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24.03.04 Smith, Fragments of a World

24.03.04 Smith, Fragments of a World

Neither a straightforward biography nor a modern summation of William of Auvergne’s philosophical and theological works, Lesley Smith’s new biography offers something much richer: the reconstruction of the life, thoughtworld, and audiences of William of Auvergne (d. 1249) from the massive surviving corpus of his sermons and scholarly works. William’s career coincided with the Capetian patronage of the schools that would become known as the university at Paris. And yet, born at a time when “it was much more usual for people to view themselves first and foremost as part of a group” (3), William probably would have been uncomfortable with the very modern concept of reconstituting even fragmentary glimpses of his life as an individual. Smith therefore rightly situates the individual thread of William’s life within the religious framework through which he would have mediated all knowledge of the self and its place in the world. Foundational to that framework was the concept that “learning was additive” and based on a “canon of authoritative texts and authoritative writers” to whom medieval writers and commentators might add their own innovative contributions (5) by curating the canon or presenting novel concepts as the proper interpretation of a venerable authority (6). Noting the scarcity of medieval autobiographical material (6-8), Smith outlines the range of William’s writings, which she then draws on to provide windows into carefully selected aspects of William’s life and times (8-13).

Just how difficult it is to reconstruct William’s life before he appears in the official records in 1223 as master of theology and canon of Notre Dame is richly demonstrated in a chapter on “Home and Family” (ch. 2). What does emerge, however, is William’s depictions of the importance of various forms of family life and community for humans, particularly children, to survive and thrive. William’s knowledge of intimate details of domestic scenes including birthing mothers and nursing infants might seem peculiar for a “middle-aged, celibate, scholarly man” (17), but his discussion of nature versus nurture reveals a sympathy for and knowledge of the challenges posed and joys provided by family life. From the nucleus of family, Smith moves to the proposed location of William’s birth, the Auvergne, a region more indebted to the relatively more tolerant and diverse cultures and attitudes of the Mediterranean than the northern European world of Paris (19-28). This climate likely exposed William to the experience of acquiring both Occitan (langue d’oc) and Gallic (langue d’oïl) and to texts being made available for the first time in translations from Arabic into Latin, including the “new” Aristotle and many medical treatises (24).

William’s transition from the Languedoc to the north of France probably occurred in the course of his education, a portion of his life which Smith admits is difficult to reconstruct (29). Like a responsible microhistorian, Smith fills in the gaps with what other sources reveal about medieval educational practices. William most likely would have learned fluency in Latin (the definition of literacy in the medieval period) at a local monastery or cathedral school and perhaps the basics of the liberal arts (the trivium and quadrivium). Like many promising students, William might have been drawn to the schools of Montpellier, where the Paris master Alan of Lille was teaching (and where Jewish and Muslim texts were readily available), or he may have headed directly to Paris. Marked out by his southern dialect, William would have arrived at a crucial period in the transformation of the schools at Paris into the beginnings of the coalescence of the university at Paris; the term “universitas” referred to a guild of potentially mobile masters and students and a mutually agreed upon curriculum and standards for qualifying as a master rather than a set “campus.” The method of teaching remained the same: lecture (lectio), disputation (disputatio) and preaching (predicatio). Based on Robert of Courson’s statutes for teaching at Paris and William’s inception as a master of theology in 1223 (the minimum age for this position was 35), Smith places William within a cohort including William of Auxerre and Thomas Chobham (37). Although many studied in Paris in pursuit of upward social mobility and connections to positions in the church or secular bureaucracies, William of Auvergne became one of only eight masters of theology in Paris in 1223 (39).

