(I) The Early Middle Ages
Over the last half century or so, scholars have challenged the prior perception of the Middle Ages as an era of darkness, ignorance and superstition. The term, and indeed, the very idea of, the AMiddle Age@ (medium aevum) was devised by Italian humanist thinkers who wished to demarcate their own period — of renaissance, rebirth and rediscovery of Classical thinkers B from the preceding era. While it is true that the early Middle Ages, from the fall of Rome in at the hands of Germanic tribes in the fifth century until around 1000 A.D., saw a reversion to various forms of economic and intellectual primitivism, there occurred not only the Carolingian Renaissance (named after the Emperor Charlemagne or Carolus Magnus) in the ninth century, but a great deal of intellectual and cultural progress from the eleventh through the thirteenth centuries (known as the later Middle Ages). The Renaissance humanists extolled the Classical Greek and Roman authors, viewing themselves as their first legitimate successors, and condemning mediaeval scholasticism which intervened between them and the classical period as benighted. This rejection of mediaeval philosophy and literature was reinforced by the Protestant Reformation which associated it with Roman Catholicism. However, more recent scholarship in a variety of fields, including literary criticism, has shown this picture to be erroneous. Much Renaissance thought and culture was in fact a development from the Mediaeval period which was by no means ignorant of the Classical Greek and Roman traditions.
A number of factors contributed to the making of the Middle Ages: the evolving traditions of Christianity; the social and political patterns of the Germanic tribes who overran the Roman Empire; vestiges of the Roman administrative and legal system; the legacy of the classical world; and contact with Islamic civilization (which lies beyond the scope of this study). The most powerful force in the development of Mediaeval civilization was Christianity. Even before the fall of Rome in 410, Christianity had been increasingly tolerated, as stipulated in a series of edicts, initiated by the Emperor Constantine, from 313 onward; by 381 it was recognized as the official religion of the Roman Empire. The beginnings of Christian thought in the letters of St. Paul, Clement of Rome, and the Gospel of St. John related the tenets of Christianity to Greek philosophical concepts.
Subsequent Christian writers in the second century A.D. were concerned to justify their faith, their most articulate exponent being Justin Martyr, a teacher executed in Rome around 165 A.D.
Early Christianity had been heterogeneous, containing a large number of sects with disparate beliefs and practices, often embroiled in disputes. The Arians and Nestorians, for example, rejected the notion of the Trinity which was advocated by the Athanasians. The Docetae and Basilidans rejected the factuality of Christ=s crucifixion. The Pelagians denied the notion of original sin and espoused human free will. Eventually, in order to settle these doctrinal disputes, a number of world-wide Church councils were convened, beginning with the Council of Nicaea in 325, which condemned the views of most of these sects as heretical and established the Athanasian view of the Trinity as orthodox Christian doctrine. The doctrine of the Incarnation was not formally adopted until the Council of Chalcedon in 451.
The course of these debates was shaped by such figures as Athanasius of Alexandria (293-373), Gregory of Nyssa, St. Basil (c. 330-379), Gregory of Nazianzus (c. 330 – c. 389), John Chrysostom (c. 347-407), Ambrose (c. 339 – 397) and Augustine of Hippo (354-430). One of the greatest Christian thinkers of this period was Jerome (c. 347-420), who translated the Bible from its original languages into Latin (known as the vulgate edition). Other steps were also taken to promote unity of belief and practice: these included the promulgation of standard sermons, the training of bishops, and the growth of the papacy in power and prestige into a focus of allegiance and obedience. Having said this, Christian doctrine was never fully formalized in the early Middle Ages, and many of the Eastern Churches adhered to unorthodox beliefs. It took further ecumenical councils until 681 for major schisms between the churches at Rome and Constantinople to be healed.
Notwithstanding these difficulties, after the collapse of the empire it was left to the Church to preserve unity, order and guidance in many spheres.
