Medieval History Ch. 42: Learning and Art, The Universities and Liberal Arts, Scholasticism, Literature, Architecture

14th-century image of a university lecture

The following is an excerpt (pages 483-497) from Ancient and Medieval History (1944) by Francis S. Betten, S.J. Although some information may be outdated, the Catholic historical perspective it provides remains pertinent. Use the link at the bottom of post to read the previous/following pages. Use the Search box above to find specific topics or browse using the Resources tab above.





614. Latin Literature. — The language of the learned was Latin and remained so for many centuries. Among the Latin productions of the Teutonic period we may mention particularly many historical works and the lives of saints and other prominent persons. (In his Readings in European History, Vol. I, James H. Robinson enumerates and briefly describes the chief historical sources for the Middle Ages. But this bibliography (placed at the end of the several chapters) can give but a faint idea of the large number of books from which historians draw their knowledge of those times.) Peculiar to the time are the chronicles, which simply record, under each year, the important events without trying to connect them in any way. Some of them are confined to localities, convents, or churches; others, e.g., the famous Anglo-Saxon Chronicle, take in a whole nation. Chronicles are not history proper, but they furnish material to the historians.

Many of these writings, lives of saints particularly, contain much legendary matter. Those were not critically inclined times (§ 499). People believed in the possibility of miracles, and in a kindly Divine Providence. They were right so far. But in their credulity they often accepted the reports of miraculous events without investigation. Then, just as with writers of our own days, they were subject to bias for or against certain rulers or nations or institutions. Yet all this leaves a very considerable number of reliable sources from which to draw knowledge of the period.

Poetry, too, at first, usually chose a Latin dress. Charlemagne’s literary circle could boast of a goodly number of creditable poetical productions, which did not remain without imitations.
The period of the Ottos had the honor of being glorified by a poetess, the nun Hroswitha, whose fertile and not unskillful pen produced a number of simple Latin dramas and panegyrical poems of considerable merit. Several epics, also, belong to the same period. The copious literature of the “Schoolmen” will be dealt with in a later chapter (§§ 619 ff.).

The struggle carried on by the Church for a more dignified and virtuous life in the clergy and against the encroachments of the secular power had an enlivening influence upon the whole intellectual life of Europe (§ 576 ff.). A similar effect in every field of medieval activity followed the general stir caused by the crusades (§ 601).

615. Literature in National Languages. — At the time of the crusades the national languages began to be used much more extensively. Charlemagne had cultivated his German. Alfred the Great had introduced the tongue of Anglo-Saxon England into his prose writings. A number of poetical works had appeared in the course of several centuries in the languages of the people. Now this use became general. The following are a few of the important productions of the period.

Under the Hohenstaufens Germany developed lyric poetry of a high perfection. The chief theme of its minnesingers was love. Southern France had its troubadours with their amatorial songs, many of them notoriously corrupt. Spain produced the Song of the Cid (the national hero in the conflict with the Moors). In northern France the trouveurs celebrated King Arthur and his Table Round or the adventures of Charlemagne and his (real or fictitious) companions. An unknown German poet wove part of the national legends into a stately epic, the Nibelungenlied. The ballads of the north were shaped into the Heimskringla by a bard in far-off Iceland. These medieval works and many others richly repay careful reading.

But the grandest product of medieval poetry is the Divine Comedy of the Italian Dante, “the most astonishing poem in the world, dwarfing all others.” Under the allegory of a journey through Hell, Purgatory, and Heaven, the poet gives expression to the most sublime thoughts that nature and faith can furnish. Comparing him with Virgil, the great Roman, a critic says: “Dante is even truer in description than Virgil, whether he paints the snow falling in the Alps, or the homeward flight of the birds, or the swelling of an angry torrent. But under this gorgeous pageantry there lies a unity of conception, a power of philosophic grasp, an earnestness of religion, which to the Roman poet is entirely unknown.” (Walsh, The Thirteenth, Greatest of Centuries, page 317.)