As a master, William would have witnessed the excitement and challenges accompanying the expansion and renovation of Paris as a Capetian seat of government and the construction of a new cathedral: Notre Dame (ch. 4). As Smith notes, this urban boom also generated concerns over profit-making, moneylending, and prostitution expressed by many moral theologians teaching in Paris in their academic works and sermons (47-8). The swelling population of the city would cause problems for William when he became bishop of Paris and he therefore applied for papal permission to subdivide existing parishes to provide better pastoral care (49-50). William’s urban diocese was packed with different religions, occupations, social groups and types whom William sought to minister to through preaching, including the rich and powerful, the poor and disabled, students (from various regions), a large Jewish community, and at least some Muslim converts. Urban life provided useful metaphors for sermons, as did contrasting images of rural or village life.

And preach William did, both as student and master of theology, as canon at Notre Dame, and as bishop of Paris (ch. 5). William’s own election as bishop seems to have been precipitated by his concern for implementing the decrees of the Fourth Lateran Council (1215), including those governing episcopal elections. He was appealing a contested election of Philip, dean of Notre Dame to the bishopric of Paris in Rome when Pope Gregory IX appointed him as bishop (59). As bishop, William selected canons not from the local aristocracy but rather from talented parvenues (58-9). He also turned to the mendicant orders recently established in Paris. And yet, William wound up on the opposite side of the pope in a conflict that pitted town against gown and resulted in the temporary dispersal of masters to Oxford, Cambridge, and Toulouse. The standoff was resolved only with Gregory IX’s issuing of Parens scientiarum, which confirmed and extended the scholars’ legal privileges (65). Meanwhile, as bishop, William opened the doors to mendicants becoming masters of theology in Paris and combatted pluralism (the holding of more than one benefice). He was opposed in the second by Philip the Chancellor (68). Unlike Philip, who preached repeatedly in support of the Albigensian crusade, William seemed to have shared Blanche of Castile’s reservations about royal participation in the anti-heretical and eastern crusades endangering the security of the kingdom of France (a response due partly to the death of Blanche’s husband Louis VIII in the Midi and her son Louis IX’s “hasty” crusade vow taken during a serious illness). By contrast, William praised priests as peacemakers in many of his sermons (69).

Chapter 6 deals with the complex issues of preservation and interpretation presented by sermon collections as historical sources and the irrecoverability of both medieval humor and past audiences’ responses (both as listeners and as readers). Smith also probes the boundaries between language and the ideas expressed by words, particularly the nature of God. William’s description of God as first principle appears derived from Avicenna’s Liber de philosophia prima. Unlike his contemporary William of Auxerre’s Summa aurea, which embraces the dialectical method, William of Auvergne (like Avicenna) uses the “narrative style,” full of digressions and “argument piled upon argument” (81). Chapter 7, “Knowing,” explains why William’s theological writings are so little-known today. William occupied a transitional period between the world of twelfth-century theological writings and the preference for dialectical “question-and-answer method of proceeding” in theological summae of the mid to late thirteenth century (86). His Magisterium divinale et sapientale, which he compiled and revised over the span of nearly two decades (1223 to the early 1240s), discussed the Trinity, the created universe, the soul, why God became man, faith and the laws, the sacraments, and virtues and vices (86). According to William, knowledge could be obtained through prophecy, revelation, the scriptures, proofs, and inquiries. An avid consumer of Aristotle and Avicenna in translation (despite a temporary ban on these texts being taught to students), William focused on philosophical proofs and embraced the notion of the world as a book through which the nature of God could be discovered (94-95).

