Thoughts on Medieval Scholarship

I enjoyed reading this article about the scholarship of the period of 1000-1500.  I’d slightly argue with the title in that I’m pretty sure my ancestors were not counted among the scholars at the time: most people were illiterate and too busy surviving than to have free time for studies. I admire the intelligence of my uneducated ancestors at the time, but I have a lot of respect for the intelligence of the scholars at that time. 

I’m not religiously inclined and most of the work (at least in this context) was in relation to the church, I admire the intellectual rigor they approached their studies.

Modern scholarship deserves praise for its many achievements especially after being freed from church and religious constraints.  The modern achievements came from increased intellectual productivity that came from streamlining the intellectual enterprise for individuals.  People are more able to specialize their studies and being freed from rigorous training in broad topics outside of their discipline.  Their tasks are also simplified by streamlined methods to present their results such as showing the correct protocols were followed and the desired statistical tests were passed.

In contrast, the earlier thinkers were held to a different standard of using rhetorical skills to present their case persuasively with exhaustive references of earlier works that may be relevant.   When they developed some new line of thinking they were subjected to broad challenges within their peers to defend their ideas, often without the satisfaction of acceptance during their lifetimes.

Another thing that impressed me is their motivation that drove them to work so hard at their scholarship.   They often had to travel great distances and at significant risk to gain access to some documents.  And when at a library, they had poor lighting and generally uncomfortable rooms to spend many hours reading and studying.

In addition most of their contributions were written by hand with difficult writing instruments and very expensive parchment so that they had to write very deliberately to avoid any mistakes in spelling, word choice, sentence structure, paragraph composition.   That effort alone is admirable.   They wrote everything for posterity sake with the first draft.   Even with this difficulty, they wrote very lengthy documents to present their arguments knowing that they may not be around to verbally defend them to the reader.   There was an assumption that the audience will be in the future after the author’s death.

On the whole, I think it is impressive that the scholars were so dedicated to their efforts at understanding to go to so much trouble to make their contributions.

As mentioned in the above article, these scholars had a completely different mission.   The author describes the mission in religious terms and that is undoubtedly true.  

I see a different way to describe their motivation.   Strip away the religious specifics, and I see a people who are intensely aware of teh importance of their place in history.   I think they understood the very concept of history as much more important for its own sake compared to today where we treat history as the debris left behind from past events.   The earlier thinkers were really concerned to understand their history and to especially careful to protect their place in history.  One may argue that their choices could have been better, but they nonetheless considered history itself to be important and that they would leave behind a history that will impact the future.   This could be described religiously as avoiding sin or avoiding the wrath of God, but I think the concern was deeper.   I think they were motivated by the desire to service history itself to make sure they didn’t cause a setback or even end history all together.

There was a lot at stake in their scholarship.   In practical terms, they left many manuscripts of narrow applicability to modern life.  However, what I admire is the soul of the individuals to work so hard at mastering their intellectual skills and applying it either to add new ideas or to challenge others for their ideas in order to be absolutely certain that only sound ideas are accepted.

I return to a point I made earlier about the very different way we look at history.  History is interesting as a record of what happened.  We gather and interpret evidence left behind in order to try to understand various aspects of the earlier times.  But for the most part we see history as a series of accidents that happened to build on each other.   History is basically an accident.

Displaying my own intellectual shortcomings by lacking a reference for the source, I recall an idea that one of innovations introduced by the pre-Christian Hebrew scholars to ancient classical culture was the idea of history as a linear concept with a purpose embodied as a deity.  History was something to respect and to accept ones role in its forward progress.   History has a beginning, and it had various intervening events that progressed with a purpose.  

Thinking of life in those terms is something I think we lost in modern times.

When I was younger, I had the thought that we live life as if we are at an amusement park.   We were admitted at birth and we’ll die at closing time.   All that matters is how much enjoyment we can get out of the rides while we are at the park.  It is sometimes described as Life Is Short, enjoy it while you can.

We have benefited a lot from liberty to pursue self-interest and individual happiness.   However, I still find attractive that there is something to be gained with development and application of intellectual power for the purpose of making sure we are doing the best thing possible for the future.


5 thoughts on “Thoughts on Medieval Scholarship

  1. Pingback: On taking History seriously | kenneumeister

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