Creation by crabbed hands

Scholastic Humanism and the Unification of Europe
August 23, 1996

Richard Southern's most recent book occupies that grey area where apologia and valediction converge. In it one of the leading medievalists of the postwar period restates some of his central theses and reprints one of his more controversial articles. Yet this first volume of an ambitious project to chart the rise and decline of scholastic humanism through three centuries offers little that is new.

The book puts us in familiar Southern territory, the 12th-century Renaissance. A broadening corpus of classical manuscripts made scholars optimistic that they could frame encyclopedic systems which would contain all knowledge open to men this side of the Fall into Sin. Faith and Reason walked hand in hand as complementary muses revealing the mysteries of God's creation to God's image-bearer and creation's crown: man. Against those who suspect that "scholastic humanism" is an oxymoron, Southern argues that the thorough methods favoured by the scholastics and lampooned by Renaissance writers like Petrarch and Lorenzo Valla were predicated on a few eminently humanistic convictions: the dignity of human nature; the usefulness of introspection; the value of friendship; the intelligibility of the world - natural, human, and divine.

Southern admits that these convictions were usually written in execrable style and a crabbed hand. Concerned perhaps that this might undermine their designation as "humanist", he goes on to argue these humane convictions were more genuinely felt in the 12th century than in the 15th, and that the humanists of Renaissance Italy were little more than aristocratic poseurs.

This tendentious opinion recalls the old battles waged 50 years ago and more by medievalists who felt compelled to defend the integrity of medieval history by arguing either that the Italian Renaissance had not happened at all, or that it was a time when all the worthy virtues of the Middle Ages had run to seed. Southern generously credits the Italians with better style and penmanship, but most scholars would find greater differences distinguishing medieval from Renaissance humanism.

For all its inner beauty, scholastic humanism would have come to nothing without a fortuitous set of social and political circumstances. Humanist studies in grammar, rhetoric, theology, and law took shape in a few leading schools in Europe where students could find inquisitive and charismatic masters. More to the point, the symbiotic relationship between schools, governments, and the papacy ensured that these students could find employment upon graduation.

In this first volume of a projected trilogy, Southern examines the nexus of scholasticism, schools, students, governments and church. Each required the others, and it was only by working in concert that the individual parties could develop. At the same time, their mutual relationships made some developments inevitable. So, for instance, the Bolognese legal scholar Gratian produced a rational compilation of canon law (judged by Southern to be "the first masterpiece of scholastic humanism") in c. 1140 because the times or, more accurately the governments and lawyers, required it. If he had not done it, some near contemporary would have.

Southern relates this nexus with his familiar cool and elegant style. Yet by the very structure of the argument, we are far from a purely abstract intellectual history in which ideas think themselves. When assessing the factors that shaped the individual parties to his five-part nexus, Southern can be surprisingly concrete. He argues that Paris surpassed Laon as a dominant centre of schools and theology because it had more and cheaper housing, and offers maps of both cities to demonstrate the problems inherent in Laon's restricted hilltop location. On the other hand, Bologna surpassed Milan as a centre of legal studies because the latter's great wealth made it self-absorbed and provincial in its outlook; the former was less favoured economically, but luckier in having hired Gratian for its emerging university. One suspects that political factors may have played a larger part in both cases, but Southern's arguments are certainly suggestive.

Southern promises that volume two of the trilogy, entitled The Heroic Age, will explore in more concrete terms the lives of individual proponents of scholastic humanism in both academy and court. Volume three, Disunity, Decline and Renewal will explore both its fragmentation under the political, economic, and social upheavals of the 14th and 15th centuries, and its revival in the romanticism and antimodernism of the 19th century. This is undoubtedly an ambitious project. It may reflect some of the limitations of this particular volume. It may reflect only faintly, if at all, the questions about gender, class, ritual, kinship, and marginal groups that inform modern scholarship. For all that, it will be an appropriate and characteristic testament to the 12th century which Richard Southern has studied, related, and to some extent created in a lifetime of scholarship.

Nicholas Terpstra is associate professor of history, Luther College, University of Regina, Canada.

Scholastic Humanism and the Unification of Europe: Foundations

Author - Richard W. Southern
ISBN - 0 631 19111 9
Publisher - Blackwell
Price - £25.00
Pages - 330

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