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William of Conches


Teacher, philosopher, theologian, natural scientist, and grammarian of Chartres; b. Normandy, c. 1090; d. c. 1155. William was a leading figure of what has come to be known as the 12th-century renaissance.

Life. From the scant biographical information, we ascertain that William was born in Conches, Normandy "in a country of mutton-heads under the dense sky of Normandy" (Dragmaticon VI.i.i. ). John of Salisbury, one of his students and later bishop of Chartres, tells us that William studied under Master Bernard of Chartres most probably at the Cathedral school at Chartres, before taking up his own teaching duties around 1125, probably at Chartres and at Paris. There remains some scholarly disagreement as to where he taught. He was renowned as a teacher of grammar, although his writings reveal that he was equally adept in the natural sciences, philosophy, and, to a lesser extent, medicine. At some point in the ensuing 20 years William left teaching, at least in part because of a conflict with the Cornificiansa group of education reformists who sought to decrease the scope of those subjects required by the schools and the length of time spent studying themand because of bitter attacks by William of St. Thierry, who denounced the Chartrian as a heretic (De erroribus Guilielmi de Conchis ad sactum Bernardum, ed. Leclercq, Revue Bénédictine LXXXIX [1969] 37591). William found employment, and perhaps protection, in his native Normandy at the court of Geoffrey Plantagenet, the duke of Normandy and count of Anjou. Here, from around 11441151, William was entrusted, at least in part, with the education of the duke's sons, including the future king of England, Henry II (b. 1133). Of William's last years we know little. Alberic of Trois-Fontaines mentions William in his chronicle of 1154 indicating that "Master William of Conches was regarded as a philosopher of great fame" (Monumenta Germaniae historica, Scriptores, vol. 23, ed. Scheffer-Boichorst [Berlin 1874] 842). No futher mention is made o him, and he seems to have died soon after, around 115556. His writings were widely copied after his death.

Works. To William's youth are ascribed his glosses on Macrobius, Boethius, and two on Priscian. His gloss on Plato's Timaeus, is a more mature work and it appears, like the others, to have gone through several revisions. These commentaries did not merely repeat the words and ideas of the authors. Rather, William used his unique style of glossing both to probe the depths of the texts' meanings and to use them as vehicles to present his own ideas. To the list of his early works belongs his Philosophia mundi, wrongly assigned by Migne to St. Bede (Patrologia Latina, ed. J. P. Migne [Paris 187890] 90 112778) and Honorius of Autun (Patrologia Latina 172:39102). Here William presents philosophy as the study of everything both visible and invisible. The text opens with a brief sketch of the Trinity, the angels, chaos, and the fundamental elements of creation. William argues that the Genesis account of creation is compatible with his beloved Timaeus and with contemporary scientific studies. The middle section of the text discusses astronomy, eclipses, and meteorology. The book concludes with an examination of the earth itself. William first expounds on geological and biological sciences, and he culminates with a portrait of humanity as the microcosm of the universe, covering all aspects of human development from the process of conception, development in the womb, menstruation, to memory loss in old age.

The Philosophia gives us a clear picture of the understanding of the natural sciences in the first quarter of the 12th century. When it is compared with William's final work, the Dragmaticon, written around 1148, the reader can see the extensive development that had taken place because of the transmission of Greek and Islamic sciences to the West. Although William's major source for Dragmaticon is Constantinus of Africa, he shows familiarity with the works of Adelard of Bath, and perhaps the medical texts of the Salernitan school.

The Dragmaticon, long thought to have been a mere updating of the earlier Philosophia, now has been revealed as a substantial independent. William writes it in the form of a dialogue. The character of the "Duke"Geoffrey Plantagenetasks questions and the "philosopher"Williamanswers them. After opening with a perhaps insincere recantation of the "errors of his youth," William clarifies points made earlier in his writings and demonstrates his familiarity with the new learning and his willingness to change in light of new information. However, the integration of the newly arrived Aristotle with William's Platonic worldview proved most difficult.

The attribution of authorship to William of the compendium of moral maxims titled Moralium dogma philosophorum remains questionable. The Glosae super Martianum has not been preserved, if it was ever completed, and both the Compendium philosophiae, and the Glosae in Juvenalem, are no longer attributed to William. The extensive transmission of William's works, and what appears to have been his constant revisions, has made it difficult to distinguish William's writing's from those of his students and redactors.

