I. Medieval Worldview

            1. universe:  The people of the middle ages saw the universe as composed of higher (spirit, realm of grace, perfection, heavenly laws) and lower (matter earthly realm, imperfection, earthly laws) worlds.  

  From Aristotle and Ptolemy they assumed the universe was geocentric and consisted of:  7 transparent spheres revolving around the earth with the planets embedded in them (moon, Mercury, Venus, the sun, Mars, Jupiter, Saturn).  A sphere of fixed stars enclosed this planetary system with 3 heavenly spheres (outermost--Empyrean Heaven= the abode of God and the elect; middle= Prime Mover through which God transmits motion to planetary spheres; lowest= Crystalline Heaven).  Ether was the fifth (quintessence) element out of which the supralunary world was composed, while the sublunary world was composed of air, earth, fire and water:  earthly things= destructible; heavenly= unchangeable, indestructible).  [The Scientific Revolution of the 16th and 17th c. would postulate the uniformity of nature:  the same laws of nature in heaven as earth; therefore, space was geometric and homogenous, NOT hierarchic, heterogeneous, and qualitative; the universe was not finite and closed, but infinite.]

            2. The individual:  Since the Fall of Adam and Eve, man was sinful, but there grace of God was operative in the atonement of Christ (God became man) so that man was redeemable.  In fact, in the hierarchy of the universe man stood at the pinnacle of earthly creations above minerals, plants, animals (but below angels and God).  This gave security to medieval mankind.

              Knowledge, too, was hierarchical:  knowledge derived from the senses was lower than the higher knowledge of theology derived from revelation (spiritual things were above earthly things).  NOTE:  the human capacity to think and to act freely constituted the image of God within each individual; it ennobled man and woman and offered them the promise of associating with God in heaven.

  II. Twelfth Century Renaissance 

            1. nature:  The High Middle Ages represent a flowering in philosophy, the visual arts, and literature.  Its accomplishments will include:

            1) a restoration of some of the learning of the ancient world
“In the twelfth century, western Europe was introduced to a large number of Greek scientific and philosophical works, including those of Galen and Hippocrates on medicine, Ptolemy on geography and astronomy, and Archimedes and Euclid on mathematics.  Above all, the west now had available the complete works of Aristotle.  (Greek drama and poetry, however, would not be recovered until the Italian Renaissance of the fifteenth century.)  Before the twelfth century, only Aristotle’s elementary works on logic (known as the ‘Old Logic’) were available through the earlier translation of Boethius.  By 1160, Aristotle’s remaining works on logic (known as the ‘New Logic’) were in use in European universities, especially at Paris.  During the second half of the twelfth century, all of Aristotle’s scientific works were translated into Latin.  This great influx of Aristotle’s works had an overwhelming impact on the west.  He came to be viewed as the ‘master of those who know,’ the man who seemed to have understood every field of knowledge.  Philosophers and theologians of the thirteenth century would expend much energy trying to assimilate and reconcile Aristotelian thought with Christian doctrines.

    “The recovery of Greek scientific and philosophical works was not a simple process, however.  Little knowledge of Greek had survived in Europe.  It was through the Muslim world that the west recovered Aristotle and other Greek authors” (Spiel. 359). 


2) the rise of universities (Italy-->France-->England)                               

3) the development of an original form of architecture known as Gothic          

4) the creation of a prevailing system of thought known as scholasticism (sought a synthesis of Christian theology and Greek philosophy)

5) the development of a vernacular literature.

            2. Causes:

            1) order and stability allowed more travel and communication (invasions of Vikings, Muslims and Magyars had ceased; kings and lords imposed order= feudalism worked)                                                                            

2)revival of trade and the growth of towns (created the need for literacy and supplied the wealth to support learning)                                                 

3) contact with Byzantine and Islamic cultures resulted in the translation of Greek texts

 III. universitas (a  “guild” of  teachers or students)

1. monastic to city schools: 

“Education in the Early Middle Ages rested primarily with the clergy, especially the monks.  Although monastic schools were the centers of learning from the ninth to the early eleventh century, they were surpassed in the course of the eleventh century by the cathedral schools” (Spiel. 355).  In addition, in the 11th and 12th c. with the reinvigoration of town life, the bishops in the cities replaced the abbots of the monastery as leaders in the church.  These cities needed to staff their governments and the growth of towns with their increasingly sophisticated businesses, their law courts, and their collections of taxes and fees necessitated more literate people.  The cathedral schools would satisfy much of the needed education. “Cathedral schools expanded rapidly in the eleventh century.  There were twenty of them in 900, but by 1100 the number had grown to at least two hundred since every cathedral city felt compelled to establish one. . . . The primary purpose of the cathedral school was to educate priests to be more literate men of god, especially those aspiring to play an important role in the cathedral chapter and perhaps even become bishops.  Cathedral schools also attracted other individuals who desired some education but did not want to become priests” (Spiel. 355).

  So cathedral schools existed for the same reason as monastic schools:  1) to train clergy, 2) to train people for bureaucracies.  A big difference was in how they were trained.  As shift occurred from a senior monk teaching a junior monk to a master teaching a group of students.

