The birth of medieval scholasticism

In his second of what was originally projected to be a three-volume series on “Scholastic Humanism,” R.W. Southern characterizes the period from about 1080 to 1160 as the “heroic age” of medieval scholasticism, the “period of essential innovation … when the main principles of … scholastic humanism were formulated.” Although he characterizes scholasticism in typical fashion in terms of its “method of absorbing, elaborating, Christianizing and systematizing the whole intellectual deposit of the Greco-Roman past to produce a complete body of doctrine about both the natural and supernatural worlds,” and as an effort “to embrace all knowledge and every kind of activity in a single world-view,” of particular interest to Southern is the influence scholasticism exerted on the governance and structure of medieval society.

In Southern’s narrative, scholasticism’s proximate origins are properly to be traced to the school of (the other) Anselm, of Laon, in the final decades of the eleventh century, before shifting its center to the schools of Paris at the beginning of the twelfth century. While the more familiar names of Albert, Bonaventure, Aquinas, Scotus, and Ockham belong to those who “gave the scholastic enterprise its fullest expression,” they were the masters of the two generations prior to 1160 that first set the project on its course. Of particular importance to Southern’s telling of the story is the unprecedented and, for the trajectory of subsequent European history, pregnant and promising union that was forged between the schools and the governing institutions (namely church and state) of medieval society, the effects of which we are still experiencing today: “the period of scholastic history from about 1090 to 1200 changed the whole future of Europe, partly by the work of the masters in the schools and even more by bringing into existence a new class of scholastically educated men who inserted themselves in the middle ranges of government.” By contrast, Southern avers, the “intellectual refinements” after this formative period, while perhaps significant in their own right, had “only marginal and often conspicuously deleterious effects on the conduct of government.”

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