The Schools of the Twelfth Century

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The Schools of the Twelfth Century

The School at Chartres.

The ascendancy of Paris as the intellectual center not only of France but of all of Europe was by no means inevitable. In the first half of the twelfth century, in fact, Paris's rival was the school at Chartres, some fifty miles to the south. The cathedral school there enjoyed a succession of first-rate masters, whose focus was the seven liberal arts: arithmetic, geometry, astronomy, music, grammar, rhetoric, and dialectics. These subjects of study assumed visible form, carved in stone over the main portal of the cathedral, dialectics being represented by a portrait of Aristotle. Notwithstanding their interest in Aristotle's logic—mediated through the translations and commentaries of Boethius—the masters of Chartres were more at home with the philosophy of Plato. They worked mainly from the Timaeus, the only one of Plato's dialogues available to them, and attempted to match up the Platonic myth of cosmogenesis (that is, the generation of the cosmos) with the story of creation in the book of Genesis.

Gilbert of Poitiers and Essentialism.

Perhaps the most brilliant and creative of the Chartres masters was Gilbert of Poitiers (1076–1154), who repeated and refined the distinction Boethius made between "that which is" and "that by which a thing is what it is." The individual "Socrates," in short, is distinct from that which makes Socrates what he is—his humanity. These are the foundational principles of a metaphysical view known as essentialism: to be is to be a certain kind. To the extent that a thing changes, to that extent is it not completely what it is. Hence anything that has the ability to change is in flux and has no true identity at any point in time. It is change, finally, that distinguishes the creature from the Creator, who is completely self-identical and therefore completely changeless.

John of Salisbury and the Policraticus.

Also counted by some among the notables of Chartres was the Englishman John of Salisbury (c. 1120–1180). Secretary to Thomas Becket (c. 1118–1170), archbishop of Canterbury, he joined his master in exile following Becket's dispute with King Henry II (1133–1189). After Becket's murder John was appointed bishop of Chartres, where he ended his days. The most influential of John's writings was the Policraticus, whose aim was to demonstrate that secular as well as ecclesiastical courts must be ruled by philosophical wisdom in order to direct that polity to eternal happiness. Though influenced by Plato's political thinking, John expanded Plato's three classes of society into four, adding craftsmen to the ruling, military, and worker classes. The king, representing the King of kings on earth, is responsible for attaining and preserving the common good. The bad king becomes a tyrant, and John invested his subjects with the right, and even the duty, of protecting themselves against such a ruler. Unlike Aristotle's (and later Aquinas's) political philosophy, John's state rested on positive law, not natural law. A law is a law because the king declares it a law and has the power to enforce it. John had his own rather practical solution to the problem of universals: the mind is capable, he says, of contemplating the resemblances between individual things; these things are called by the name of genus or species; they are not, however, realities apart from the things, but merely fuzzy likenesses of them, reflected on the mirror of the mind. Finally, and perhaps most importantly, John's letters as well as his ecclesiastical history provide us with valuable insights into his times. His narrative, for example, of the trial of Gilbert of Poitiers, with whom John had studied and who was tried for heresy in 1148, is the only objective account of that event.

Hugh of Saint-Victor and the Victorines.

A third school may be mentioned as testimony to the breadth and richness of twelfth-century intellectual currents—namely, the Victorines. Chased out of the schools by the rapier wit of Abelard, William of Champeaux, master of the school of Notre-Dame in Paris and reputed to be the foremost logician of his day, retired to the Augustinian house of canons regular of Saint-Victor on the Left Bank, where he resumed his teaching. There followed a succession of gifted theologians, known collectively as the Victorines, among whom were Hugh of Saint-Victor (1096–1141) and his successor, Richard of Saint-Victor (d. 1173). Dismissed by many historians of philosophy as a mystic, Hugh was, in fact, a rigorous thinker who was nevertheless convinced that the pursuit of truth was inseparable from the pursuit of virtue. "Learn everything you can," he writes, "you will find in time that nothing is wasted." This statement set the tone for Hugh's vision of theology: namely, that the knowledge of all the sciences serves as an introduction to what had been styled the queen of the sciences; philosophy was theology's ancilla, its "serving girl." It is this conception that in subsequent generations led to the most intense philosophizing of the Middle Ages—and possibly the most intense philosophizing the world has ever known.

The Victorine Program of Education and its Aftermath.

Hugh's educational program was laid out in a vast compilation entitled Didascalicon, which established in excruciating detail the curriculum to be undertaken by the budding theologian. He divided philosophy into four categories: theoretical, practical, mechanical, and logical. The first, theoretical, was subdivided into theology, physics, and mathematics; practical philosophy was subdivided into solitary, private, and public; mechanical—a Hugonian invention—into cloth-making, armament, trade, agriculture, hunting, medicine, and theater arts; and lastly, logic into grammar and disputation. It was this educational program that linked Hugh to the later Victorines. While it is not clear whether Richard of Saint-Victor was Hugh's personal student or not, he was certainly the latter's doctrinal disciple. Honored by the Italian poet Dante Alighieri (1265–1321) with a place in Paradise in his Divine Comedy as one who was "in contemplation more than a man," Richard was a master of spirituality or mysticism. In his Benjamin Major and Benjamin Minor Richard stressed love over knowledge, drawing principally from the tradition of Dionysius the pseudo-Areopagite; God is attained only fleetingly and in a "cloud of darkness," a metaphor that was to have great currency in the succeeding centuries. It is a movement known as negative theology—the notion that the truest thing that can be said of God is that no one knows what God is.

Peter Lombard and the Book of the Sentences.

Although there was no actual twelfth-century "school" associated with the teachings of Peter Lombard (c. 1100–1160), bishop of Paris, his contribution to theology in this period was profound: he was the author of what has been referred to as "one of the least read of the world's great books." Called the Books of the Sentences, Lombard's great work not only attempts to reconcile seemingly contrary texts in the manner of Abelard's Sic et Non, it also arranges the opinions (sententiae in Latin) of the church fathers, especially Augustine, into a system with a logical order of development. Canvassing as it does the whole of the discipline, it was an obvious choice for a textbook in theology, and from the end of the twelfth century until the sixteenth every candidate for a terminal degree in the sacred science was required to spend at least two years "commenting" on Lombard's Sentences. Literally hundreds of these commentaries survive, most of them still in manuscript form.


Marcia L. Colish, Medieval Foundations of the Western Intellectual Tradition 400–1400 (New Haven, Conn.: Yale University Press, 1997): 225–233.

Peter Dronke, ed., A History of Twelfth-Century Western Philosophy (Cambridge, England: Cambridge University Press, 1988).

David Knowles, The Evolution of Medieval Thought (London: Longmans, 1962): 131–149.

Armand Maurer, Medieval Philosophy. 2nd ed. (Toronto: Pontifical Institute of Medieval Studies, 1982): 71–81.

Philipp Rosemann, A Companion to Philosophy in the Middle Ages. Eds. Jorge J. E. Gracia and Timothy B. Noone (London: Blackwell, 2003): 514–515.

see also Visual Arts: Intellectual Influences on Art in the Later Middle Ages

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