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Twelfth Century Literature

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Edited by Maxwell Lewis Latham, Thursday, 18 July 2013, 22:20

The twelfth century lay in the centre of the ages of faith, and it is commonly assumed that the key to its understanding lies in theology.  Were not all men [and women] believers and all their achievements coloured by their faith?  Was not the Geist, the spirit of the age, particularly Christian and Catholic?  There is a sense in one must say yes to these questions; but not too easily.  Let us observe in passing that the succès fou of heresies, especially in southern France and Italy, was one of the striking facts of twelfth century history; and pass on to ask this question of the most notable witnesses we have of the range of human concern and human interest among ordinary folk of the period about 1200 [C.E.]:  the three large vernacular epics written in German about the turn of the century or shortly after, the Nibelungenlied, Wolfram’s Parzival and the Tristan of Gottfried von Strassburg.  Before Dante, they mark the summit of mediæval literature; so it is a little like asking the Elizabethan dramatists to tell us what ordinary folk thought in the sixteenth century.  Their authors were not men of a common mould; but they have this peculiar advantage, that they had the art and the will to show us a range of interests and ideas, in a vivid and perceptible form, which makes them – imaginatively and discreetly used – far better guides to the sentiment of their age than its formal theology... ... [...] ...

Gottfried’s Tristam ... is the far more sophisticated of the three.  Whatever its purpose, the effect it makes on a reader embarking on it with a fairly open mind is that [of] the view of courtly love...

Like most historical labels, the phrase is variously used, and can cause confusion. ... [...] ... Yet in spite of this confusion which contemporary attitudes... might throw at them, most students of history and fiction in the twelfth century saw clearly enough that they were different modes of expression... for a[n]... obvious reason, since the chief modes role of the most fashionable mode of literature was precisely to invert, to parody, to play tricks with ordinary human experience.  The chief model of the early twelfth century was the chanson de geste... a... chronicle; [wherein]... confusion was possible, and one quite often finds books which combine the roles not too uncomfortably... [...] ...

In its narrowest sense, strictest sense, [courtly love] ... describes a strict set of principles, first found in Europe in the Provençal lyric of the eleventh century.  The good Knight, who wishes to be recognised at court as a model of courtesy, declares himself the slave of a Lady who is commonly unattainable and always capricious; and he bases his conduct on her whims and the dictates of... God... [...] ...

The reader is made constantly aware of the conflict between Christian doctrine and Christian duty and practice, and the stated assumptions and events of the poem. He would be a rash man [or woman] who presumed to judge Gottfried’s own opinions.

We are thus presented with a range of opinion and interest wider than historians have commonly allowed. We cannot hope to know how this range was reflected in mankind at large. Yet we can assert with some confidence that there were plenty of folk to whom ‘religious’ concerns as ordinarily defined meant little, but that it was a world in which a range of theological interest spread from the schools to the manor house, in which theological interest was more widespread, and culture more theologically conditioned by far, than in our own. After all, it is the literature least likely to reveal theological concerns... ...

We cannot travel far towards the heart of our Renaissance without inspecting its schools, its theology, the hidden rivers from which scholasticism flowed.

Abelard... his... autobiography, the History of my Calamities, and the letters of his wife, the Abbess Heliose...

‘The mediæval background could... for a time be best forgotten’, wrote Hugh Sacker in his Introduction to Wolfram’s ‘Parzival’, ‘and attention concentrated on the individual work.’ (Gilson, 1955, p.28)  He was writing of the criticism of mediæval German literature: but the same could be said of Latin literature as well.  This may seem paradoxical... do not underestimate what we have learned of the rich background and world of assumptions of twelfth century literature of every kind from the intensive study of recent decades. [circa 1969]  But too exclusive a study of background, of Geistesgeschichte, of forms and models and traditions, can easily lead us to patronise, to attribute too much to [primary?] ‘sources’, to lose track of real originality.  It is the paradoxical consequence of Sacker’s method that he makes the Parzival a much more revealing document of its world by treating it as an individual work not as a literary type: revealing of the range of thought and interest, of the originality, and depth of reflection, possible to a humble Knight in that age.  These qualities in turn reflect a basic fact about the twelfth century, that it saw the growth of the world far more varied and sophisticated than its predecessor...