  Soon in northern Italy and France a number of independent schools teaching the humane letters (trivium) or philosophy or theology.  “The first European university appeared in Bologna, Italy (unless one accords this distinction to the first medical school established earlier at Salerno, Italy).  The emergence of the University of Bologna coincided with the revival of interest in Roman law, especially the rediscovery of Justinian’s Body of Civil Law (Spiel. 355).  The universitas was born out of a desire of masters to exercise quality control of students and students to defend their interests against the church or town authorities or townsmen.  They would apply for charters from popes and kings; e.g., “To protect themselves, students at Bologna formed a guild or universitas, which was recognized by Emperor Frederick Barbarossa and given a charter in 1158” (Spiel. 355).  “In a society accustomed to craft and merchant guilds, the natural solution was an academic guild, a universitas or corporation, that could protect the interests of faculty and students as well as issue licenses to teach” (Greaves 250).

  If you became an expert on books you could learn commentaries.  If you became learned you could write a commentary.

  “In northern Europe, the University of Paris became the first recognized university.  A number of teachers or masters who had received licenses to teach from the cathedral school of Notre Dame in Paris began to take on extra students for a fee.  By the end of the twelfth century, these masters teaching at Paris had formed a universitas or guild of masters.  By 1200, the king of France, Philip Augustus, officially acknowledged the existence of the University of Paris.  The University of Oxford in England, organized on the Paris model, first appeared in 1208.  A migration of scholars from Oxford in 1209 led to the establishment of Cambridge University.  In the Late Middle Ages, kings, popes, and princes vied to found new universities.  By the end of the Middle Ages, there were eighty universities in Europe, most of them located in England, France, Italy, and Germany” (Spiel. 355).

  Student life

“To gain admission to a medieval university, students were expected to read and write Latin although apparently exams were not rigorous and some students were not all that well prepared.  Nevertheless, all classes were conducted in Latin, which provided a common means of communication for students, regardless of their country of origin.

    “A student’s initial studies at a medieval university centered around the traditional liberal arts curriculum.  The trivium consisted of grammar, rhetoric, and logic, and the quadrivium was comprised of arithmetic, geometry, astronomy, and music.  Basically, medieval university instruction was done by a lecture method.  The word lecture is derived from the Latin and means ‘to read.’  Before the development of the printing press in the fifteenth century, books were expensive, and few students could afford them, so masters read from a text (such as a collection of law if the subject were law or a textbook such as the Sentences of Peter the Lombard if the subject were theology) and then added commentaries, which came to be known as glosses” (Spiel. 356).

  “By our standards student life in the 13th century was harsh.  food and lodging were primitive, heating scarce, artificial lighting nonexistent, and income sporadic.  The daily schedule was rigorous, made more so by the shortage of books and writing material.  An ‘ideal’ student’s day, as sketched out in a late medieval pamphlet for student use, now seems rather grim:

A Student’s Day at the University of Paris


4:00 A.M.                Rise

5:00-6:00                 Arts Lectures

6:00                        Mass and breakfast

8:00-10:00               Lectures

11:00-12:00             Disputations before the noon meal

1:00-3:00                ‘Repetitions’--study of morning lectures with tutors


3:00-5:00                 Cursory lectures (generalized lectures on special topics) or                                         disputations

6:00                        Supper

7:00-9:00                 Study and repetitions; bed at 9:00 P.M.


    “The masters’ lectures consisted of detailed commentaries on certain books the master intended to cover in a given term.  Since books were expensive, emphasis was put on note-taking and copying so that the student might build up his own collection of books.  Examinations were oral, before a panel of masters.  Students were also expected to participate in formal debates (called disputations) as part of their training.

    “Geoffrey Chaucer provides us an unforgettable, albeit idealized, portrait of the medieval student (the clerk or cleric--many of the students were members of the minor clerical orders of the church) in his Prologue to the Canterbury Tales:

A clerk from Oxford was with us also,

Who’d turned to getting knowledge, long ago.

As meagre was his horse as is a rake,

Nor he himself too fat, I’ll undertake,

But he looked hollow and went soberly.

Right threadbare was his overcoat; for he

Had got him yet no churchly benefice,

Nor was so worldly as to gain office. 

For he would rather have at his bed’s head

Some twenty books, all bound in black and red,

Of Aristotle and his philosophy

Than rich robes, fiddle, or gay psaltery.

Yet, and for all he was philosopher,

He had but little gold within his coffer;

But all that he might borrow from a friend

On books and learning he would swiftly spend,

And then he’d pray right busily for the souls

Of those who gave him wherewithal for schools.

Of study took he utmost care and heed.

Not one word spoke he more than was his need’

and that was said in fullest reverence

and short and quick and full of high good sense.

Pregnant of moral virtue was his speech

and gladly would he learn and gladly teach.


Chaucer’s portrait of the lean, pious, poor, zealous student was highly idealized to create a type.  We get probably a far more realistic picture of what students were actually doing and thinking about from the considerable amount of popular poetry that comes from the student culture of the medieval period.  This poetry depicts a student life we are all familiar with:  a poetry of wine, women, song, sharp satires at the expense of pompous professors or poor accommodations, and the occasional episodes of cruelty that most individuals are capable of only when they are banded into groups.

    “The student subculture had also invented a mythical Saint Golias, who was the patron saint of wandering scholars.  Verses (called Goliardic verse) were written in honor of the ‘saint.’  The poems that have come down to us are a far cry from the sober commentaries on Aristotle’s Metaphysics that we usually associate with the medieval scholar” (Cunningham 193).

