this respect. These three discourses are not causally linked, but when taken together, do provide compelling evidence of a shared preoccupation amongst quite different intellectual milieux with inquiry into the nature of the self and its relation to other selves.

Not all of these frames into which scholastic debates are set are as effective as others. The parallel drawn at one point in the sixth and final chapter between, on the one hand, the contemplative "movement" of the mind towards truth and mental "rest" (quies) in that truth, and on the other, the active "movement" of a theologian in pursuit of his career outside of the university and his intellectual "rest" when at the university itself seems to me to be at best a rather stretched analogy, with limited explanatory power. Perhaps this does not matter. In her epilogue Even-Ezra expresses the hope "that even the reader who remains unpersuaded by the argument will have found its suggestions and questions thought-provoking" (190). In that endeavour, in bringing the concerns of the first generation of university theologians back into the social context of their times from which they are so often separated, she has surely succeeded.

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Notes:

1. Richard Cross, "Scholastic Debates on Beatific Union with God: Henry of Ghent (c. 1217-93) and his Interlocutors,"Speculum 94 (2019), 317-333, at p. 317. I consider the interface between mystical and scholastic approaches to divine cognition in the fourteenth century myself in "Hatred of University Lecturers and the Inspired Word in the Fourteenth Century: Ruusbroec - Tauler - Merswin," in Modus Vivendi. Religious Reform and the Laity in Late Medieval Europe, ed. Miri Rubin, Viella Historical Research 19 (Rome, 2020), 17-36.