It is then ironic, as Smith notes, that most mentions of William in the “current historical debate” occur in discussions of the “Talmud Trial of 1240 and the subsequent burning of Jewish books in 1242” (97). In Chapter 8, Smith tries to situate these infamous events within the larger context of the ambivalent perception and contradictory treatment of Jews in northern France and elsewhere by secular rulers and church authorities. The anxiety came from the fact that both Christianity and Judaism were rapidly changing in the later twelfth and thirteenth centuries, “with the ‘plain’ Bible giving ground to commentaries and theological questions” (99). As Smith acknowledges, the same Gregory IX who urged the enforcement of the prohibition of Jews holding public office also exhorted Christian clergy to speak out against Christian violence towards Jews in their dioceses. He also responded to the petition of a converted Jew, Nicholas Donin, who claimed that the Talmud was riddled with dangerous errors that threatened Christians’ bodies and souls. Gregory IX responded by sending letters via Nicholas to William of Auvergne in 1239, asking William to forward them “as soon as you think it expedient” (102). The letters ordered archbishops and secular rulers to seize Jewish books and take them to local mendicant houses for examination. However, it seems that the letters were only delivered to Louis IX. Louis appointed his mother Blanche of Castile to organize hearings into the charges. The committee, which included William of Auvergne, was a strange blend of theologians known to be favorable to Jewish communities, such as Walter of Cornut, archbishop of Sens, and others more hostile to the Talmud’s teachings (such as Odo of Chȃteauroux). The Talmud was defended by a distinguished team of Jewish scholars and the Jewish account of the trial depicts Blanche as a “sympathetic” (102). In the long and complicated affair of the books’ impounding, trial, and burning, the condemnation was of the ideas expressed rather than the scholars and communities who defended the books on trial (103). Smith carefully probes the ambivalence of William’s own attitude towards the learning of Jewish and Muslim scholars. Embroiled in the trial and condemnation of the Talmud in Paris, he appears to have prevented Gregory IX’s letters from being forwarded elsewhere and avidly read and cited Maimonides and Averroes, as well as other Arab and Arab-Jewish scholars, despite the prohibition of the teaching of the newly translated works of Aristotle from 1210 to 1235. As Smith stresses, these works supported William’s interests in astronomy, magic, and philosophy (105). In fact, William may have been working from an expurgated version of Maimonides’ Liber de parabola prepared for Cardinal Romanus (105), which William used for his treatise On the Laws, a comparison of Mosaic and Islamic law written circa 1230-1236. William’s favorable treatment of the laws described in the Torah contrasts with his ridicule of Muslim ideas of paradise and criticism of Avicenna’s religious beliefs (106-7). Rather than sweeping William’s inconsistent attitudes under the rug, Smith delineates them, enabling us to see the complexity of William as thinker and preacher (110).

Similarly ambivalent attitudes marked university men’s depictions of women. Although the university and clergy were resoundingly male environments, masters and students mingled with, preached to, and in the case of William and his parish priests, also acted as confessors of women (114). Although depicting women as sources of temptation, William also acknowledged their generosity and propensity towards attending church, almsgiving, and fasting, and the fact that many women faced abuse and neglect by their spouses (119-21). He manifested a particular concern for sex workers, founding a religious house for penitent prostitutes called the “Daughters of God” (122). Chapter 10, “The Weak,” traces distinctions between poverty and infirmity. While William described poverty as a “sign of God’s favor,” sickness and disability were often read by others as “punishment for sin”: either one’s own or others’ (124). As were many other thinkers of his day, William was concerned with the relationship between body and soul, including how and when embryos acquired a soul (128). He was also concerned with explaining how and why various forms of mental and physical disability occurred. While acknowledging the potential of all human beings, William also demonstrated a “Polly-anna-like optimism” when discussing the nature and purpose of human suffering (132). As did many in the medieval period, William used leprosy and blindness as metaphors for sin and lack of spiritual perception, yet his lifetime also witnessed a boom of leprosaria and, shortly after William’s death, Louis IX’s foundation of a community for the blind in Paris (Quinze-Vingts). This acceptance of disability and the belief in the spiritual capabilities of all human beings marked William’s preaching with a particularly compassionate stamp (136).