Thought. William was a natural philosopher, a Platonist, and a staunch supporter of the liberal arts, human reason, and the dignity of humanity. He sought to comprehend the world in rational terms, but he understood that knowledge of creation led to knowledge of the creator. He was critical of contemporaries and mistrusted rational explanations of phenomena and of events in Scripture. In addition to classical Latin authors, Church Fathers, Plato, and Neoplatonists, William studied Constantinus of Africa, Abu Ma 'shar, Adelard of Bath, and new translations of Greek authors such as Ptolemy, Euclid, Nemesius, Galen, and Hippocrates.

Throughout his life, William remained a metaphysician whose writings were deeply influenced by Plato's Timaeus and such Neoplatonic sources as Boethius, Macrobius, Martianus Capella, and Chalcidius. Though not a theologian in the sense of his contemporaries Thierry of Chartres and Gilbert of Poitiers, he does speak a great deal about God, and he is not hesitant to expound on Scripture. William believed that humanity has the ability to know the Creator by studying the creation. William believed that "pagan" authors and the cosmos itself serve as a veiled source of divinely inspired truth. The role of the philosopher is to use the tools of reason and integumentpulling back the layers of metaphor and coloringto reveal the kernel inside things. He felt that the contemplation of the natural world could lead humanity to know the nature of things in their corporeal reality and to knowledge of the eternal ideas that resided in the eternal exemplar who is the Son and through whom God the Father created the cosmos. All existence has its eternal being in God. In turn God, exists in things exemplaristically as the core of their being. This exemplarism is an interpretative lens by which he viewed the world.

To his exemplarism must be added William's under-standing of the Platonic idea of the World Soul. In his early writings William argues that the power which Plato assigns to the World Soul can be none other than that which Christians call the Holy Spirit. William saw the World Soul as a metaphor or integument, for understanding how God, in the Person of the Holy Spirit, is present in the world. The World Soul is the natural energy by which some things move, others grow, others sense, others think.

The identification of the World Soul with the Holy Spirit, as it was thought to have been held by Peter Abelard, was condemned by the Council of Sens in 1141, the same year of William of St. Thierry's attack on the Chartrian. This seems to have had an effect on William, since in his last work, the Dragmaticon, the topic of the world soul is dropped. However, it is not explicitly denied, as are several other perceived "errors." William only refers to the errors of his Philosophia and makes no mention of his other works, most of which contain substantial commentary on the world soul. In what appears to be his later revisions of his glosses, William does not mention the connection between the Holy Spirit with the World Soul, and instead refers to the inherent power of God in the world as divine love and goodness. William tells us that it is divine love which moves humanity, the stars, and the planets towards God.

William's influence can be gleamed from the transmission of his works. There are numerous copies of his commentaries, and his two systematic works can be found in over 70 manuscripts.

Bibliography: Sources: Philosophia mundi, ed. g. maurach (Pretoria 1980). Glosae super Platonem, ed. e. jeauneau (Paris 1965); "Deux redactions des gloses de Guillaume de Conches sur Priscian" RTAM 27, 1960: 21247. Glosae super Pricianum (Paris, B.N. MS lat 15130). Dragmaticon, ed. i. ronca (Turnhout 1997). Glosae super Boethium, ed. l. nauta (Turnhout 1999). Glosse super Macrobium (in preparation) ed. h. rodnite lemay. Literature: t. gregory, Anima mundi: la filosofia di Guglielmo di Conches e la scuola di Chartres (Florence 1955); Platonismo medievale (Rome 1958). j. m. parent, La doctrine de la création dans l' école de Chartres (Paris 1938). j. a. clerval, Les écoles de Chartres au moyen Age du V siécle au XVI siécle (Paris 1895). h. flatten, Die Philosophie des Wilhelm von Conches (Koblenz 1929). e. jeauneau, "L'usage de la notion d'integumentum a travers les gloses de Guillaume de Conches." AHDLMA 24 (1957), 35100); "Macrobe, source du platonisme Chartrain" Studi Medievali 3rd. ser.1, 1960: 324. p. dronke, Fabula: Explorations into the Uses of Myth in Medieval Platonism (Leiden 1974). See as well the introductions to the critical editions mentioned above.

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