616. The Monastic and Cathedral Schools. — Before the inroads of the Northmen the schools of the Irish monasteries were celebrated throughout Europe (§§ 405; 451, 2). On the continent Charlemagne’s enlightened efforts gave a new impetus to school education (§ 440). It was in the convent and cathedral schools established or renewed in consequence of his encouragement, and in similar institutions of later date, that the authors of the literature of the times (§ 614 ff.) had received their education. (The instruction in mathematics and natural sciences, however, was of a very primitive character.) The causes mentioned at the end of § 614 produced a decided improvement. They brought about the establishment of universities, a means of instruction beyond which mankind has not as yet advanced.

617. The universities came into being gradually. The oldest, Bologna in Italy, grew from the famous schools of law of that city. That of Paris began as an expansion of the school attached to the cathedral of Notre Dame. Several universities were started by dissatisfied students and professors seceding from other institutions. Thus Oxford in England owes its beginning to such a secession from Paris; the University of Pavia is an offshoot of Bologna.

The teachers of a university were divided into several faculties for the various branches: theology, philosophy, medicine, law. What natural science there was went under philosophy. A faculty of arts gave the preliminary education, chiefly in the classics, — a course more or less resembling that covered in our high schools and colleges combined. The professors of each faculty elected a dean as their head; the whole university was under an elective rector. In those days it was evident that in all questions of education the pope must have a decisive influence: in each university he was represented by the chancellor, who gave the teaching license to those whom the university had appointed.

The universities were completely cosmopolitan. One language, Latin, served for the lectures as well as for daily intercourse among professors and students. A German might be elected rector in Paris, or an Englishman in Bologna. The students flocked together from all countries indiscriminately. In the university each student belonged to a certain nation, which did not necessarily coincide with the nation from which he came. In Paris there were four “nations,” the French, the Normans, the Picards, the English; the English nation embraced all the students from the northern countries, including the Germans. In Bologna there was one great division between those from Italy and those from “Beyond the Mountains,” each class being again subdivided into some twenty “nations.”

The universities soon procured great ecclesiastical and civil privileges. Teachers and students became exempt from the local magistrates. The institution thus was a republic in itself. The students were tried and punished for excesses not by royal or city courts but by the university authorities.

The young man who passed the examination at the end of his course in “arts” was declared Baccalaureus Artium, Bachelor of Arts. Many were satisfied with this. Those who stayed for higher studies selected one of the other branches. The goal of their ambition was the title of Doctor (Teacher) in their profession. (In some universities the title of Magister, Master, was equivalent to Doctor.)

The examination contained a written and an oral test but the oral was the more important. Besides the lectures of the professors there was a constant round of oral repetitions and above all numerous debates or disputations. Lent was the special season for disputations, and they were from time to time held with great pomp and ceremony.

The first universities rose more or less spontaneously. The later ones were formally established by popes or, with the pope’s cooperation, by secular princes, until by 1400 about fifty of them dotted western Europe. The number of students was certainly very large, though such figures as, for Paris, 30,000, have been proved to be exaggerations.

With the rise of these new institutions of learning the older schools did not disappear. Some affiliated with the universities. Others ceased to teach the higher branches and found their place as preparatory schools, corresponding to the faculty of arts in the universities.

618. The Students of the Universities. — The student body commonly contained men in civil and ecclesiastical positions, not to speak of numerous nobles. Even cardinals are mentioned as students. For poor scholars liberal provisions were made. Medieval life was more fluid than we can easily comprehend. Merchants, soldiers of fortune, friars, journeymen (§ 608), were always on the move. But the wandering scholar was in eminence. The laws of many countries afforded him special protection, though he often begged his bread. With the secular priests and in the monasteries large and small, he commonly met with a kind reception. (Even now in places which have remained Catholic the young student is the welcome guest of the priest and of those monastic institutions which have survived the ravages of time.) Young men thought nothing of passing from Oxford to Paris or Pavia to sit at the feet of some new famous teacher, and to see the world, — another kind of education. They often traveled in bands with much jollity and song and sometimes with much disorder.


619. University teaching embraced everything that was considered worth knowing. The principal branch was theology, that is, the revealed tenets of Christianity. The Bible and the decrees of councils and of popes, as well as the writings of earlier authors, were the object of detailed study. Even when not studied as a special branch, they formed the groundwork of all other theological teaching. Next came philosophy, that is, the knowledge of things from merely natural sources. The philosopher of the Middle Ages, like his predecessor of ancient Greece, tried to penetrate by reasoning into the very essence of things, starting from what is known to everybody, and driving his conclusions to what is knowable by dint of deeper thinking.