The church=s unity survived that of the empire. It was the Church, becoming increasingly sophisticated in its organization and increasingly dominated by the leadership of the papacy in Rome, which promoted moral values, fostered appropriate social conduct and transmitted Classical learning. The church has been described as the Asingle institution@ which enjoyed continuity in the Awhole transition from Antiquity to the Middle Ages.@ It not only preserved classical culture but facilitated its Aassimilation and adaptation to a wider population,@ effectively Latinizing their speech and enabling the emergence of the Romance languages (PF, 135-136). Latin remained the language of scholarship and law during the Middle Ages. The Germanic tribes invading the Empire retained Latin as the means of communication wherever they settled; as E.R. Curtius points out, however, the growth of vernacular languages and literatures from the twelfth and thirteenth centuries onward did not entail a dissolution of Latin but rather a bifurcation into two languages, used respectively by the learned and the common people. For centuries yet, Latin Aremained alive as the language of education, of science, of government, of law, of diplomacy.@ Writers such as Boccaccio and Petrarch were Astill affected by the heritage of the Latin Middle Ages,@ and the influence of mediaeval Latin literature persisted through the great movements of the modern period such as Humanism, the Renaissance and the Reformation (Curtius, 26-27). One particularly important aspect of Christianity was monasticism, with its roots in early Christian asceticism.
Founded in the East by St. Basil and in the West by St. Benedict, monasticism entailed a strict regimen of poverty, obedience, humility, labor and devotion. It was largely monks who were responsible for writing most books, transmitting early manuscripts and maintaining schools, libraries and hospitals. The monks would later develop into the regular clergy (following a strict rule or regula), as opposed to the secular clergy, the various ranks of priests and bishops who operated in the worldly sphere (saeculum meaning Aworld@ or Atime@). The slave mode of production in the ancient world had fostered a contempt for manual labor and a consequent stagnation in technology. The monastic orders united Aintellectual and manual labour…in the service of God,@ and agrarian labor Aacquired the dignity of divine worship@ (PF, 135). Christianity thus promoted a Aliberation@ of technology, of labor and of culture from Athe limits of a world built on slavery@ (PF, 132). In these crucial respects, Christianity was the Aindispensable bridge between two epochs,@ between the ancient slave mode of production and the feudal mode of production (PF, 137).
Another force which overwhelmed the Western Roman Empire was the Germanic peoples, who included Scandinavians, Goths, Vandals, Franks and Anglo-Saxons. Many of these peoples had already settled in various parts of the Empire long before the fall of Rome. Eventually revolting against Roman rule, the Visigoths led by Alaric sacked Rome in 410 B.C. The city was taken again by the Vandals in 455 A.D. The lifestyle, as well as the legal, economic and political structure of the Germanic peoples was primitive in many respects. This structure, amalgamating with the administrative legacy of the Roman Empire, eventually developed into the system of feudalism, which involved contractual obligations between rulers and subjects, lords and vassals, obligations based on values such as courage, honor, loyalty, protection and obedience. We see these values repeatedly expressed in poems such as Beowulf, often in uneasy coexistence with Christian values such as humility and trust in divine providence.
In the early Middle Ages, commerce and industry declined, and land became increasingly concentrated in the hands of a few, with famine and disease often widespread. The economic system was limited largely to local trade.
Ancient Roman culture gave way before a life centred on villages, feudal estates and monasteries. This hierarchical and largely static way of life was sanctioned by the Church; the social order, where each person had his place, was seen as part of the larger, divinely established, cosmic order.
One of the most significant figures of this period was Carolus Magnus or Charlemagne (742-814) who established an empire that extended over Western and central Europe and much of Italy, and to some extent centralized law and government. He was crowned Emperor by Pope Leo III in 800 A.D., an event which signified the formation of the Holy Roman Empire, a powerful and influential Aalliance@ between the Frankish dynasty and the papacy. The Empire thus achieved both political unity under Charlemagne, and religious unity under papal leadership. Perry Anderson remarks that the Carolingian monarchy, with the Church as its Aofficial mentor,@ brought about a Areal administrative and cultural revival@ throughout the empire, sponsoring Aa renovation of literature, philosophy, art and education.@ Even more importantly, it was in this era that the groundwork of feudalism was laid (PF, 137, 139). E.R. Curtius remarks that when Christianity became the state religion of the Roman Empire in 381, Rome=s universalism Aacquired a twofold aspect. To the universal claim of the state was added that of the church.@ The mediaeval empire of Charlemagne took over from Rome, by the doctrine of Atransference,@ the Aidea of a world empire; thus it had a universal, not a national, character@ (Curtius, 28-29). These ideas, as will emerge later, were taken up in contrasting ways by Augustine, who distinguished sharply between the earthly Rome and the heavenly city, and Dante, who saw a connection between the Rome of Vergil and the Rome of St. Peter. Curtius stresses the continuity between the two epochs: the language of Rome was also the language of the Bible, the church and of mediaeval learning (Curtius, 30). After Charlemagne=s death, the empire was divided up but was revived in 962 when Otto the Great of Germany was crowned Emperor by Pope John XII. The Holy Roman Empire lasted (though having lost much of its power) until 1806.