    Medieval students’ complaints were also typical:  poor housing, high rents, terrible food, lack of jobs after graduation!

    “No exams were given after a series of lectures, but when a student applied for a degree, he was given a comprehensive oral examination by a committee of teachers.  These were taken after a four- or six-year period of study.  The first degree a student could earn was an A.B., the artium baccalarius, or bachelor of arts; later, he might receive an A.M., artium magister, a master of arts.  All degrees were technically licenses to teach, although most students receiving them did not become teachers.

    “After completing the liberal arts curriculum, a student could go on to study law, medicine, or theology. . . which could take a decade or more.  A student who passed his final oral examinations was granted a doctor’s degree, which officially enabled him to teach his subject.  Most students who pursued advanced degrees received their master’s degrees first and taught the arts curriculum while continuing to pursue their advanced degrees.  Students who received degrees from medieval universities could pursue other careers besides teaching that proved to be much more lucrative” (Spiel. 357).

    Colleges:  “The development of residence halls known as colleges was another feature of medieval universities.  Wealthy benefactors provided these houses where poor students could live and be fed for modest fees.  Eventually, masters also took up residence there to provide guidance for the students.  The most famous college at the University of Paris was the Sorbonne, founded by Robert de Sorbon, chaplain of King Louis IX in 1258.  The colleges of Merton and Balliol were founded at Oxford a few years later” (Spiel. 357).


 IV. Scholasticism

“The outstanding intellectual achievement of the High Middle Ages was the famous system of dialectics known as Scholasticism.  This system is usually defined as the attempt to harmonize reason and faith or to make philosophy serve the interest of theology [as Spielvogel does].  But no such definition is sufficient to convey an adequate conception of the Scholastic mind.  The great thinkers of the Middle Ages did not limit their interests to problems of religion.  On the contrary, they were just as anxious as philosophers in any period to answer the great questions of life, whether they pertained to religion, politics, economics or metaphysics’ (Burns & Ralph 434).

    “The scholastics, who used Aristotelian methodology and adapted the Aristotelian world view, were especially concerned with these fundamental and intimately related problems:  the proper study of theological knowledge, the nature of ultimate reality, and the relationship of faith and reason” (Greaves 254).


1. rationalistic, not empirical (i.e., logic v. science or experience)

2. authoritarian (i.e., truth is something to be discovered in the past and they relied on authority of the Scriptures, church fathers, and especially Plato and Aristotle.)

3. Otherworldly/ethical (Its cardinal aim was to discover how man could improve this life and insure salvation in the life to come.)

4. not concerned with the causes of things but attributes (since universe was assumed to be static, it was only necessary to explain the meaning of things and what they were good for, not to account for their origin and evolution).  [For example, if you took a medieval person to the Grand Canyon the person would marvel that God had used his finger to dig out the canyon a few thousand years ago because he is ignorant of geological processes discovered in the last 200 years.  Now we know the Grand Canyon was created by the Colorado River eating through the Colorado Plateau over about 6 million years.  It is 277 miles long, ranges in width from 4 to 8 miles, and attains a depth of more than a mile. Nearly two billion years of the Earth's history have been exposed as the Colorado River and its tributaries cut their channels through layer after layer of rock while the Colorado Plateau was uplifted, so that geologic formations such as gneiss and schist found at the bottom of the Canyon date back 1,800 million years.]

1. Peter Abelard (1079-1142) The primary development of scholastic philosophy began with the teachings of Peter Abelard; he first attempted to synthesize reason and theology.  He was the single most important personality in establishing 12th-century Paris as the university center of Europe.  among his many books, his Sic et Non “Yes and No” marks the beginning of the application of dialectics to theology, permitting the rise of the whole scholastic movement in philosophy and theology.  His dialectical method involved juxtaposing seemingly contradictory statements in order to encourage students to seek a logical resolution.  In order to do this students were urged to take into account 1) the way words change meaning over time, 2) the possibility of inaccurate texts, 3) the historical context, 4) the need to weigh the credibility of different authorities.

    In 1113 Abelard began teaching in Paris.  His early, stormy career had been marked by clashes with his own teachers and masters, a succession of schools he founded in various towns outside Paris, and a physical breakdown triggered by his own overwrought activity.  Shortly after Abelard began his Paris career he was the most sought after and lionized teacher in the city.  This brilliant and handsome figure heard of a young girl named Heloise who lived with her uncle, the Canon Fulbert, in Paris.  Heloise was distinguished not only  for her beauty but for her learning.  For a young girl to have a reputation for scholarly attainment was quite rare given the limited opportunities for female education in the period.  It was virtually unheard of for a girl still in her teens to have an arts education.

    Abelard’s interest in Heloise could hardly be called strictly academic, although it was her reputation as an intellectual that had first piqued his curiosity.  With some calculation he took rooms at Canon Fulbert’s house.  It was an easy thing to do; the canon was greedy for more income and hopeful that a noted scholar would consent to tutor his precocious niece.  With the handsome professor and the beautiful young girl under the same roof, the outcome was predictable; Abelard describes it:

We were first together in one house and then one in mind.  Under the pretext of work we made ourselves entirely free for love and the pursuit of her studies provided the secret privacy which love desired.  We opened our books but more words of love than of the lessons asserted themselves.  There was more kissing than teaching; my hands found themselves at her breasts more often than on the book.  Love brought us to gaze into each other’s eyes more than reading kept them on the text....No sign of love was omitted by us in our ardor and whatever unusual love could devise, that was added too.  And the more such delights were new to us, the more ardently we indulged in them, and the less did we experience satiety.