Theology as well as a good deal of philosophy had been studied and taught from the beginning of Christianity. But at this period another method, though not altogether a new one, was employed. This is called Scholasticism (school method), and the great teachers who used it are the Scholastics or the Schoolmen. Scholasticism of course does not teach new doctrines. But it teaches them in a peculiar systematic way.

(1) All the various tenets bearing on one point are brought together, those for instance on the Blessed Trinity, or the Redemption, or Original Sin. Thus the entire doctrine appears as one great organism. This had never been done to such an extent. Now it became the rule. The catechisms of to-day have the same feature. In fact they are tiny extracts of scholastic theology.

(2) Scholasticism not only adduces proofs for every individual point of doctrine, but it also shows the connection between various points, and everywhere compares expressly the natural knowledge of philosophy with that received from God by supernatural revelation.

(3) The constant appeal to natural wisdom for the purpose of proving, explaining, and appreciating the great truths of faith is perhaps the most striking peculiarity of Scholasticism.

As to the relation between theology and philosophy, the Schoolmen as well as all Christians hold that there can be no contradiction between the truths revealed directly by the God of Truth and Wisdom and those embodied by the same God in the visible works of His hands. The latter truths are studied by philosophy and the natural sciences; the former make up the articles of our faith. An opposition between the two can exist in appearance only, and evidently, in case of such an apparent opposition, we must not presume revelation to have erred but philosophy.

620. Arabic Influence — Aristotle. — As the first universities had grown out of the older schools, so they continued in the traditions received from former institutions. But about the beginning of the thirteenth century western Europe became acquainted through the Arabs with the complete works of Aristotle, the greatest of the ancient Greek philosophers, of which little had been known before. (See § 188.) Soon copies of the original Greek text were obtained through the Greeks in the East, and better translations made. These books worked a real revolution. Aristotle’s books, supplemented by the master hand of St. Thomas and other prominent teachers, became the foundation of all philosophical studies. Aristotle was The Philosopher.

This was the only influence exerted by Arab philosophers on Scholasticism. None of the philosophic tenets of the Schoolmen have been taken from original Arabic books. The attacks of Mohammedans on Christianity, however, forced the Christians to study many points more explicitly than they would have done otherwise.

In the line of natural sciences the Arabs rendered valuable services. In medicine, geography, mathematics, chemistry, and physics, they transmitted much positive knowledge to the eager scholars of the new universities.

FRIAR TEACHING THE GLOBE From a thirteenth-century manuscript.
From a thirteenth-century manuscript.

621. Some of the Prominent Schoolmen. — (I) Saint Albert the Great (died 1280), a German nobleman, joined the Order of St. Dominic in 1223. He taught at Paris and other places, but chiefly at Cologne, and everywhere eclipsed his fellow professors. Prominent as theologian and philosopher, he is from our standpoint more remarkable as a scientist. In one of his books he describes, for instance, all the trees and herbs known at his time, and adds: “ All that is here set down is the result of our own observation, or has been borrowed from authors whom we know to have written what their personal experience confirmed: for in these matters experience alone can give certainty.”

Modem scientists fully appreciate his works. “ He was acquainted with the sleep of plants, with the periodical opening and closing of blossoms, with the diminution of sap through evaporation from the cuticle of the leaves, and with the influence of the distribution of the bundles of vessels on the folial indentations.” “He considers that from the equator to the South Pole the earth is not only inhabitable but in all probability actually inhabited, except directly at the Poles, where he imagines the cold to be excessive. If there be any animals there, he says, they must have very thick skins which are probably of a white color. The intensity of the cold is, however, tempered by the action of the sea. He smiles at the simplicity of those who suppose that persons living at the opposite region of the earth must fall off.” (Walsh, The Thirteenth, Greatest of Centuries, pages 48 and 50.) He was indeed much in advance of his age. The uneducated among his contemporaries began to suspect him of witchcraft. (In connection with our previous chapter on the cities it will be of interest to know that this Dominican friar and university professor was repeatedly appealed to as arbiter in the quarrels of the city of Cologne with its several antagonists, among whom was the archbishop himself. “From this time dates the most flourishing period of the commerce of Cologne.”)