Intellectual and Theological Currents
Christianity and Classicism; St. Augustine
The thought and literature of this entire period was formulated within the larger religious and evolving feudal context described above. The intellectual currents of the early Middle Ages were driven by two broad factors: the heritage of Classical thought, and the varying relation of developing Christian theology to this heritage. The secular criticism of the late Roman period included some influential figures: Macrobius and Servius, who contributed to the prestige of Vergil and the knowledge of neo-Platonism in the Middle Ages, Servius also being the author of the standard grammar of this period; the grammarian Aelius Donatus, who wrote a commentary on Terence, as well as handbooks entitled Ars minor and Ars maior, used throughout the Middle Ages; Priscian, whose Institutio grammatica was used in the Middle Ages; and Diomedes, who produced an exhaustive account of grammatical tropes and Athe most systematic surviving account of poetic genres@ (CHLC, V. I, 341, 344). Vergil was the basic text in schools of grammar, while Cicero held a privileged placed in the teaching of rhetoric.
One of the rhetoricians of late antiquity, Martianus Capella who wrote in the early fifth century, was known in the Middle Ages primarily by his authoritative encyclopaedia of the seven liberal arts. Later influential encyclopaedias were produced by Cassiodorus, who produced the first Christian handbook of ecclesiastical learning and the secular arts (Curtius, 41) and Isidore of Seville (CHLC, V. I, 341, 344). Isidore transmitted Athe sum of late antique knowledge to posterity.@ These compendia anticipated the eventual formalization of the liberal arts curriculum at Mediaeval universities into the Atrivium,@ comprising logic, rhetoric and grammar, and the Aquadrivium,@ composed of astronomy, music, arithmetic and geometry. A major thinker of this period was the neo-Platonist Boethius (d. 524), whose translations of Aristotle=s logical treatises proved of paramount importance for the thinking of the later Middle Ages, especially Scholasticism. Of the foregoing developments, two were especially germane to the early Middle Ages: neo-Platonism (which, beginning prior to the Middle Ages, is considered in the previous chapter) and the closely related Christian tradition of allegorical interpretation, as embodied in the work of Augustine, which will be treated in the present chapter.
In the early Middle Ages, the Church=s Aother-worldly@ disposition tended to subordinate the position of literature and the arts to the more pressing issues of salvation and preparation for the next life. In general, the widespread instability, insecurity and illiteracy intensified religious feeling and promoted ideals of withdrawal from the world, condemning earthly life as worthless and merely a means of passage to the next life, to eternal salvation and bliss. As the theological content of Christianity developed, two broad approaches to Classical literature emerged. The first of these sought to distance Christianity from paganism and accordingly frowned on the pagan origins of the arts in the cultures of Greece and Rome, while the second sought to continue the Christian appropriation of Classical rhetoric and philosophy. The former stream of Christian thought, deriving from the third century theologian Tertullian (c. 160 – c. 225) and enduring until the last Patristic author Pope Gregory the Great (540-604), laid stress on the authority of faith and revelation over reason. Both Tertullian and Gregory renounced all secular knowledge and viewed literature as a foolish pursuit.