Heloise became pregnant and Abelard sent her to his family home, where she bore him a son whom they named Peter Astralabe.  Heloise’s uncle, wild with grief and shame over the affair, demanded satisfaction.  Abelard brought Heloise back to Paris and proposed marriage in order to placate the irate canon.  Heloise refused the offer with a long philosophical argument studded with citations from Holy Scripture, St. Jerome, and St. Augustine, as well as Seneca and Socrates.  Her reasoning, basically, was that the married life was incompatible with the scholarly life.  “What,” Heloise asked, “could be in common between scholars and wet nurses, writing desks and cradles, books, writing tablets, and distaffs, styles, pens, and spindles?  Or who is there who is bent on sacred or philosophical reflections who could bear the wailing of babies, the silly lullabies of nurses to quiet them, the noisy herd of servants, both male and female; who could endure the constant degrading defilement of infants?”

    Despite the intellectual resistance of Heloise, they were married in Paris in the presence of the uncle and his friends.  Fulbert made the news of the marriage public--something the couple did not want--and, as a consequence, Abelard persuaded Heloise to seek the security of a nearby convent.  Abelard, betrayed by a servant, was ambushed by the cohorts of the indignant uncle who, as an act of fearful revenge for the seeming repudiation of his niece, assaulted and castrated him.  [see excerpt of Abelard’s History of My Misfortunes, Spiel. 362).

    After this horrendous incident Heloise entered permanently into the monastic life of the convent.  She finally settled in a religious house as its superior--a house Abelard had originally founded as a hostel for students.  She remained as superior of the convent until her death.  In her mature years Heloise wrote Abelard telling him of the sacrifice that life in the convent had brought her, frank confession that more than any other incident in their story created the later romantic legend about the couple.  The letters between the two reveal a bitterly human exchange of accusation (“Tell me if you can why after the two of us embraced the religious life--a decision which was yours alone--I had neither your presence to fortify me nor even a letter to console me in my loneliness?  she asks), guilt (“Shall I remind you,” he asks, “ of our early defilements, of the shameful licentiousness which preceded our marriage, the base treachery I inflicted upon your uncle by so brazenly seducing you at a time when I was his guest and table companion?”), and unabashed lust (“The sensual delights which we enjoyed together were so dear to me that I cannot help loving the memory of them and am quite unable to erase them from my mind. . . . I ought to groan at the sins which I have perpetrated yet I sigh for those which I am unable to commit.”)

    Abelard’s subsequent life was marked by restlessness and turmoil.  After Heloise became a nun, he entered the famous Parisian monastery of St. Denis, but left when the monks threatened him because of his suggestion--correct, as it turns out--that their patron saint was not the St. Denis who wrote the famous mystical treatises so much revered in the medieval period.  He founded the hostel of the Paraclete in 1125 after having been censured as a heretic by a cabal of his enemies at Soissons in 1121.  From the Paraclete he went to Brittany, where he served as abbot of a monastery. His return to teaching brought him into conflict with the famous St. Bernard of Clairvaux, who was responsible for Abelard’s condemnation at the Council of Sens, 1141.  Abelard, appealing the condemnation to the pope, found temporary refuge at the famous abbey of Cluny.  A year later Abelard died.  In an exquisite gesture of friendship , the abbot sent his body back to Heloise, who had it interred at the Paraclete.  When she herself died at this religious center in 1164, the nuns wrote in their book of necrology that their late lamented foundress had been ‘renowned for her learning and piety, having given us the hope of her life.

    “Following Plato, the scholastic realists took the position that the individual objects that we perceive with our senses, such as trees, are not real but merely manifestations of universal ideas (hence treeness) that exist in the mind of god.  All knowledge, then, is based on the ideas implanted in human reason by the Creator.  Truth, according to the realists, can only be discovered by contemplating universals.

    The other school, the nominalists, were adherents of Aristotle’s ideas and believed that only individual objects are real.  In their view, universal ideas or concepts were simply names (Latin nomina--hence nominalism) created by humans.  Truth could be discovered only by examining individual objects.  Peter Abelard attempted to reconcile the two positions by maintaining that while universal ideas are real, they cannot be separated from the individual objects in which they inhere; universal ideas do not exist separately from individual objects.  The struggle between realists and nominalists remained a fundamental issue in western philosophical and theological studies until the new scientific categories of thought in the seventeenth century” (361-2).

2. Averroes [Ibn Rushd] (1126-1198)

“Especially important was Ibn-Rushd or Averroes (1126-1198), a jurist and physician who lived in Cordoba.  He studied virtually all of Aristotle’s surviving works and composed a systematic commentary on them.  There was no doubt in his mind that Aristotle had been the master of all knowledge:

I consider that that man [Aristotle] was a rule and exemplar which nature devised to show that final perfection of man. . . . The teaching of Aristotle is the supreme truth, because his mind was the final expression of the human mind.  Wherefore it has been well said that he was created and given to us by divine providence that we might know all there is to be known.  Let us praise God, who set this man apart from all others in perfection, and made him approach very near to the highest dignity humanity can attain.

