Monday, November 13, 2017

A not-quite-review of The Intellectual Climate of the Early University, ed. Nancy Van Deusen

I have good friends. They know me well and care about my well-being. This is why when the most recent Oxbow Books catalogue showed up in many of our mailboxes, more than one of them sent me a like to this bargain: A collection of papers on The Intellectual Climate of the Early University, edited by Nancy Van Deusen and published by Kalamazoo in 1997. At 8GBP, I could hardly say no, and the book arrived yesterday.

Now, this isn't a review of it, because I make a point of reading the books I review cover to cover before writing said review, and I haven't had a chance to read any of this one yet. But even without having read it, there are a few things I can say about it.

It's a collection of papers in honor of Otto Gründler, which means the exact composition and subject coverage is subject to the whims of the contributors. Nevertheless, as I scanned the table of contents, I found the distribution of the papers over the possibilities quite telling.

The first three papers, by Marcia Colish, Nancy Spatz, and Gary Macy, are on theology. This is followed by one paper on arithmetic (by Barnabas Hughes), and two on music, one via theories of motion (by Nancy Van Deusen and Richard J. Wingell). Then there's a chapter on natural philosophy (by Richard C. Dales), and one on the condemnations of 1277 (by Leland Edward Wilshire), and then the book wraps up with a general discussion by Allan B. Wolter.

Anyone else notice what's missing?

That's right: The entire trivium. Now, maybe various aspects of trivial education are discussed throughout the chapters, but there is no index to the book, so there is no easy way to find out where these discussions are, other than by reading the entire book (which I do intend to do...eventually). (One could also note that there seems to be much more on the second half of the thirteenth century than on the first; perhaps it is because I am more of a thirteenth century person than a fourteenth century person, but 1250-1300 wasn't what I immediately thought of when I saw "early".)

This observation, regarding the lack of discussion of the trivium (and in particular, logic, my own pet topic), is not unique to this book, but is a part of a wider trend that I find quite perplexing. Part of the importance of the trivium stems from the fact that everyone who went to university would've studied it -- not every one went on to graduate school, and of those who did, not everyone went on to become a theologian, or a legal doctor, or a medical doctor. The trivium is what provides the foundation for all higher education in Europe from the early 13th century onwards, for clerics and non-clerics, for noblemen and non-noblemen. Given this, it always shocks me how little discussion there is of philosophical topics, and the trivium in particular, at medievalist conferences. The huge International Medieval Congress that Leeds puts on every year is an astonishing feat of organisation and medievalism, and I go every year that I can. But every year I go, I am astounded at how little there is that interacts with broadly philosophical concerns. Given how central the trivium was to the entire educated class in the High and Late Middle Ages, I don't see how one can read literature without knowing philosophy, or discuss politics without knowing philosophy, or investigate women's lives without knowing philosophy. These concerns intersect every other aspect of medieval life not only in subject matter but in the fact that the people who carried out that medieval life would have been educated in this fashion. It would be like medieval studies trying to conduct itself without a thorough grounding in the understanding of how the church influenced intellectual life not only among the clerics and monks and religious but also among the ordinary non-religious people. And yet, so often it feels like this is happening with respect to the fundamental philosophical education the movers and shakers were receiving.

This has something that has perplexed me from the very first IMC that I attended (in 2007, I think), where out of roughly 1300 papers there were precisely two on the topic of logic -- mine, and one scheduled exactly opposite mine (not just the same session slot, but the same paper slot within that session, so I couldn't even duck out of the session I was in and go to the other paper). It isn't quite so dire when broadened to philosophy as a whole, but even then the number of philosophical papers presented at conferences like these is a minuscule percentage. I have no idea where this isolation of medieval philosophy from much of the rest of the concerns of medieval studies comes from, and I'm doing my best to combat it, but it does sometimes feel like an uphill battle. (At Leeds 2017, it was a great victory that the session with three logic papers that I was a part of had nearly two audience members per speaker -- my personal bar for "successful logic session at Leeds" has always been "at least as many audience members as speakers", i.e., three speakers, and three nonspeakers. But this time we had 9-10 people! It was amazing! But also very sad that that should be a great victory.)

I'd love to hear thoughts from the more historically-oriented medievalists. How much do you know about medieval philosophy? About the curriculum of medieval education? Does it intersect with your own research? How so? If not, why not? Am I simply being egotistical, and ascribing to great a place of importance to the role of philosophy in the Middle Ages?

This has strayed rather far from my "not-review" of the book. But it is, after all, not a review. Hopefully after I have read the book, I can come back and do a proper review!


  1. So... I know very little about medieval philosophy, and I'd go so far as to say I know nothing about it. My area of study is food history, verging over into agriculture and trade on the supply side. There have been plenty of occasions where I've found I need to know some more about economics, botany, biology, or even chemistry to get a better grasp on what I'm studying, but philosophy has not arisen. I'm somewhat hard put to imagine a situation in which it would have relevance to the things I'm dealing with, but I'd be interested to see examples.

    1. Three possibilities:

      (a) Law. What are the laws that regulate food trade? Who were they written by? People who studied law at university? What effect (if any) did their undergraduate education have on their study of law?

      (b) Who were the people actually trading in food products? At what point in history did they start going to university? Who were the people that employed them? Did they go to university?

      (c) Food in religious contexts. What are the religious laws and customs regarding food, how are they justified, how do monastic and clerical cultures talk about their relationship to food. (Completely leaving aside the question of transsubstantiation... :) )

      Actually, four
      (d) Health in general: How is humoral theory connected to natural philosophy and Aristotelian views of biology? If they aren't, where are they coming from? How are they being perpetuated -- as folk remedies, or by medical doctors (who would have studied Aristotle...)?

    2. Clearly, I have no idea what philosophy actually is. I would look in Legal History (Law, in the abstract), Economic History with a side of Education History (Economics and Education), Theology and Hagiography (historical as they are, largely), and Medical History (except in the context of Arabic areas, where food IS medicine) for those. But none of those are philosophy as I understand it.

      I think what you're driving toward is "what effects did people who studied philosophy have on your area", and the answer is: people who studied philosophy/didn't study it it would be completely swamped by the aristocratic/peasant and rural/urban divides. It's probably not impossible to gather information about it, but I think it'd tell you more a lot more about philosophers than it would about food, if you see what I mean.