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Medieval Universities and the Age of Translation

Page history last edited by Garry Polley 15 years, 7 months ago



The Age of Translation


     Due to factors such as population growth, the rise of centralized government, the growth of large cities, and the need for more civil servants such as doctors and lawyers, Latin Europe sought to bring educational reform. Charlemagne issued an edict in the 8th century establishing cathedral and monastery schools. Gerbert of Aurillac (~945- 1003), later known as Pope Sylvester II, was a beneficiary of this movement. He studied in France, in the monastery at Aurillac, then traveled to Muslim Spain in order to study astronomical and mathematical works of the Arabic scholars. The cathedral schools in Laon, Reims, Orleans, Paris, and other cities, with teachers such as Gerbert and Peter Abelard (Sic et Non) emitted an aura of intellectual excitement.


     Slowly there developed a thirst for new knowledge. In the 11th and 12th centuries there was already a trickle of ideas from translated works (Lindberg p.200). With the re-conquest of Spain by the European world, where many of the Muslim libraries existed, an incredible amount of works ranging from Plato's Almagest to commentaries on Avicenna fell into Christian hands. Most of the translation took place in the libraries of Spain and Italy. These libraries were centered in the cities of Seville, Cordova, Toledo, Syracuse, Palermo, Salerno, and Monte Cassino. Motivation for the translation of ancient works was utility. Medicine, astronomy, astrology, and mathematical works were in high demand. These in turn required an examination of their philosophical foundations.


   Many people significantly contributed to the translation effort during this period of time. Gerard of Cremona (~1114-1187) went to Toledo, Spain in order to translate the Almagest.  Spending most of the rest of his life there, he translated around 70 other works from Arabic into Latin: a dozen in astronomy, 17 in mathematics and optics including Euclid's Elements, al-Khwarizmi's Algebra; 14 works on logic and natural philosophy with Aristotle's Physics, On the Heavens, Meteorology, On Generation and Corruption among them; and 24 works in medicine including Avicenna's Cannon, and some works of Galen. Another translator, William of Moerbeke(~1215-1286), rendered works from Greek into Latin. He searched for Aristotle, but translated commentaries, Neoplatonic works, and mathematical works of Archimedes as well. These translations were very literal. In fact, one can almost recreate the Greek versions of his works simply by literal 'reverse translation.'


The Medieval University


     With the expanded translation efforts the initial trickle of ideas turned into a flood. The need to absorb the new knowledge, along with the growing numbers of students seeking higher education led to the rise of Medieval Universities. These universities were modeled after professional guilds. They became associations of teachers and students, which received benefits from the government and in return trained people that would contribute to the community. Bologna, established around 1150, Paris (1200), and Oxford (1220) became the models to follow.     


     A student who must be male came to the university at the age of 14. The initial study under a master, who they gave an oath in order to study, of 3-4 years led to a bachelor's degree, with the added title of journeyman apprentice able to teach under supervision. Further mastery in the required subjects culminated with an examination and a master's degree upon successful completion. The student could now teach all of the arts and was a full faculty member. The arts curriculum included logic, some mathematics and astronomy, moral and natural philosophy and metaphysics. By 1255, all of Aristotle's principle works concerning metaphysics, cosmology, physics, meteorology, psychology, and natural history became compulsory. If desired, further education in the fields of law, theology or medicine was possible. Each of these fields required a different amount of time spent studying in the field. Medicine required an additional 5-6 years, law required 7-8, and theology required from 8-16 additional years.


     University education was very much standard across Europe. The curricula were uniform. The master's degree, which came with the right to teach anywhere (ius ubique docendi), mobilized professors. The focus of learning was broadened from the initial liberal arts. Logic was emphasized as was Aristotle's natural philosophy. The universities allowed, within broad limits, a freedom of thought and expression.  Though, they were goverened by Cannon law.


Assimilation and Absorption of Greek Philosophy   


     In the thirteenth century, there was a large absorption of Aristotle's cosmology into western learning, though his logic had been in use for centuries. (Prior to the advent of Aristotelian thought in Europe, European philosophers were largely Platonic.) Many philosophers, such as Grosseteste, commented on Aristotle. Some, like Anselm of Bec and Canterbury (1033-1109) used Aristotle's logic to try to prove the existence of God (known as the ontological proof). 


     Roger Bacon worked in the thirteenth century. He studied in Oxford and in Paris, where he lectured on Aristotle. There was, in his opinion, no conflict between philosophy and faith. His Opus Maius contains a defense of philosophy. In it, he described obstacles in the search for truth: adherence to authority, philosophical custom, popular prejudice, the cloaking of ignorance in wisdom. A proper exegesis of scripture, Bacon believed required knowledge of the world from a philosophical standpoint. Natural philosophy answers different questions from theology; it cannot tell 'why,' but 'how' and 'what.' Bacon also emphasized the importance of grammar, mathematics, and languages in order to properly translate texts.


     A comprehensive interpretation of Aristotle's philosophy and adaptation to Christian doctrine came with the works of Albert the Great and his pupil Thomas Aquinas. Albert (ca. 1200-1280) was educated at Padua and in Cologne, later he studied theology in Paris. He wrote commentaries or paraphrases of all the available books of Aristotle, which compose 12 fat volumes and 8000 pages in a 19th century edition of his works (Lindberg p. 230). The commentaries contain long digressions in which Albert introduces his own opinions or brings Platonic and other doctrines to bear on the issue. They show his familiarity with Avicenna, Plato, Euclid, Galen, al-Kindi, Averroes and many others. Albert argued that philosophy cannot decide in favor or against creation and so the Bible should be followed on this matter. The soul is not the form of the body, as Aristotle claimed, but merely performs its functions. He also thought a philosopher should take natural causes to their limit in explaining events. Although God is the ultimate cause of everything, Albert argued that he works through natural causes.