Translated into Latin, the work of Averroes, with its emphasis on the differences between faith and reason, posed a problem for western scholars of the thirteenth” (Spiel. 359).

   Averroes taught that there was a hierarchy of people”

1) masses of people for whom religion is not accepting what is proved to them, but just what is preached without proof.  For example, Jesus and Muhammad were prophets with the ability to convert people by preaching.  Averroes thought this was good because it controlled the masses:  one threatened the barbarians with eternal punishment or reward to keep them in tow.  They accept what is preached because in them the imagination triumphs over reason.

2) theologians do not prove by rigid demonstration what they accept, but show they are reasonable.  Theology, then, is Fides quaerens intellectum (Anselm).

3) philosophers are those who are able to abandon the comforts of the imagination and the bowing to authority as pure searchers for truth, the pure use of reason.  This quest is available only to a very small elite.  There is no higher life than the philosophical; no wisdom but of the philosopher.  The only truth is self-evident or that derived from self-evident.  Theology therefore rests on fables! 


3. Thomas Aquinas (1225-1274) was the most famous and influential of the Parisian masters of the 13th century (although he was born of Italian noble parentage).  “He began his studies at the University of Naples and became a Dominican monk in 1244.  He studied theology at Cologne and Paris under Albertus Magnus (1193-1280), who tried to assimilate Aristotle’s works on natural philosophy into the body of Christian education.  Aquinas taught at both Naples and Paris, and it was at the latter that he finished his famous Summa Theologica (A Summa of Theology).

   “Aquinas’s reputation derives from his masterful attempt to reconcile faith and reason.  He took it for granted that there were truths derived by reason and truths derived by faith.  He was certain, however, that the two truths could not be in conflict with each other” (Spiel. 363).

  His magnum opus, Summa Theologica,  was unfinished at his death, but represented a systematic exposition of Christian thought in a synthesis of reason and faith that has had a monumental influence on the west, particularly Roman Catholic thought:  “The theological system that Aquinas created eventually came to be viewed by the Catholic church as its official philosophy and used as the basis for theological education in its schools, but not in the thirteenth century.  Aquinas’s work was subjected to close examination and found wanting by other theologians, notably the Franciscans, who supported the Platonic traditions of Augustine against what they considered the fervent Aristotelianism of the Dominicans.  Although they did not accept their failure, thirteenth-century theologians, like twentieth-century scientists, seemed incapable of providing a harmonious synthesis of all knowledge that satisfied everyone” (Spiel. 363).

    His great achievement (Latourette 510) was setting forth the relationship between reason and faith so that those who found truth in Aristotle could still be Christians.  the senses were a source of truth for this world.  The mind can also reason from evidence of this world that there is a god, but faith is a gift of god.  Besides the natural side of man there is a supernatural side; ultimate happiness comes in contemplating God.  this vision of God which is man’s highest goal can only come through revelation and the gift of faith from God (and can not be fully attained in this life).

  The world is hierarchical; everything in the world had its place which is determined by its relationship to God:

a rock is good because it exists

an animal is more perfect because it has life

men and women are better because they have mind and will

angels are still better because they are pure spirit

this is more evidence of the synthetic nature of Thomistic thought; i.e., everything fits and has its place and meaning and truth.  Everything eventually points to God.


  V. Science in the Middle Ages

1. Medieval thinkers failed to free science from its subservient position as a handmaiden to theology.  "In the area of science as in many others, medieval intellectuals considered Aristotle the master of all knowledge.  Aristotle had taught that natural science should be based on observations that could then lead to generalizations.  In following Aristotle a their master most medieval philosophers were content to accept his results without question.  Even when new empirical observations were made, people were reluctant to question Aristotle's conclusions.                                  

     "Some natural philosophers, however, furthered the scientific methodology of their day.  The Englishman Robert Grosseteste (1168-1253), the chancellor of Oxford University, stressed the need for students to observe the world of nature and was especially interested in the study of light or the science of optics.  He was persuaded that a deeper knowledge of physical light would serve to penetrate the nature of the universe.  Believing that physical laws could be expressed mathematically, he attempted to show how the radiation of light could be demonstrated geometrically.  [he stated that the roundness of the earth could be demonstrated by reason, insisted that mathematics was necessary to understand nature, and carried out experiments on the refraction of light (convinced that optics--study of vision--was the foundation of all other scientific knowledge because light was the most basic physical substance)]                                  

  "Grosseteste's pupil, Roger Bacon (1220-1292), carried on his master's work.  Although Bacon achieved no scientific breakthroughs of his own, he is still remembered for his imaginative visions of flying machines, submarines, and powered ships and for emphasizing the importance of mathematics for the study of both "natural" and "divine" philosophy.   [he coined the term "experimental science (employed induction and criticized deductive syllogistic reasoning of the scholastics--thereby foreshadowing the modern attitude of using science to gain mastery over nature;  he was an English Franciscan monk and philosopher; read Arabic works on reflection and refraction of light; his description of anatomy of the vertebrate eye and optic nerves was the finest of his time (he recommended the dissection of eyes of cows and pigs to obtain knowledge)]                         

  "What modern authors call the pseudosciences seemed to hold considerably more attraction than the sciences in the High Middle Ages.  Especially popular were astrology and alchemy...                                                                

  "Despite what some historians regard as a lack of growth in science in the Middle Ages, it is important to remember that this was a period of many technological advances.  Medieval machines, powered by wind and water, were used in such diverse areas as textile production, the grinding of grains, and iron-smelting forges.  The development of machines eliminated many tasks previously done by hand.  The medieval period was also highly inventive.  Both eyeglasses and the first mechanical clocks were invented near the end of the thirteenth century" (Spiel. 359-60).

