Scholastic Culture of the Middle Ages, by John W. Baldwin (5/107)

This topic is relevant to my interests for the purpose of world-building — specifically for Keilja’s story, because he grows up and becomes a university professor, and there’s more to writing a medieval university than sticking some turrets on UCLA. Initially I bought this book and Charles Homer Haskins’ The Rise of the Universities to get concrete details about university life, such as how classes were chosen and scheduled, where they were held, how students paid for them, what subjects were taught and how classes were conducted, how professors interacted with their students in and outside the classroom, and all the other things that I didn’t even know I didn’t know.

Baldwin’s book is thin on those kind of details; instead he spends the bulk of his time on the macroscopic conditions that allowed universities to come into being, the social forces (like political stability and increased commerce/urbanization) that created the need for a literate populace. That’s less interesting than anecdotes about students throwing their professors in a river, but equally useful from a world-building perspective, if you want to make sure that your universities exist because the social context supports them, rather than Because I Said So.

I’d known going in that learning was kept alive in the early middle ages in monasteries, and that for a long time the church had the monopoly on scholarship. I hadn’t realized how close the ties between church and university continued to be for several centuries after their inception.

Fun fact! Since students were considered part of the church hierarchy as long as they were attending the universities, they could not be tried in civil courts, only ecclesiastical ones, and furthermore, it was a sin worthy of excommunication to assault a member of the priesthood. As a result, students were in-fucking-sufferable, all in dire need of a punch to the teeth, but with no one who could give it to them. Think frat boys with diplomatic immunity.

Granted, without a Christianity-analogue in my world I can’t use that particular bit of trivia, but diplomatic immunity is always an excellent vehicle for conflict. (Just look at all the controversy over U.S. soldiers retaining the right to U.S. military tribunals for crimes committed abroad.)

Two other things that impressed me while I was reading:

(1) How much the university organization was patterned after guilds

Students = apprentices
Bachelor’s degree = journeymen
Master’s/Doctorate = master [whatever]

The students/apprentices were the ones who were doing nothing but learning. In the guild hierarchy, journeymen were day laborers (hence, “journey”) who knew enough of their craft to get paid for it but did not own their own business, and did not earn enough to support a family — hence their equivalency with the bachelors of the universities. After getting your bachelor’s degree, you could start getting paid, teaching some of the more peripheral texts (you weren’t allowed to teach the central, important stuff yet), while you continued honing your own knowledge. At the top of the guild ladder:

Normally, full rights were conferred on craftsmen called masters, who had demonstrated their skill by producing a masterwork or chef d’oeuvre, which was regarded as a kind of final examination. Not only was attainment of a skill necessary, but the master had also to have an established business which was capable of supporting him. In other words, economic independence as well as maturity qualified one for full membership.

At the top of the academic ladder:

The procedure admitting to this title [of master] was called inceptio or the initiation, which involved a series of examinations and ceremonies. In general it consisted of examinations on contents of knowledge, the demonstration of the ability to lecture and dispute, the ceremonial investing of the profession’s symbols, and a banquet at the candidate’s expensive. In essence the inceptio embodied the guild principle of entrance into the society upon the successful performance of professional skills.

(2) How heavily they relied on standard texts.

Basically, you went to a medieval university to learn Aristotle.

These days we have a staggering proliferation of textbooks (result of the publish-or-perish paradigm in academia today) in any given subject, and the professor is free to pick their favorite, rely on it as much or as little as they want to, write their own, or lecture from their own notes and not use a book at all. Back then, there was basically ONE GUY whose writing formed the core of any given discipline. For Roman law, you studied Justinian. Gratian for canon law, Augustine for theology, Hippocrates and Galen for medicine, and Aristotle for everything else, ethics, logic, grammar, rhetoric, physics, philosophy, natural history, you name it.

(Isaac Newton was repeating an aphorism of the age when he said that, “If I have seen further, it is only by standing on the shoulders of giants.”)

This is a part of world-building that I really enjoy, academic nerd that I am — creating the Great Thinkers of my world’s history and working through the ways that their ideas have penetrated and shaped society. (Sarah Monette is an author who is really good at this; the academic backdrop she’s created is so rich and plausible, and adds incredible depth to her world.) The Aristotle-analogue of my world is a Watertree philosopher named Diwani Kazi, who was patronized by the early hierophants, and whose writings on ethics and natural history even got canonized in Watertree’s primary religious text, yay. (Meanwhile in Sedekevra, they can’t exactly ignore Diwani Kazi’s enormous contributions to learning, but they are seriously not comfortable making the holy text of a different religion so central to their higher education. Cue the conflict!)

Aristotle is up next, because he loomed so large in medieval scholarship and I’m curious what all the fuss was about.

2 thoughts on “Scholastic Culture of the Middle Ages, by John W. Baldwin (5/107)

  1. This is oddly parallel to my current obsession interest – mainly, the schools and governesses for girls in England’s 18th century. For example, all the “accomplishments” taught were purely to a) attract a husband, and b) have something to do that was lady-like and yet would keep them from being bored. As such, the variety was somewhat interesting – music (mostly piano and harp, as they were considered the instruments women were most “attractive” playing, as well as singing), art of all forms, from drawing to painting to sculpting, dancing, and a variety of languages – French, Italian, German, Spanish, etc. A school was generally started as something that was almost like a boarding house – a woman needed money and so she got some young people to come live in her house, except in these instances, the people living there were paying to learn something as well as paying for their room and board.

    So to me, the difference between the universities for men and the schools for girls are rather fascinating. I’d known that “scholars” in England for centuries tended to just be able to do whatever the fuck they wanted, but I had no idea the reason why is because they were considered members of the church. Compared to the women of this time, who weren’t even allowed to take a walk outside alone without being considered someone to be mocked and derided as a “loose woman.”

  2. Hah, I was just thinking about how those “feminine” things to study were afforded less respect than the MANLY things to study, like SRS BIZNISS philosophy and logic, etc, when really, is logic any inherently more useful than music?

    Well, yes and no, as I learned in this book. The universities, once they were established, certainly allowed for a lot of learning for its own sake (Aristotle talks about philosophy as being the last science to develop, simply because it has no practical function whatsoever, so it only comes about after everything else has been taken care of), but the culture that produced universities did so because it needed people trained in these skills of grammar/logic/rhetoric, for commerce. (Those three were the basis of a “liberal arts” education.) A liberal arts degree was the baseline; law and medicine were considered the lucrative, money-making routes; it was only theology that was scholarship for its own sake. And thus, while being more highly regarded, about as vital as learning ladylike accomplishments.

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