     Thomas of Aquinas (ca. 1224-74) added to the arguments of Albert. He noted that philosophy and theology are methodically different but must arrive at truth, by virtue of originating with God. Philosophy, in Thomas's view, can provide "preambles to the faith" (Lindberg p.232) and should be freed of overly close theological supervision. Philosophy and theology should be allowed to masters of their own spheres. The Christian-Aristotelian ideology of Aquinas became official Church teaching in the long run, although it met with opposition at first.


     There was a great worry among traditional clergy about the formation of a secular philosophy with doctrines incompatible with their theoretical counterparts. In 1210 the bishop of Paris - Etienne Tempier, forbade the teaching of natural philosophy at the University of Paris by the faculty of arts. In 1231 Pope Gregory IX became involved, stating that some of the instruction was useful and should not be banned. Instruction in Aristotelian philosophy continued in spite of the condemnations. The actions of Siger of Brabant (ca. 1240-84) and Boethius of Dacia (fl.1270), however, aggravated the worries of conservative elements. Siger practiced philosophy without theological concerns. He defended monopsychism and the eternity of the world as true in the domain of natural philosophy. Boethius argued further that philosophy can resolve any question approachable by reason, and could reach separate truths from theology. These "double truth" stances led to the most notable condemnation of Aristotle's works, which occurred in 1277. This decree was very extensive, banning 219 propositions derived from Aristotle's works. They could not be taught at the University of Paris in the arts faculty (archbishops of Canterbury extended them to England) under threat of excommunication, heresy, and death. Among others, the propositions included using Aristotle's cosmological arguments to define the limits of God's power. The articles were not meant to eliminate Aristotle, but return philosophy to its handmaiden role. Because of this ban, philosophers began to wonder what it would have been like if God had done things differently. It led to speculative and hypothetical non-Aristotelian alternatives (i.e. “What if God could not move the universe 3 inches to the left?).

Terms and People:


exegesis:  true understanding of a text

university:  an association of students and teachers toward the advancement of knowledge

"The Philosopher":  refers to Aristotle

"The Commentator": refers to Averroes

medieval disciplines: Theology, Medicine, Law, Philosophy

Gerbert of Aurillac (~945-1003; Pope Sylvester II): acquired numerous Arabic texts, authored numerous translations, and contributed greatly to the Medieval compendium of knowledge.

Gerard of Cremona (~1114-1187):  Translated the Almagest + 71 works from Arabic to Latin.

William of Moerbeke (~1215-1286):  Attempted to give the Latin world a complete corpus of Aristotle's works.

Avicenna (980-1037):  interpreted Aristotle with a distinct Platonic flavor that heavily influenced Latin thinking until the beginning of the 11th century.

Averroes (1126-1198):  His more direct interpretation of Aristotle replaced Avicenna's interpretations

Roger Bacon (1220-1292):  Made attempts to save the 'new learning' (Aristotelian philosophy and new literature on the subjects of science and philosophy) and argued for a broader handmaiden role for philosophy.  

Albert the Great (1200-1280): Supplied rigorous commentary on all of Aristotle's works and brought them into harmony with Christian theology



Comments (12)

Jessica Germer said

at 4:41 pm on Oct 2, 2008

I started the page but didn't know if i should include the second part of the lecture on the assimilation and absorption of Aristotle because my topic just included universities and translation. Go ahead and edit and add (i just skimmed the serface so that there would still be info to add.

liz mastroianni said

at 12:23 pm on Oct 3, 2008

i just edited it and added some info about the absoption of aristotle, but it might need some more editting.

jgm829@... said

at 11:07 pm on Oct 4, 2008

I did some basic editing.

Grant Berry said

at 10:43 am on Oct 5, 2008

Added a little about the condemnation and logic, and I peppered in a few bits here and there. Definitely needs some format editing later.

Nicole Hagstrom said

at 4:08 am on Oct 6, 2008

I separated out a fair bit of the information into slightly more managable headings. There's a lot to be done on this page though. Some primary sources (namely the condemnations from the course pack) would work quite nicely on the absorption section section.

jonathan stutte said

at 12:20 am on Oct 7, 2008

put some people in the 'terms and people' section. it only made sense. the font size changed for no reason though.

Alyson Collins said

at 10:09 am on Oct 7, 2008

I changed some grammar/sentence structure. Added a few small things that I thought was important. I also capitalized 'Canon' (Canon law) I'm not 100% sure it should be though. There were a few places I thought maybe someone took from Lindberg. I don't know if those should be cited or not.

Alyson Collins said

at 10:11 am on Oct 7, 2008

I just looked at the wiki site front page, and I think if your idea is from Lindberg and not the lecture, it should be cited, I won't tackle it just in case my notes are just missing something, though, and it isn't from Lindberg.

Keriann Collins said

at 11:57 am on Oct 7, 2008

I'm confused about what was meant by "tried to show that reason was incompatible with logic." As I don't know what was meant, I can't edit it more clearly. Organization was good this time, I think.

Marek said

at 12:04 am on Oct 19, 2008

clarified much of the work, added bits here and there

Larry_Crump said

at 11:06 am on Oct 21, 2008

Basic proofreading, plus examples of how Aristotelian ideology interacted with religious c. 1277 onward.

Larry_Crump said

at 11:08 am on Oct 21, 2008

Also, I particularly love the writing style of the person that did the bulk of this page. Bravo, you use literary elements with the utmost of taste rather than uncouth like so many that attempt that road.

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