[if time permits, call their attention to the “scientific” experiments of Frederick II, Spiel. 335]

  VI. Medieval Literature

“Latin was the universal language of medieval civilization.  Used in the church and schools, it enabled learned men to communicate anywhere in Europe. The intellectual revival of the High Middle Ages included an outpouring of Latin literature (Spiel. 366).

   “While Latin continued to be used for literary purposes, by the twelfth century much of the creative literature was being written in the vernacular tongues.  throughout the Middle Ages, there had been a popular vernacular literature, especially manifest in the Germanic, Celtic, Old Icelandic, and Slavonic sagas.  But a new market for vernacular literature appeared in the twelfth century when educated lay people at courts and in the new urban society sought fresh avenues of entertainment” (Spiel. 367).  

1.[ 1) heroic epics] chanson de geste: Chanson de Roland  (Song of Roland, 11th c.) is an epic poem written in French; reflects simple virtue of feudal order:  personal loyalty, militant Christian faith, individual honor.  It is the story of the death of Charlemagne’ nephew in battle with Muslims in 778 AD. 

2. [2) minstrel songs] chanson d’armour (troubadours and romantic love) “Perhaps the most popular vernacular literature of the twelfth century was troubadour poetry, chiefly the product of nobles and knights.  This poetry focused on themes of courtly love, the love of a knight for a lady generally a married noble lady, who inspires him to become a braver knight and a better poetry (Spiel.  367). 

3. Courtly romances (medieval romance) This would eventually lead to the medieval romance:  love adventure stories of knights and fair maidens (e.g. late 12th c. works of Chretien de Troyes= tales of King Arthur, king of the fifth-century Britons, and the round table of Chivalrous Knights).  This is aristocratic literature.  Called romances because of being written in the romance languages.  “The courtly romance was composed in rhymed couplets and dwelt on a romantic subject matter:  brave knights, virtuous ladies, evil magicians, bewitched palaces, fairies, talking animals, and strange forests” (Spiel. 367).


[4) allegorical romances:  “In the 1200s two French authors,William de Lorris and Jean de Meun, combined allegory and satire with the romance to create the popular Romance of the Rose.William’s portion treats traditional troubadour themes of love in an allegorical mode, but Jean satirizes everything from women to clerical celibacy” (Greaves 2nd ed., 257).


5) mystery plays=religious dramas about biblical subjects, exp. Christ’s life (often in Latin!)

miracle plays (variety of mystery plays)= life of a saint

morality plays (followed the above)= personified vices and virtues in the content of a struggle for the soul, e.g., Everyman


6) pious literature (vernacular)  e.g. 1) Francis of Assisi’s Canticle of the sun, a lyrical praise of god for creation; 2) The Little Flowers of St. Francis, 13th c. collection of stories about Francis.


 7) Historical works, e.g., 1) Geoffrey of Monmouth’s British History (largely a retelling legendary stories of King Arthur’ 2) Geoffrey de Villehardouin’s The Conquest of Constantinople (a historical account of the capture of Constantinople by the crusaders in 1204) [“the first great monument of French prose”]. Orderic Vitalis, a Norman monk of the early twelfth century, wrote an Ecclesiastical History that provided a rather unsystematic, yet considerably detailed account of Normandy in the eleventh and twelfth centuries.  William of Malmesbury’s History of the Kings of England, although still in the tradition of the monastic annals, presented a skillful narrative and relatively balanced evaluation of historical events” (Spiel. 366-7).


8) Popular stories or fabliaux: bawdy, brief, humorous tales written in rhymed verse, e.g., the Romance of Reynard the Fox.  By 14th c. = ballads of Robin Hood.  “...the fabliaux appealed to both knights and the urban middle classes.  The fabliaux were fables or short stories in rhymed verse that usually related how a wandering clerk had outsmarted nobles, merchants, and clergy.  Priests and monks, in particular, were portrayed as fools and hypocrites.  Emerging by the end of the twelfth century, the fabliaux continued to be popular through the thirteenth century” (Spiel. 369).


4. Dante Alighieri's Divine Comedy

from a family of propertied gentlemen (had citizenship and revenues from land) and therefore he could devote himself to philosophical and theological pursuits.

  He wrote on the origin and development of language (De Vulgari Eloquentia), political theory (De Monarchia), and generalized knowledge (Convivio) as well as his own poetic aspirations (Vita Nuova).  In his wanderings in the north of Italy he worked on--and finally brought to conclusion--a long poem to which he gave a bitingly ironical title:  The comedy of Dante Alighieri, A Florentine by Birth but Not in Behavior.  Dante called his poem a comedy since, as he noted, it had a happy ending and it was written in the popular language of the people (“Divine” was added later, maybe by Boccaccio).

“Dante (1265-1321) came from an old Florentine noble family that had fallen upon hard times.  Although he had held high political office in republican Florence, factional conflict led to his exile from the city in 1302.  Until the end of his life, Dante hoped to return to his beloved Florence, but his wish remained unfulfilled.