Thus... we can appreciate the creative urge of our Renaissance.  It is a constant difficulty that a historian must study sources, influences and traditions, that his [or her] task makes too ready to surrender to the notion of originality or genius something akin to obscurantism: it can preclude all further enquiry.  But he [or she] is not the slave of his [or her] materials or his [or her] techniques.  There is no greater heresy than that good literature or good art is the product of its sources or moulded entirely by tradition.  Traditional literature exists, indeed: some or many of the epics of the early twelfth century, the Chansons de Geste, were oral poems recited and adapted by minstrels, based on a long tradition; it would be absurd to look for originality in them as in the run of the mill theological commentaries of the next century.  Yet even here a cool look at the work in its own right can help profoundly to elucidate its purpose: even where a mediæval tradition dictated the form a modern tradition of criticism may serve to obscure substance.  We should read the literature of the twelfth century as its best minds read the works of the past: as fresh, new and living, as if they had not been read before.  For it is this which makes literature of the twelfth century worth our study and its culture our respect: like the humanists of the fifteenth century men took old books off the shelves of libraries, blew the dust off them and read them as if they were contemporary, just published.  Thus they read Lucan and Virgil, Cicero and Macrobius, Aristotle and Bœthius, Saint Augustine and Saint Paul, the Remedy of Love and the Rule of Saint Benedict – even the Bible itself.

The basic facts seem to be as follows. Abelard in his later years felt called on to comfort a friend in trouble; and the urge called out a deeper emotion in that Prince of egoists - the urge to self-expression, to self-analysis, to reveal his superiority even in sorrow. Your troubles are nothing to mine, he says in effect - so bluntly... He takes his friend on a tour of the schools in which he had studied... ardently: to Paris, to Laon, and back to Paris. Everywhere, he says, I rapidly surpassed my masters in disputation and so won their envy: the more my fame grew, the more men [and women] hated me. To make matters worse, after a while I fell head-over-heels in love with a charming girl of great intelligence, whose uncle and guardian eventually had me castrated in his rage. Then she and I both took to the monastic life: but I soon found the abbey of Saint-Denis dishearteningly lax and irregular. I tried to live the life of a hermit of the desert, but once students found me out I became, perforce, a teacher once again. And so the story goes on, of his quarrels with his communities, his successes, his arrogance and enemies it won him; of persecution by his fellow teachers - and the first condemnation of his books at Soissons in 1121 [C.E.] - and by his fellow monks. The story is told with extraordinary... lucidity; with a strange mingling of detachment and involved self-pity; not without irony, self-criticism and repentance; yet always harping on the wrong-headedness of his opponents. Understandably, it was kept to a restricted circle in his lifetime; but it fell into the hands of Heliose, now an abbess, once his wife and lover, and drew from her the first of a series of letters even more extraordinary than the book itself.

Abelard tells us that his father, Berengar, was a Breton Knight who had loved letters before he took to arms, and ended his life in a monastic community. His father first sent him to school; and Abelard quickly fell in love with learning, so that he left home and his inheritance and wandered from place to place in search of argument, ‘disputando’, ‘imitating the wandering scholars’ (the Peripatetics, who wandered as they talked, but were not wandering in Abelard’s sense...) of Aristotle’s school ‘wherever I heard that the study of the art (of disputation) flourished.’ A generation later another of the great egotists of the twelfth century, Gerard of Wales, the immortal archdeacon, described in his autobiography how the Norman marcher lord, his father, observed his sons building sandcastles - but Gerard traced cathedrals and great churches in the sand, and so his father called him ‘my Bishop’ and set him to letters.