Tertullian saw drama as patronised by Bacchus and Venus, whom he called Adevils@ of passion and lust. Having said this, recent scholarship has recognised a synthesis in Tertullian=s writings of Christian doctrines with Platonic and Stoic philosophical traditions, as well as with rhetoric (CHLC, V. I, 337). The ascetic dispositions of monasticism intensified Christian anxiety concerning worldly beauty and art: St. Jerome, St. Basil, St. Bernard and St. Francis all turned away from the beauty of nature as a distraction from the contemplation of things divine. Generally, the early Christian philosophers echoed Plato=s objections to art, namely that art, as relying on counterfeiting or image-making, is removed from the truth, and that it appeals to the lower, sensuous part of our nature and the passions. Tertullian condemned the practise of feigning and false imitation in drama.
As for Plato=s second objection, Christians saw pagan arts as expressing emotions such as pride, hypocrisy, ambition, violence and greed which were blatantly opposed to the Christian virtues of humility, meekness and love. Christian thinkers such as Boethius also echoed Plato=s concern that the arts were seductive, and could distract men from the righteous path. There was also in the eighth and ninth centuries an Aiconoclastic controversy@ in Christianity, concerning the acceptability of portraying images. Christians held that it debased their spiritual doctrines to represent them to the senses. It was not until the Council of Nicaea in 787 A.D. that devotional images were deemed a legitimate resource for religious instruction.
The second stream of Christian thought, represented by the third-century Christian theologians Clement and Origen, both from Alexandria, displayed a rationalist emphasis and attempted to reconcile ancient Greek thought with the tenets of Christianity. Origen (c.185-c. 254 A.D.) was the Greek author of On First Principles, the first systematic account of Christian theology. The most renowned biblical scholar of the early church, Origen formulated an allegorical method of scriptural exegesis whose influence endured for many centuries. The attempt of Christian philosophy to come to terms with its Classical Greek and Roman heritage continued through Gregory of Nazianzus, Gregory of Nissa, John Chrysostom and Ambrose, reaching unprecedented heights in the work of St. Augustine, St. Bonaventura and St. Thomas Aquinas. These thinkers had a more accommodating view of Classical learning and literature. While poetry and history gained some acceptance (the first major Christian poet was Prudentius and the first Christian historian Orosius), the Church remained for a long time opposed to drama, as well as to visual art, which was associated with idolatry. Augustine referred to stage-plays as Aspectacles of uncleanness@ whose speeches were Asmoke and wind.@ In general, it is clear that Christian writers displayed a wide range of attitudes toward classical culture and that their writings cannot be categorized neatly in terms of straightforward assent or dissent. George Kennedy usefully suggests that the Christian Fathers writing prior to the Council of Nicaea in 325 exhibit a broad agreement on certain general principles: that a Christian must acquire literacy, which must entail some reading of classical texts; that examples can be taken from classical works, and read allegorically so as to accord with Christian teaching; that classical philosophy and literature does contain certain truths; and that the Bible, being divinely inspired, is true at a literal level, but also harbours moral and theological levels of meaning (CHLC, V. I, 339-340).
In fact, it might be argued that Christian allegory had its origins in the need to confront classical thought, as well as in the imperative to reconcile the Old and New Testaments. There was a tradition of sceptical thought in the time of the Roman Empire, expressed in the writings of figures such as Cicero and the late second century thinker Sextus Empiricus.
Augustine himself was influenced by such scepticism prior to his eventual conversion, after which he came to believe that absolute truth came from divine revelation. More generally, Christian thought was obliged to confront sceptical attitudes toward the scriptures, based on textual inconsistencies as well as incompatibility with reason. Just as the neo-Platonists were driven by an urge to reconcile Homer and Plato, poetry and philosophy, as well as to harmonize the doctrines of Plato and Aristotle, so Christian thinkers needed to reconcile the Old Testament with the New testament, and scripture generally with the teachings of the Greek philosophers. In response to these needs, both Christian writers and neo-Platonists developed the tradition of allegorical interpretation already formulated by the Stoics. The tradition of Christian allegorical interpretation effectively begins with St. Paul, and continues through Clement of Alexandria and his student Origen. Clement believed that reason was necessary for the understanding of scripture, and that the Greek philosophers had anticipated the Christian conception of God. He asserted that truth was veiled in symbols. Origen, who viewed the Bible as divinely inspired, formulated a vastly influential system of allegorical interpretation, according to three levels, literal, moral and theological, corresponding to the composition of man as body, soul and spirit (CHLC, V. I, 330-334).