    “Dante’s masterpiece in the Italian vernacular was his Divine Comedy, written between 1313 and 1321.  Cast in a typical medieval framework, the Divine Comedy is basically the story of the soul’s progression to salvation, a fundamental medieval preoccupation.  The lengthy poem was divided into three major sections corresponding to the realms of the afterworld:  hell, purgatory, and heaven or paradise.  In the ‘Inferno’, Dante is led by his guide, the classical author Virgil, who is a symbol of human reason.  But Virgil (or reason_ can only lead the poet so far on his journey.  At the end of ‘Purgatory,’ Beatrice (the true love of Dante’s life), who represents revelation--becomes his guide into ‘Paradise.’  Here, Beatrice presents Dante to Saint Bernard, a symbol of mystical contemplation.  The saint turns Dante over to the Virgin Mary since grace is necessary to achieve the final step of entering the presence of god, where one beholds ‘The love that moves the sun and the other stars.’  Symbolically, the ‘Inferno’ represents despair, while ‘Purgatory,’ the second stage of the journey, represents hope.  ‘Paradise’ represents perfection or salvation.

    “Some scholars have considered the Divine Comedy a synthesis of medieval Christian thought.  Like the gothic cathedrals and the Summa Theologica, it reminds us that Christian faith was, after all, the basic foundation of medieval culture.  The theology of the Divine Comedy is that of Saint Thomas Aquinas; its science is that of Aristotle; and its politics centers on the Holy Roman Emperor as the savior of Italy.  At the same time, some observers believe elements of Dante’s work foreshadow the coming new age of the Renaissance.  Dante, after all, is a layman describing theology in the vernacular, not Latin.  the popes who turn up in hell have been consigned there by a layman.  Mor3over, using Virgil as his guide emphasizes the role of the classical tradition in providing wisdom, a theme that became increasingly important in the Renaissance.  In addressing Virgil, Dante says, ‘Can you be Virgil? . . . You are my master. . . . From you alone I learned the singing strain, the noble style, that does me honor new.” (Spiel. 402-403).

  It has been said that a mastery of the Divine Comedy would be a mastery of all that was significant about the intellectual culture of the Middle Ages.  It is certainly true that the poem, encyclopedic and complex as it is, would provide a primer for any reader interested in the science, political theory, philosophy, literary criticism and theology of the 13th c. as well as a detailed acquaintance with the burning questions of Dante’s time. 

5. Chaucer's Cantebury Tales

“His beauty of expression and clear, forceful language were important in transforming his East Midland dialect into the chief ancestor of the modern English language.  Although Chaucer’s materials were taken from a typically medieval literary tradition, he placed much emphasis on individual characters.

  The Cantebury Tales constitute a group of stories told by twenty-nine pilgrims journeying from Southwark to the tomb of Saint Thomas at Canterbury.  This format gave Chaucer the chance to portray an entire range of English society, both high and low born.  Among others, he presented the Knight, the Yeoman, the Prioress, the Monk, the Merchant, the Student, the Lawyer, the Carpenter, the Cook, the doctor, the Plowman, and, of course, “A Good Wife was there from beside the city of Bath--a little deaf, which was a pity.”  the stories these pilgrims told to while away the time on the journey were just as varied as the storytellers, themselves:  knightly romances, fairy tales, saints’ lives, sophisticated satires, and crude anecdotes.

  “Chaucer also used some of his characters to criticize the corruption of the church in the late medieval period.  His portrayals of the Monk, the Friar, and the Pardoner leave no doubt of Chaucer’s disdain for the corrupt practices of clerics (Spiel. 404).

   In sum, The Canterbury Tales presented incisive and satirical comments about the foibles and hypocrisy of ecclesiastics that gives a glimpse into his own time.  It is also important as an example of Middle English.


6. Christine de Pisan's The Treasure of the City of Ladies

Christine de Pisan was one of the most remarkable and respected literary figures in the courts of medieval Europe, the more so for being the only professional woman writer of her time.  She was born in Venice in 1365, but while she was still a child her family left Italy and went to the court of Charles V of France, where her father, Thomas de Pizzano, was court physician and astrologer.  When she was fifteen years old she married the young nobleman and courtier Etienne de Castel.  Her happiness was marred first by the death of Charles V in 1380, which led to Thomas de Pizzano’s demotion, then by the latter’s illness and death only a few years later.  In 1390 Etienne de Castel also died suddenly, leaving his young widow with three children, her mother and a niece to support.  Christine de Pisan now turned to writing and soon secured an enviable reputation for her lyric poetry.  She went on to write with great success on moral issues; two major concerns were the need for peace and the role of women in society, but she also wrote with authority on public affairs and the art of government, as well as producing a highly acclaimed biography of Charles V.  Her output was vast and she incorporated many autobiographical details into her poetry, making it an invaluable record of medieval life.  Much of her work survives in lavishly illuminated manuscripts, for she enjoyed influential patronage throughout her career.  The outbreak of civil war in France prompted her to take refuge in a convent in 1418, where she remained until her death some time after 1429. 

Christine de Pisan’s The Treasure of the City of Ladies (written in 1405):

1) a guide to practicalities:  part etiquette book, part survival manual, it was written for women who had to live from day to day in the world as it was.