Nothing is more striking in the history of the twelfth century schools than the rapid increase in the numbers of students who flocked to them. We are very ill informed where they came from. Gerald’s father was a Baron, his mother a Welsh Princess. In the Anglo-Norman world, with some striking exceptions, the high nobility seem to have held a prejudice against a clerical career for their sons - though [were] sometimes very generous in supporting other folk’s sons in the schools - and not many were to be found even of Gerald’s standing. In some parts of Europe the reverse was true, so that the local nobility, for example, round Cologne, had almost a monopoly of the stalls in the Cathedral chapter. Abelard’s family was a more characteristic source: his father was, as we should say of a later age, a member of the lesser gentry, well enough off to lend some support to sons who studied, capable in the long run of helping them to patronage if they needed it. Several of the characters... are known to have come from the gentry; others from the growing and flourishing burgess communities.

Of the large majority we know nothing; but we shall not be far astray in reckoning that most came from the middling strata in society, gentry, merchants, well-to-do artisans, free and prosperous peasantry. Many were poorer than this, if we may believe their songs and their letters: but poverty has been a constant theme among students as has decadence among their seniors since the first syllable of recorded time. All over western Christendom population was rising; and in a somewhat more settled society many younger sons had their living to seek. The opportunities were widening. For those who sought a life of war in the tradition of the feudal classes, the chance for employment as a mercenary was increasing; for those who liked war tinged with religious fanaticism, the Crusades had a special appeal; for those who enjoyed physical adventures but felt no call to slaughter, there was the life of a merchant or pilgrim; those who liked peace and calm were drawn to the older monastic communities; those who liked peace combined with something avant-garde in the religious life - who felt the common revulsion against growing wealth and higher material standards in the world at large - heard the call of the new orders, led by Cistercians; those who looked for adventures of mind as well as body could find them in the search for the best techniques, the most lively schools.

Abelard was not a younger son; nor can he be fitted into any social mould; and he himself was to become the greatest attraction of all among the teachers of his age. But it is clear from his own account that there were many like him already at the outset of his career; many on the move from place to place, from teacher to teacher, school to school. Formal organisation existed in embryo here and there, but the rise of universities, recognised centres of learning with special rights to issue degrees - schools to which students would flock irrespective of the reputation of individual teachers - was an event of the late twelfth and thirteenth centuries. The early twelfth century was the age par excellence of the wandering scholar, and masters who could teach the elements of learning were widely scattered. At an early age Abelard acquired a love of the special mental tool of the age and the man: dialectic, as we should say, logic. But he also acquired a considerable Latin culture and a Latin style of exceptional clarity and force. He did not trouble to tell us where he learned grammar and rhetoric, as the contemporary jargon described these fields of learning; and a similar obscurity surrounds the formation of the greatest master of rhetoric of the century, Abelard’s younger contemporary and antagonist, [the incongruous] Saint Bernard of Clairvaux. (The basis of learning was the seven liberal arts: the ‘trivium’, grammar, rhetoric and logic [dialectic], which were the essential foundations; and the ‘quadrivium’, geometry, arithmetic and music, which were studied... Beyond these lay the... studies... theology and canon law, ... medicine).
Even then, learning was in some measure dependant on libraries, traditions and organisation. The Church had the basic framework of an organisation in Cathedral schools, governed, under the Bishop, by Cathedral chancellors or ‘masters of the schools’ of a diocese. The main repositories of ancient learning were the libraries of cathedrals and monasteries - especially, in the centuries following the Carolingian Renaissance (the ninth to eleventh), in cathedrals. In the late tenth century the chief centre had been Rheims, where the most learnēd man of the age, the encyclopedic Gerbert, had taught first as master, later as Archbishop. Rhiems was revived, along with several centres further north, such as Liège, in the course of the eleventh century. A more substantial tradition of learning, and a fine library, [was] ... set up at Chartres early in the eleventh century by Bishop Fulbert, a restricted, difficult but correct Latin of the period, revealing a desperate struggle to maintain civilised standards of conduct and pastoral care in a barbarous age, and the warmth of friendship between the master and his pupils. In many parts of Europe by the end of the century - in Germany and Italy as well as in France - we find evidence of a new, freer, richer Latin literature and of larger groups of students gathering at the feet of master whose fame, by some means or other, could spread rapidly from land to land.