(II) The Later Middle Ages
Certain thinkers of the early Mediaeval period continued to exercise a shaping influence for many centuries. The influence of Augustine — in particular his view of human will and the need for divine grace — persisted through the later Middle Ages, though only as one strand of thought competing with the doctrines of other theologians. Another thinker of the early Mediaeval period, Boethius (d. 524) also continued to exert a profound impact, primarily through his translations of Aristotle=s logical treatises into Latin, and his commentaries both on these treatises and their interpretation by the neo-Platonist Porphyry. Likewise, some streams of literary criticism of the early Mediaeval period either continued into, or were resurrected in, the later Middle Ages. The tradition of grammatical criticism and textual exegesis had been fairly continuous from the late classical era onward. Allegorical criticism and exegesis of both pagan and Christian texts enjoyed a similar continuity. One of the most prominent streams of thought of the early Middle Ages, Neo-Platonism, saw a revival in the twelfth century. Beyond these continuities, the later Middle Ages witnessed the growth of new intellectual movements, chiefly various forms of humanism and scholasticism, which arose from within the structures and divisions of knowledge that had grown in the later Mediaeval institutions of learning, namely, the Cathedral schools and the universities.
In order to understand these new modes of thinking about literature — which were inevitably tied to broader movements of thought — we must consider the larger social and economic developments that marked the later Mediaeval era. As mentioned in the previous chapter, the early Middle Ages saw the collapse of the Roman Empire and the centralized system of Roman administration and government, with a decline in commerce, trade and agriculture, and in many areas a reversion to tribal customs and local law. It had largely been left to the Church (and certain rulers such as Charlemagne) to attempt some kind of social and moral cohesion and to preserve and transmit the various intellectual and literary traditions. The later Middle Ages, beginning around 1050, witnessed considerable progress on many levels. Most fundamentally, there was an economic revival. It was in this period that the system of feudalism achieved a relatively stable formation. The term Afeudalism@ derives from the word Afief@ (the mediaeval term being feudum or Afeud@) which means a piece of land held in Afee@: in other words, the land was not owned, but a person had the right to cultivate it in return for rent or certain services performed for the landlord. Perry Anderson succinctly defines Afief@ as Aa delegated grant of land, vested with juridical and political powers, in exchange for military service@ (PF, 140). The basic contractual relation in feudal society was between a lord and a vassal: the lord, owning the land, would provide protection, in return for which the vassal was bound to obey his lord, to pay taxes or rent, and to provide military or other service.Often, small farmers would give up their independent ownership of land for the protection of powerful lords. Usually, fiefs (tracts of land or certain offices) were hereditary, and the feudal system was in general a static hierarchy, ranging from the highest lord, the monarch, through the various ranks of nobility such as castellans, barons, counts nd principals to the knights. Hence, each member of this hierarchy was both a lord and a vassal, involved in an intricate nexus of relationships with those above and below him. In a broader sense, however, society was increasingly divided into two classes, the one a landed aristocracy and clergy, the other composed of the mass of peasants, with a small middle-class of merchants, traders and craftsmen. The peasantry itself existed as a hierarchy, from villeins or tenant farmers through serfs (who were bound to a particular tract of land) to the poorest people who hired out their labour on an occasional basis. Clearly, this was not a system based on individual enterprise or merit or ability. The legal and political structure as Hegel would observe later, was not rational but an outgrowth of hereditary status, existing practices, traditions and customs. Having said that, the lord was obliged, in theory at least, to the terms of his contractual relationship with the peasant, affording him both military and economic protection. The basic unit of production in the feudal system was the manor or manorial estate: this comprised the lord=s manor house and demesne (that part of his land not held by tenants), the parish church, one or more villages, and the land divided into strips between a multitude of peasants. The size of the estate varied between two to four thousand acres.
The manor was largely self-contained, self-governed, existing in relative economic isolation, with minimal foreign trade (PF, 137).