2) the women she addressed ranged from those with power and authority to the poorest peasant women, including widows, spinsters, prostitutes and nuns (this does not reflect the real readership she had in mind, but rather the medieval penchant for all-inclusiveness).  She devotes most of her attention to the powerful and well-placed.

3) One of her recurring themes is that women should stick together.  They should not gossip about each other; they should be tolerant of other women who are much younger or much older than they are; if they are chaste and virtuous they should not assume that other women are not; and ;they should love each other like sisters.

4) On chivalry:  gallants at court are untrustworthy; they will say anything and make any promise to get their own way...Their promises of secrecy and discretion are worthless; they will brag about their conquest the moment the lady’s back is turned.  They will badger her for favors and love tokens, but these pleas should be resisted.

5) Advice concerning widowhood and remarriage:  A widow suddenly becomes prey to every sort of swindle and deception.  Even men who deferred to her when her husband was alive are now rude and dismissive.  People will bring lawsuits against her, and she herself may be forced to go to law to obtain justice.  After her husband's death people will try to cheat her out of what is rightfully hers.  If you cannot settle it amicably out of court, Christine counsels from bitter experience, get a good lawyer, and old one who knows all the tricks, but be careful that the legal fees do not exceed the sum you stand to gain by litigation. 

6) On remarriage by widows:  "If in married life everything were all repose and peace, truly it would be sensible for a woman to enter it again, but because one sees quite the contrary, any woman ought to be very wary of remarriage, although for young women it may be a necessity or anyway very convenient.  But for those who have already passed their youth and who are well enough off and are not constrained by poverty, it is sheer folly although some women who wish to remarry say that it is no life for a woman on her own.  So few widows trust in their own intelligence that they excuse themselves by saying that they would not know how to look after themselves. 

7) One of Christine's overriding concerns--a concern that is evident in much of her advice--is for peace.  A princess or great lady should try to make peace between her husband and any rebellious vassals or subjects.  A lady should keep peace in her family and among the ladies and women of her household.  Men are a little inclined to be hot-headed, she says, and it is a woman's duty to bring a measure of calmness and reason to a hostile situation.  A lady should establish herself as a mediator between any hostile factions, whether it is a question of national politics or friction in the household.  The queen or princess can become the power behind the throne by exerting her calming influence.  Women generally should work behind the scenes, tactfully, even stealthily, on a personal level.  The wife, at whatever level of society, must defer to her husband, however, the wife should act as his representative, whether she is a queen presiding over his council or an artisan's wife over-seeing her husband's subordinates. 

VII. Gothic Cathedrals

1. SUGER:  Unlike most art movements, the Gothic style can be pinpointed to a specific time, place and individual:  1st half of the 12th c; near Paris at the Abbey of St. Denis; by Abbot Suger (1080-1151).  Suger presided over the abbey church from 1122-1151.  It was built in Carolingian times to house relics of Saint Denis, a 5th c. martyr who had evangelized Paris.  There were legends linking Charlemagne with a relationship to the church (ex. bringing relics of the Passion here from the Holy Land).  Pilgrims came here because of the fame of the relics and Lendit (trade fair).             

  Suger decided to build a new church to accommodate those who flocked here on pilgrimages.  It took 15 years but it was never completed>  He wanted it to be as lavish and brilliant as the Hagia Sophia in Constantinople and as loyal to the will of God as the Temple of Solomon described in the Bible.  Used the ribbed vault and the pointed arch (allowed architect to achieve greater height and enclose rectangular as well as square spaces.  "The Gothic architect also introduced the flying buttress, a support that carried the horizontal thrust of the arch to heavy piers outside the church.  The purpose was twofold:  placing the massive piers outside the church created a more spacious interior, while the flying buttress, like the pointed arch, guided the eye of the beholder heavenward" (Greaves 261). "As in the Romanesque period, sculpture adorned the cathedrals, only more lavishly.  The cathedral at Charters, for instance, has more than 2,000 carved figures" (Greaves 262).                       

BASIC CHARACTERISTIC OF GOTHIC ARCHITECTURE IS LUMINOSITY, NOT VERTICALITY.  Stained-glass windows are often called the "Bible of the Poor" because they could "read" the biblical stories in their illustrated form in the cathedral.  Therefore, Abbot Sugar called the church of St. Denis the "Gate of Heaven."  In addition, “The facades of the Gothic cathedrals were covered with a mass of sculpture that served didactic as well as decorative purposes.  Visual images, it was believed, helped ordinary people understand religious truths” (Spiel 373).

2. Significance:  1) It served vital social functions in Medieval society, i.e., it was the organizing metaphor for towns at this time (social activities, births, deaths, schooling, marriages, welfare, records, etc.).  Organization of time:  horarium of the cathedral (people rose and ate and went to bed in rhythm of tolling of bells), liturgical calendar (worked or played according to feast days of liturgical calendar of the church year).  2) economic:  4 great feasts of the Blessed Virgin (great festal days of Chartres) coincided with 4 great trade fairs.  Canons of the church would legislate where leather-sellers would be in relationship to poultry-sellers.  So Cathedrals connected to commercial well-being of the town. (textiles near north portal; vegetables, fruit and wine at south portal).


1) theological vision
2) religious devotion
3) civic pride
4) socioeconomic interest



Send comments and questions to Dr. Richard Baldwin, Gulf Coast State College.
This page last updated 3/17/12