622. (2) St. Thomas Aquinas (died 1274). — One of Blessed Albert’s greatest merits is to have trained the “Prince of the Schools,” St. Thomas Aquinas. St. Thomas, born at Roccasecca, in Italy, was a relative of Emperor Frederick II. When still rather young he joined the Dominican Order. He taught chiefly in Paris and at Italian institutions. His renown was so great that once, when he returned to Paris, the king and the whole city came out to meet him. During his twenty years of teaching he wrote his numerous works, which cover most of the subjects of theology and philosophy, natural sciences included. His mind was both speculative and constructive. Dominating in his works is the idea of the fundamental unity of knowledge, arising from the fact that all truths emanate from the One God either by nature or by revelation. Indeed no Christian scholar has ever taught the contrary, but nobody before St. Thomas put forth the idea so forcibly and with such a complete command of all the results obtained by previous thinkers. St. Thomas was eminently a common-sense man. He took the good things he discovered in Greek, Arabic, and even Jewish, works; improved on them wherever his keen intellect detected errors or shortcomings; and then each found its place in the system which he was building up, — the fundamental lines of which were radiating from the One God of Wisdom and Truth.

His books in print fill nineteen folio volumes, and have been translated from their original Latin into many languages, including Hebrew. His most important work is the Summa Theologica, a comprehensive and systematic presentation of the entire field of theology and philosophy. Perhaps no work possesses in a higher degree all the characteristics of the scholastic method. It still is and will ever remain the classic in the Catholic schools of theology and philosophy. Albert the Great surpasses him in extensiveness of knowledge. But it was the providential task of St. Thomas to be the organizer of Christian learning.

623. (3) Roger Bacon (died 1294?) was probably another disciple of Albert the Great. (Roger Bacon, the thirteenth-century friar, must not be confused with Francis Bacon, his countryman, of three centuries later.) This brilliant English Franciscan for some time enjoyed the greatest renown as professor at Oxford University. He was a good philosopher and correct theologian, though in philosophy he adhered to a few outlandish opinions. But he was above all an extremely progressive scientist. His Great Work is a cyclopedia of thirteenth-century knowledge in geography, mathematics, music, and physics.

He had learned of the ocean east of China, and speculated convincingly upon the possibility of reaching Asia by sailing west into the Atlantic. He prophesied that in time wagons and ships would move “with incredible speed,” without the help of horses or sails, and also that man would learn to navigate the air.

It is to be deplored that this able and indefatigable scholar did not possess the character of an Albert the Great, whom he called ignorant and presumptuous. Friar Bacon ran amuck against the papal court, the bishops, the mendicant orders, the scholastic method, and all preachers and teachers in Christendom. Many of the things against which he inveighed were real abuses. But his inconsiderate ways made him many enemies. The superiors of his order silenced and even imprisoned him, while it appears that Pope Clement IV took his side. “Had he possessed as much prudence as scientific insight, he would probably have succeeded in his reforms and conferred inestimable benefit on scholastic philosophy. Albert, who was less of an innovator than Bacon, contributed far more than Bacon did to the advancement of science in the thirteenth century.” (Turner, History of Philosophy, page 339.)

624. Conclusion. — It would take too much space to give even the names of the most prominent of the Scholastics. In particular, St. Bonaventura, and the “subtle doctor,” Duns Scotus, both of the Order of St. Francis, would deserve more than a passing notice.

As time went on dissensions arose amongst the Scholastics themselves. All agreed in the dogmas of faith, and in all important philosophical questions as well. But in points not so directly bearing on revealed truths they reserved the liberty of disagreeing, unless forced by proofs which they themselves recognized as valid. These disputes at times assumed a character little in keeping with professorial dignity or even with Christian charity, and considerably retarded progress in theological and philosophical investigation. Yet they leave intact the immense merits of the scholastic system as such.

The other branches of learning were studied with equal vigor in the universities. Albert the Great and Roger Bacon were by no means the only representatives of natural science. As a matter of fact, however, this study declined in the course of the fourteenth century. The great minds of the time were taken up with theological and philosophical controversies, and, on the other hand, the popular mind does not seem to have been prepared for great progress in this line. That the Church officially opposed the sciences is an entirely unwarranted assertion.