As bishop of a bustling metropolitan see, William was also concerned with poverty (ch. 11). Smith sketches a mental map of sources of charitable assistance ranging from the Capetian court to monasteries and churches. Ironically, poverty remained necessary for the exercise of the virtue of charity (138). The expansion of concern for poverty accompanied the growth of the monetary economy in the late twelfth and early thirteenth centuries. However, William’s treatment of poverty varied according to audiences. When speaking of voluntary poverty to clergy and mendicants, William praised it as part of the vita apostolica, but his sermons to mixed audiences depict involuntary poverty as linked to troubles and shame that, while incurring despisal in the world, if embraced with the proper spirit, led to heavenly reward (143). While William’s presentation of poverty as empowerment or freedom from avarice and anxiety might strike modern readers as medieval “opium for the masses,” William also participated in contemporary criticism of religious orders and secular clergy “corrupted” by luxurious lifestyles and praised the voluntary poverty of the early Franciscans, who renounced property and possessions and lived by (and were sometimes denounced for) begging. William was also acutely aware of the early disputes about voluntary poverty and the changing nature of the mendicant orders as they were transformed by endowments of books, money, and buildings, a metamorphosis he viewed with sympathy and understanding rather than condemnation (148).

As bishop of Paris and acquaintance of Blanche of Castile, William was, of course, also familiar with the “highest circles of [Parisian] society” (150). He was said, as her confessor, to have persuaded Blanche to commute her vow to go on pilgrimage to St. James in Compostela to paying off the debts of the Dominicans in Paris (151). Smith, however, acknowledges the tensions in the Capetian court between displays of royal luxury and largesse and Louis IX’s and Isabella’s penchant for humility and poverty (153). In sermons to the rich and powerful, William reminded audiences that both could be used for good. In urging detachment from worldly possessions and the dangers, anxiety, and loneliness of riches, William joined a chorus of other noted preachers in also condemning the charging of interest (usury) by moneylenders. And yet, as did the moralists of Peter the Chanter’s generation, William deploys the language of commerce to describe spiritual concepts in terms familiar to his urban audiences.

William also shared the contemporary fascination with animals and the natural world as teaching tools, manifested in the twelfth-century revival of interest in hexameral treatises (on Genesis’ accounts of creation) and in the Physiologus, Isidore’s Etymologies, and bestiaries. By the thirteenth century, encyclopedic works such as Vincent of Beauvais’s Speculum naturale and Thomas of Cantimpre’s Liber de natura rerum proliferated, sparked by Michael Scot’s translation of Aristotelian treatises on animals and Avicenna’s commentaries on them (165-6). Although it is hard to know if William obtains his observations on animals and his usage of them as metaphors or teaching tools from treatises or lived experience, it is clear that he thought them useful didactic exemplars for his varied audiences.

Chapter 14 treats William’s attitude towards food and drink, etiquette, abstemiousness, gluttony, and drunkenness, while chapter 15 describes William’s death and final arrangements. It is noteworthy that William, as with so many Paris masters of his and previous generations, possessed spiritual and intellectual ties to Saint-Victor and chose to be buried there (190). Two of his last acts seem contradictory: he attempted to dissuade Louis IX from going on crusade yet signed Odo of Chȃteauroux’s condemnation of the Talmud in 1248 (191). William’s musings on old age and death as an unnatural process (the consequence of the Fall rather than part of the original creation) are accompanied by his thoughts on the proper preparation for death and the Last Judgment. In contrast to philosophers who believed in the eternity of the universe or the world soul, he carefully delineated an afterlife divided into hell, purgatory, and heaven (197-98).

Smith concludes by reiterating her decision to present William’s life not as a single seamless narrative but as a collage of insights into William’s world constructed from his own writings (205). Like all microhistorians, in the end she admits that “deeply as we might immerse ourselves in his world, it remains his world, not ours; we’re always looking back” at reflections “in a smoky mirror” (216). Despite her frank acknowledgement of the potential limitations and frustrations of attempting biographies of medieval individuals, this reader and many others are grateful to her for transforming Roland J. Teske’s and Franco Morenzoni’s editions and scholarly works on William of Auvergne into an immersive plunge into the fascinating world of late twelfth- and early thirteenth-century France. This book should inspire scholars and advanced undergraduate and graduate students interested in microhistory, biography, and the integration of intellectual and social history.