Another constitutive element in feudalism was the city. By the later Middle Ages, significant urban communities had been formed. Major European cities included Palermo, Venice, Florence, Milan, Ghent, Bruge and Paris. Many of these enjoyed a considerable degree of freedom from feudal restrictions concerning property and service. Economically, the cities were dominated by two types of organizations, merchant guilds and artisan guilds, whose purpose was to ensure a monopoly of local trade for their own members. The merchant guilds restricted foreign trade and established uniform prices. The members of the artisan guilds formed a hierarchy composed of master craftsmen, who owned their own businesses, and the Ajourneymen@ who worked for them, as well as the apprentices, for whose training and upbringing the masters were responsible. The artisan guilds also regulated the means of production, attempting to preserve a stability and freedom from competition, with standard wages and prices, and even frowning on new technology or more efficient strategies. The guilds had a paternalistic attitude toward their members, sustaining them in times of hardship, providing for their widows and orphans, as well as exercising broader religious and social functions.
The guild system rested partly on Christian doctrines, stemming from the Church fathers and Aquinas, which frowned on excessive wealth or private property, condemned usury or the taking of interest, advocated fair prices, and encouraged an orientation toward the welfare of the community as a whole rather than that of the individual. At least, such were the ideals in theory.
Drawing on insights of Marx, Perry Anderson remarks certain structural features of feudalism. Most fundamentally, since feudal authority was transmitted through a complex chain of lordship and vassalage, Apolitical sovereignty was never focused in a single centre.@ There were three structural consequences of this Aparcellization of sovereignty.@ Firstly, there was no straightforward concentration of the two basic classes, lords and serfs, within a homogeneous form of property relation. The peasant class, from which the lord extracted an agrarian surplus or profit, Ainhabited a world of overlapping claims and powers,@ a plurality which enabled, through the survival of a number of communal and peasant-owned lands, some degree of Apeasant autonomy and resistance@ (PF, 148-149). A more important result of this stratification of power was effectively the creation of the Mediaeval town. The feudal system was the first to enable an autonomous development of the city within an agrarian economy. Even though the cities of the ancient world had been larger, they were governed by nobles who were primarily landowners. The Mediaeval towns of Europe, in contrast, were Aself-governing communes, enjoying corporate political and military autonomy from the nobility and the Church@ (PF, 150). Marx had observed in feudalism a dynamic opposition of town and country. Anderson summarizes this conflict as one between Aan urban economy of increasing commodity exchange, controlled by merchants and organized in guilds and corporations, and a rural economy of natural exchange, controlled by nobles and organized in manors and strips, with communal and individual peasant enclaves@ (PF, 150-151). It was this opposition between the merchant class in the cities and the nobility in the countryside which eventually fuelled the growth of the bourgeois class and of a capitalist economy.
The third result of the feudal power structure was yet another structural contradiction within feudalism. The monarch did not have supreme power over his subjects; rather, he was a Afeudal suzerain [lord] of his vassals, to whom he was bound by reciprocal ties of fealty.@ The monarchy was not a true Aintegrating mechanism,@ a fact which Aposed a permanent threat@ to the stability and survival of the feudal system. At the same time, Aactual royal power always had to be asserted and extended against the spontaneous grain of the feudal polity as a whole, in a constant struggle to establish a >public= authority outside the compact web of private jurisdictions@ (PF, 151-152).
Another contradiction in the structure of feudal power was that the Church, which in late antiquity had been integrated within the mechanisms of imperial power, was an autonomous institution within feudalism, and the sole source of religious authority. A number of factors had led to this circumstance. By the time of the Fourth Lateran Council in 1215, the theory of the priesthood (whereby the priest was vested with some of the Pope=s authority as inherited from Peter) and the fixing of theory of the seven sacraments increased the power and status of the clergy. The Church=s role as spiritual guardian was reinforced and disseminated by the requirements of onfession and the threat of excommunication. Furthermore, a number of religious reform movements had wrested the monasteries, clergy and the appointment of church officials from the power of the feudal nobility, insisting n the authority of the Pope and the Church in ecclesiastical matters. Bertrand Russell remarks that the Church=s emancipation from the feudal aristocracy was Aone of the causes of the emergence of Europe from the dark ages@ (HWP, 305). Prior to this emancipation, conflict between Church and State power was Aendemic in the mediaeval epoch,@ especially in the period from 1050 until around 1350, with considerable consequences for later intellectual development (PF, 152). The thought of Dante and Aquinas, for example, was marked by this struggle between temporal and spiritual power, just as Augustine had given archetypal expression to it. Augustine had effectively divided human experience into the categories of civitas dei or the City of God and the civitas terrena or the Earthly City. These categories B and the conflict they embodied B persisted through many guises, spiritual against temporal, Papacy against Empire, the demands of the soul against those of the body.