625. The Older Styles of Architecture. — When the Christians were enabled, by the Decree of Milan (§ 370), to exercise their religion freely and to erect temples to the true God, they chose the basilica type for their churches (§ 340). During many centuries this style of building remained in vogue. However, in the countries of the Greek Empire it was partly replaced by the Byzantine style. In this style of building the whole structure is chiefly formed of cupolas (rotundas) or semicupolas. (See picture on page 480.)

Although there was little architectural activity during the centuries of the Teutonic invasions, nevertheless a new style came slowly into practice. By the year 1000 the churches were built in the Romanesque style. In northern Italy it was called the Lombard style, in England the Norman style. The churches built in this style, generally, were larger and higher; their ground plan assumed the form of a cross; instead of a ceiling, a round-arch vault was employed; and they commonly had several towers which appeared as an integral feature of the structure. (See pictures in §§ 493 and 498.)

INTERIOR OF CATHEDRAL OF REIMS, FRANCE  The style is Gothic. Note the difference in height between the main aisle (nave) and the side aisles, the arrangement of windows, the ribbed ceiling, and the character of the pillars. This picture was taken from the sanctuary.
The style is Gothic. Note the difference in height between the main aisle (nave) and the side aisles, the arrangement of windows, the ribbed ceiling, and the character of the pillars. This picture was taken from the sanctuary.

626. The Gothic style developed from the Romanesque. (Its name has nothing to do with the ancient Goths, just as Romanesque does not mean Roman.) It originated in northern France, whence it spread to all Christian countries. In Italy and Spain, however, it never became really dominant. The architects desired to do away with certain limitations of the Romanesque style. The semicircular arch used in this style had to be exactly half as high as it was wide. The round ceiling rested on the whole extent of the walls, which consequently had to be very strong and could not be weakened by many and large windows. The builder of the twelfth century introduced the pointed arch, which admits of a great variety as to width and height. He broke up the vault of the ceiling by inserting cross ribs, which transferred the weight of the vault to several points of the wall. To give to these few points the necessary strength, he employed buttresses, i.e., he thickened the wall just at these points. Very often he used “flying buttresses” (see picture below). Both buttresses and flying buttresses could be so devised as to add to the grace and richness of the building. The walls might now be made lighter, and pierced by more and larger windows.

NOTRE-DAME CATHEDRAL, PARIS The style is Gothic. Note the flying buttresses, which, however, are not ornamental here as in many other churches. The beautiful towers, unfortunately, have not been finished. See also the picture in § 499.
The style is Gothic. Note the flying buttresses, which, however, are not ornamental here as in many other churches. The beautiful towers, unfortunately, have not been finished. See also the picture in § 499.

The structure rose still more in height. The ground plan retained the shape of a cross. The towers, commonly fewer in number than in the Romanesque style, presented less massive sides. Everywhere the vertical line began to dominate the horizontal. The entire structure grew into one Sursum Corda (lift up your hearts) expressed in stone. Many people consider the Gothic churches the grandest buildings man has ever devised.

CATHEDRAL OF METZ Compare with the description in the text. Compare the flying buttresses with those in the preceding picture.
Compare with the description in the text. Compare the flying buttresses with those in the preceding picture.

The secular buildings of the Gothic period, too, have the peculiar character of that style, though they commonly do not possess all of its characteristic features. But the grand city halls of Flanders and Germany (see picture on page 473), the manors of medieval England, and the castles of northern France show the splendid possibilities of the Gothic architecture in lines distinct from church building.

627. The other fine arts were practiced chiefly in connection with and in dependence on architecture and were therefore less developed. The painter’s chief object was to adorn the interiors of cathedrals and other buildings with pictures and decorations. He had not yet quite learned how to introduce perspective (§ 22) or to represent the members of the human body in the correct proportion, though a very creditable beginning had been made. The sculptor produced statues and reliefs for decorative purposes, many of which are of considerable value. Numerous admirable works testify to the skill of the goldsmith and the carver in wood and other materials. Books, all handwritten, were the object of loving care. We find them illuminated with beautiful initials and miniature pictures, and bound in the most artistic covers.