The learning of the Middle Ages had been encyclopedic: its aim was to accumulate the stores of ancient learning, the aim of education to gather materials to absorb, understand and enjoy the benefits of this learning. The horizons... appear to us desperately narrow: yet the scholars of the twelfth century had inherited from the late Roman world - that is, from the early Christian world - a notion of liberal education in its own way... wide... What lent a special excitement to the chase was the discovery not only that ancient authorities disagreed, but that there was a tool-chest of finely tempered tools for discerning where the discrepancies lay and for reconciling them. The new dialectic had reared its head in the strange type of logic developed by the most brilliant of the products of Chartres in the eleventh century, Berengar of Tours, who found the roots of logic in grammar and the meanings and declensions of words. This led him into eucharistic speculations which were in due course countered by Lanfranc, the Italian teacher who settled in the mid-eleventh century in the abbey of Bec in Normandy, and made a remote and poor house the centre of a flourishing school as Abelard was later to do at as he showed at the end of his life in another sphere where he made a deep mark, as William the Conqueror’s Archbishop of authorities always in mind. His pupil at Bec, and successor at Canterbury, Anselm of Aosta, was one of the world’s most brilliant philosophers. He believed himself entirely wrapped up in authorities, but in practice his mind was of such a temper that it pursued its own original way in blissful ignorance of its own originality. Thus he developed out of the tradition of Platonic ‘ideas’ a new, ethereal argument for God’s existence. The ‘idea’ of God is unique; and if we grant this, then we can show the Fool who says there is no God contradicts himself. (Southern, 1963, p.57; Brooke, 2000 [1968], pp.316-317). Late in life he took advantage of the release from his duties as Archbishop produced by a clash with King William... [the second], quietly and happily, in his greatest book, to blow away the cobwebs which surrounded the doctrine of Atonement.

In the mid and late twelfth century great compilations of authorities were made, and the dialectical tools considerably refined. In the process a vast number of traditional solutions were established, and the channels of intellectual advance became narrower. Thus the intellectual tradition in which Saint Thomas Aquinas was reared in the mid-thirteenth century was at once more sophisticated... than Abelard’s, but also less broad and open. Abelard’s natural instinct, like Anselm’s, was to follow the bent of his own mind, and he worked, like Anselm, in the brief interval during which the tools were being refined but the elaborate tradition of scholastic craftsmanship had not been formed.

Abelard reckoned the key movement in his own development to be his arrival at Paris, already a distinguished school, and one which he himself was to make the most famous in Europe. There he studied under a leading figure of the Paris establishment, William of Champeaux, first canon of Notre Dame and Archdeacon of Paris, later canon regular in the religious house in Paris most frequented by scholars, Saint-Victor. William propounded his own solution to the burning philosophical issue of the day - the issue of ‘universals’. The universal was the lineal successor to the Platonic ‘idea’, and in an intellectual world dominated by Plato - though, oddly enough, Plato studied almost entirely at second hand through his Roman pupils [Neo-Platonists?] - the reality of ‘ideas’ and of groups or classes of phenomena, or ‘universals’, was accepted orthodoxy. Voices were raised in criticism of this, and William attempted to lead his pupils to faith in his own solution. Abelard, helpful as ever, found a hole in his master’s case, and expected a grateful response to this revelation. He tried to teach his master, and so made the first of many powerful enemies.

Abelard was the most brilliant pupil of the Platonic teachers of the eleventh and early twelfth centuries; and it is therefore not all together surprising that his solution of this basic philosophical problem was akin to that of Plato’s most eminent pupil, Aristotle. In the course of time this became apparent, for the eager search for ancient learning led in the course of of the twelfth and thirteenth centuries to the recovery and intensive study of a great part of Aristotle’s works. Adventurous scholars like Adelard of Bath travelled in the fringes of the Latin, Greek and Moslem worlds and found many traces of Greek and Latin literature long forgotten - in particular the scientific works of Euclid and Aristotle. It was partly the scientific and philosophical bent of these explorers - but partly, ... a tangle of causes which has not been unravelled - which made Aristotle the centre of this new-found literature, not Homer or Æschylus or Euripidēs. These ancient works were discovered both in the Arab world, which had long absorbed far more of Greek culture than the west, and in the Greek world itself, in Byzantium and above all in Sicily, where Greek and Arab, Italian and Norman mingled in the new Kingdom of Roger the Great. The impulse to translate was stirred also by the meeting of Christian and Moslem in Spain, where they had long coexisted, and where relations were only occasionally fouled by crusading rancour and fanaticism.