These inherent structural contradictions all contributed to the decline of feudalism. One large-scale effect of the growth of feudalism was to increase the power of the landed aristocracy or nobles relative to that of the monarchy. In turn, one factor in he decline of feudalism was the growth and establishment of strong or even absolute monarchies in several countries, notably France, England and Germany. Other factors contributed to the undermining of the feudal structure: the growing internationalization of trade; the expansion of cities and the increased opportunities for urban employment, which tempted peasants to move to the towns; the Crusades, beginning in 1096, which encouraged peasants to break their bonds to the soil of absentee landlords; the Hundred Years= War (1337-1453), which consolidated the monarchy in France; the plague known as the Black Death which spread over Europe, causing a shortage of labor; and, after 1517, the rise of various sects of Protestantism which intensified latent trends toward the sanctioning of worldly activity. All of these factors contributed to the explosion of economic practice, as well as its legitimation by religious and political ideologies, beyond the constraining boundaries of feudalism.
Intellectual Currents of the Later Middle Ages
The Mediaeval Curriculum
These were the broad historical developments that lay behind the intellectual currents of the later Middle Ages. The major currents comprised various forms of humanism deriving from the classical grammatical tradition, the heritage of neo-Platonism and allegorical criticism, and the movement known as Scholasticism, which was largely based on a revived Aristotelianism mediated through Islamic thinkers such as Ibn Rushd (Averroes). These later intellectual streams effectively began with Boethian logic, and were enabled by educational developments, primarily the rise of the cathedral schools and the universities. The universities were initially institutions or corporations for training teachers and were usually composed of faculties of liberal arts as well as faculties of medicine, law and theology. The notion of the liberal arts can be traced as far back as the sophist Hippias of Elis, a contemporary of Socrates, as well as to the rhetorician Isocrates who opposed Plato=s insistence on a purely philosophical training with a broader system of education. The locus classicus for the system of artes liberales is a letter by the Roman thinker Seneca, who called these arts Aliberal@ because they are worthy of a free man, their purpose not being to make money.
By the end of antiquity, the number of the liberal arts had been fixed at seven, and arranged in the sequence that they were to retain through the Mediaeval period. The first three, grammar, rhetoric and dialectic (or logic), were known from the ninth century onwards as the Atrivium@ (“threeroads”); the remaining four mathematical arts, arithmetic, geometry, music and astronomy, had been designated by Boethius as the Aquadruvium@ (“four roads”), later known as the Aquadrivium.@ It was Martianus Capella=s description of the liberal arts, in the form of a romance entitled De nuptiis Philologiae et Mercurii (The Wedding of Philology and Mercury) which remained authoritative throughout the Middle Ages (Curtius, 36-38). Of the seven liberal arts, those of the trivium were most thoroughly cultivated, and the most exhaustively studied of these was grammar, which comprised the study of both language or correct speech and the interpretation of literature. The word litteratura was a translation of the Greek term grammatike and the litteratus referred to a person who knew grammar and poetry (Curtius, 42-43). The authors studied included Vergil, Ovid, Donatus, Martianus Capella, Horace, Juvenal, Boethius, Statius, Terence , Lucan, Cicero, as well as Christian writers such as Juvencus, Arator and Prudentius. This list continued to expand into the thirteenth century, with the pagan authors subjected to allegorical interpretation and viewed as sages. The teaching of grammar and rhetoric had already given them authoritative status, as auctores (whose etymology includes Aauthority@ as well as Aauthor@ or Aoriginator@) in a normative and imposing curriculum (Curtius, 48-52).
