Academic Freedom in Medieval Universities

Historian Peter Jones on Peter Abelard, logical analysis of the Scripture and what was the role of the universities in the Middle Ages

videos | June 21, 2021

I would say that by the 13th century universities are centers of learning which have learning itself as their major goal. They’re not necessarily centers for producing politicians, they’re not necessarily propping up the state in any way. They are places where scholars go to intensify and focus their study. We get the development of something we call scholasticism which is a certain kind of method which does develop out of Aristotle and other places. It’s a kind of rigor that scholars apply to studying texts.

So in the 12th century we have Peter Abelard, he’s one of the great but also one of the most controversial figures in the history of, I think, Western thought. Abelard was extremely proud of himself, he was extremely arrogant in many ways, he admits it himself, he writes an autobiography. He was a great master, he was an expert in theology, he was an expert, most of all though, in logic and in debating. He was an expert at Aristotle, he had a great facility for picking apart people’s arguments, and he had rivals within the city of Paris. His first great break came when he humiliated his teacher: he turned up and humiliated him, pointed out that his argument was nonsensical in front of all the students, and nobody came back to that master afterwards.

Abelard gained a great reputation, but Abelard’s star burnt a little bit too brightly. He seduced one of his students who incidentally was more intellectually brilliant than him, a woman named Eloise who knew Hebrew and Greek when nobody in Europe knew Hebrew and Greek. She was a truly phenomenal intellectual. But he seduced her; her uncle found out and decided to punish Abelard – crept into his room late at night and castrated him. This was a huge lesson for Abelard. Was it his seduction that got him in trouble? Well, his reputation didn’t help, his reputation for upsetting other scholars didn’t help. That early university environment was one of rivalries and competition.

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Abelard pioneered the scholastic method which is to say, one group of scholars has written this about, let’s say, an aspect of scripture, like ‘sell everything you own and follow me’, what does it mean? One group of scholars has written this, it means this, it means you should sell everything you own, one group of scholars has said it doesn’t mean that, it’s a metaphor, it’s an allegory and so on. Abelard and his scholastic method was about saying: right, let’s use our logic, let’s use our skills and thought and critical analysis to debate between these two different schools of thought and come up with a resolution. So he produced a work called Sic et Non which means in Latin ‘Yes and no’ which was an attempt to go through all the discordances in scholarship about scripture and come to definitive answers.

He was not afraid to ask even the most bold questions: does God exist? Is the world eternal? Abelard was mostly orthodox, he didn’t say anything outrageous, but he got into trouble, and his work on the Trinity, for example, was burnt, the work had to be burnt. He said it hurt him more than the castration when he watched it: I don’t believe it, but when he watched that work being burned, it was his life’s work.

So controversy is always there. What can you say or what can’t you say as a scholar? For Abelard his problem was he’d use logic to try and analyze the Trinity, the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit, the great Trinity at the heart of Christian theology. What is this Trinity? It’s three persons; it’s also one person. Does this mean there are three gods? No: it means there’s one god but it’s a mystery, it means it’s beyond our understanding. So when Abelard said, we can actually use metaphor and logic to understand what this means, I think actually he did a great job, but at the time it was controversial, and Abelard’s book had to be burnt because it was exactly the kind of overstepping the boundaries in scholarship that the universities or at least the early schools, some people thought they shouldn’t be doing.

By the 13th century kind of the focus of a lot of these debates became Thomas Aquinas. Now, Aquinas now is a great saint in the catholic church. Aquinas, I think, most scholars of medieval philosophy would say is the great figure, a towering intellectual, produced millions of words in his life. His scholarship is immense: the Summa Theologica and other works. But Thomas was also a logician, Thomas also used logic and the works of Aristotle and also the works of Islamic commentators on Aristotle to try and analyze the great mysteries of the faith.

For Aquinas you could use logic, but also your senses themselves, your empirical observations of the world you could use to understand God.

So Aquinas, for example, proved the existence of God just by using his five senses. It’s a wonderful piece of writing. It’s actually difficult to refute today; you might have a difference of opinion about what ‘god’ means, maybe ‘god’ means the Big Bang, maybe it means something else, maybe it means truth, but still: Aquinas’s proof is impressive.

For some, again, towards the end of the 13th century this is a problem, this is stepping too far: not necessarily the proof of God itself but other issues that Aquinas approached in his work. For Aquinas the fact that we should be able to use reason to understand all things in the world opens up all sorts of problems. What about miracles? Miracles are beyond reason, they’re in the world. Does this mean that for Aquinas miracles don’t exist? And all kinds of other issues along these lines. Aquinas’s work is condemned in 1277 precisely for the reason that it went too far. For example, there’s a list of accusations made about Aquinas, like that he denies that God created the universe, he says the world is eternal and things like that.

So these are the kinds of problems that arise. Aquinas is later reprieved and becomes actually The Authority if you’re going to study theology in the 15th and 16th century, Aquinas is the authority, but for a while that is really controversial.

With all these controversies by the end or the latter part of the Middle Ages there’s a big question what is the university for and who does it serve. Should university professors be supervised by a kind of committee of high theologians who restrict what you can and cannot say, what you can and cannot study? Or should it be free, should scholarship just research and probe the mysteries of the universe and come up with their own conclusions? Should they be orthodox or should they be free?

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There’s also a political element: by the end of the Middle Ages increasingly university scholars come to prop up political regimes. For example, there’s this huge heretical controversy in Paris at the end of the 13th century, and king Philip the Fair wants the university masters in Paris to come up with a certain argument that can justify, for example, the persecution of the Templar order or the burning at the stake of Marguerite Porete or later, different king, the burning at the sake of Joan of Arc. All of these condemnations, the king of France relies upon the university scholars to kind of make a framework that justifies these accusations, these condemnations.

So there’s a crisis in the university: who does it serve? Is it a tool of the state, a tool of the church, if you like? Or is it some kind of academic free space in between? In many ways this controversy doesn’t really get resolved, in many ways the question what is a university for has never really been resolved in these terms. There are those of us who still think that universities are these kind of islands of academic freedom where inquiry takes place on its own terms for its own purpose, and still there are other ways of thinking that university ultimately props up industry or that it can be a political tool, that it builds a society around a certain political agenda.

I think one mistake people often make about medieval universities when they think about them, is that they think that they were actually always these free spaces of inquiry, that actually they were peaceful environments in which students learned for the sake of learning.

But actually, what you find when you dig into the history of the medieval university is there’s an enormous amount of conflict, controversy. As I say, there’s great violence, people are burnt at the stake as a result of things that they said in a university or in a context or as a result of university masters ruling against them. These are controversial spaces and they produce very different routes, if you like, for modern institutions. If a modern institution wants to trace its roots into the medieval university, then it needs to be careful which kind of medieval university it’s thinking about. Is it thinking about the Parisian theology faculty that propped up Philip the Fair? Is it thinking about the Bologna law faculty which was guided by student power? Or is it thinking about the secular university of Frederick II in Naples? Which medieval university do we tie ourselves to today?

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PhD in History, University of Tyumen
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