Most of this effort lay in the future when Abelard’s mind was formed, and of far greater consequence to his outlook was the patient compilation of legal authorities characteristic of the of the last great master in Fulbert’s school of Chartres (Southern, 1965) of the eleventh century, Ivo, Bishop of Chartres (died 1116 [C.E.]). He and his disciples, faced with practical problems of pastoral care and administration, put together a large compilation of the authorities for canon law, the law of the Church, and then compressed it into a tidy and practical manual, the Panormia, which remained the most popular textbook of canon law for a generation or so. To both these works Ivo attached a preface, in which he pointed out that authorities could appear to conflict, and laid down certain principles by which their conflicts might be resolved. Their actual resolution he left to younger men and a more mature scholarship. The technique inspired Abelard to his famous teaching manual, the Sic et non, ... A preface outlines the principles; the book consists of a selection of conflicting texts. It was left to his pupils to resolve them, not because his aim was to teach; and this famous books, planned with dazzling simplicity to make his pupils think for themselves, enables us to gain some insight into the outrageous brilliance of his teaching, which made students flock to him from every corner of Christendom.

The Sic et non was text-book in the application of dialectic to theology.  Abelard’s first steps in this... were taken with Master Anselm of Laon, who had the highest reputation in the field, Abelard tells us, on account of his antiquity; and a ‘wonderful flow of words he had, but their sense was despicable and empty of all rational argument.  When he lit a fire, he filled his house with smoke; no illumination came.’  Thus characteristically Abelard introduces us to the next of his persecutors.  But Anselm and his circle are not so readily dismissed.  They were the fundamental accumulators of ancient learning in this field, and on their work, as much as on Abelard’s dialectic, the future of scholasticism was to rest.  The word theology for something approaching a systematic study was indeed coined by Abelard.  But the field of learning as then commonly defined was reckoned to consist fundamentally in the study of the ‘Sacred Page’, that is, of the Bible; selecting and arranging and putting into circulation something approaching standard corpus of exegetical learning, particularly the learning of the Fathers.  This came to be known as the... Glossa Ordinaria; it was copied a hundredfold and many times more, and became the basic stock-in-trade of every theological library.  One can see why Anselm of Laon did not inspire Abelard: his work in its content was wholly unoriginal; he and his colleagues and pupils were encyclopedists, not original thinkers.  But their work lasted and gave foundation for the far more elaborate commentaries of the next generation and the far more sophisticated commentaries of the end of the century.  The climax of twelfth century Biblical commentaries was the work of Stephen Langton, Professor at Paris, later Cardinal and Archbishop of Canterbury (1207-1028 [C.E.]); author also of the Golden Sequence, and perhaps in a measure too of Magna Carta.


The other fundamental text-book of theology of the century was the Liber Sententiarum, the Sentences of Peter the Lombard, completed at Paris about 1150 [C.E.}.  In the Sic et non Abelard had laid out the tools and the problems, advancing along lines indicated by Ivo of Chartres.  In Abelard’s later years his techniques and those of others of his day who enjoyed contemporary dialectic were carried back into the field of canon law by Master Gratian of Bologna, whose Decretum, also called the Concord of Discordant Canons, was first issued about 1140, and placed together, on a scale never attempted before, a collection of authorities even larger than Ivo’s, and a flowing argument which might have won admiration even from Abelard.  About the same time the young Italian scholar Peter the Lombard moved to Paris and there combined the learning and techniques of Bologna and Paris in the Sentences, which did for the problems of theology precisely what Gratian had done for canon law.  Gratian’s was the more original mind: for all the foundations laid by Ivo and others, it was he who started serious speculation on a number of legal issues, and created in a manner comparable to Adam Smith’s creation of economics...

Brooke, C. (1969) The Twelfth Century Renaissance, Thames & Hudson, London, pp.19-26, 28, 30, 34-35, 37-38, 40-42, 175, 200 & 203.


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