It was the authority of this curriculum — along with the presuppositions sustaining it — which was dislodged by the dialectical or logical methods of the scholastic thinkers. As mentioned earlier, these rational methods had been fostered by the growth, from the beginning of the twelfth century, of the cathedral schools and the universities. The cathedral schools effectively displaced the surviving monasteries as centres of education.
They were located in towns, the most renowned being at Paris, Chartres and Canterbury. Each of these schools was directed by a canon, the scholasticus, who enjoyed a relative flexibility in arranging the curriculum. The French logician Peter Abelard (1079-1142) taught at the school of Mont Ste-Genevieve, and the Italian theologian Peter Lombard (c. 1100-1160) was educated at such a school. Perhaps the single greatest force animating these schools was the revival of philosophy, which, at the end of antiquity, had given way to the liberal arts and had Aceased to be a systematic discipline and an educational force@ (Curtius, 37). In the new schools, however, philosophy was an important part of the curriculum.
This revival was spearheaded in the late eleventh and early twelfth centuries by Anselm of Canterbury (1033-1109) and the other theologians mentioned above. These thinkers effectively pioneered the broad school or movement of mediaeval thought known as Scholasticism. They drew on Boethius= logic to attempt a rational and oherent interpretation of Christian doctrine as derived from Scripture, the Church Fathers and the decrees of the Church. One of the strategies for which St. Anselm is noted is the ontological argument, which attempts to prove God=s existence by logical means. The most important of the early scholastic philosophers were Roscelin and his pupil Peter Abelard. The latter exerted a considerable influence on later scholasticism through his volume entitled Sic et Non [For and Against or literally, Yes and No] which advanced a series of antitheses designed to reveal the incoherence of arguments based on authority. While Abelard upheld the foremost authority of the Scriptures, he encouraged a fearless use of dialectic as an avenue to truth, viewing logic as the predominant Christian science. Peter Lombard, known as AMaster of the Sentences,@ authored the Libri quatuor sententiarum, a collection of authoritative Ajudgments@ (sententiae) on the Incarnation, Trinity and sacraments, which eventually became a standard text of Catholic theology.
Even more important in this twelfth century “renaissance” of thought was the widespread growth of universities. Ancient universities had been largely devoted to the teaching of grammar and rhetoric. It was in the Middle Ages that our modern notion of the university was created, with various faculties, a regular curriculum and a hierarchy of degrees. The oldest universities were in Italy, France and England, and included Bologna (1158),
Oxford (c.1200), Paris (1208-09), and Naples (1224). Through these universities swept the philosophy of the Anew@ Aristotle, the recently recovered works of Aristotle on natural history, metaphysics, ethics and politics, made available to the West through translations from Arabic and Greek. The foremost of the Arab Aristotelian thinkers was Ibn Rushd (Averroes), whose doctrines were irreconcilable with Church doctrine. At the instigation of the Pope, the study of the Anew@ Aristotle was forbidden in 1215, but the stricture had little force. It was the Dominican scholars who attempted to reconcile the Christian faith with Greek philosophy (Curtius, 54-55). Thus came into being the great impetus of scholasticism, reaching its height in Albertus Magnus and then his student Thomas Aquinas. By the efforts of the Dominicans at the University of Paris, Athe dangerous Aristotle was purified, rehabilitated, and authorized. Even more: his teaching was incorporated into Christian philosophy and theology, and in this form has remained authoritative@ (Curtius, 56).
Because of these changes, the curricula of learning no longer gave primacy to the lists of authors, the auctores, who had been regarded for centuries as sources of technical knowledge and worldly wisdom in terms of both breadth of experience and moral precepts. The universities, in particular the University of Paris which was one of the educational centres of Europe, had become instruments of the Church. Philosophy and theology acquired a new prominence, while the study of grammar, rhetoric and literature were pushed somewhat into the background. There were a few enclaves of humanistic learning, such as the school of Chartres, under the directorship of Bishop John of Salisbury, and at the University of Oxford, where thinkers such as Roger Bacon prefigured a scientific approach to knowledge that would outlive scholasticism (Curtius, 56-57).