1998-04-11: Medieval Foundations of the Western Intellectual Tradition

Medieval Foundations of the Western Intellectual Tradition, 400-1400 (1997)

by Marcia L. Colish (~1937-?)

I only read Part I (chapters 1 – 5) of this VII part book. As usual, my primary interest is in the transmission of ideas. Part I describes some of the key way-stations of ancient ideas into the early Middle Ages.

Chapter 1, From Apology to the Constantinian Establishment.

This covers the classical background: the liberal arts education of ancient writers, based on the Greek curriculum and modified by Roman practicality. All writers of the Roman era shared this educational background. The chapter describes the early heresies that were the subject of many early church writers, natural inventions of certain pagan thinkers as they acquired Christian memes, and merged them with their own religious ideas. The chapter closes with descriptions of the apologists Tertullian (155-220), Minucius Felix (late 100’s), and Lactantius (c.230-c.326) and their ‘favorite’ heresies. Lactantius worked before and after the Edict of Milan (312) by which Constantine made Christianity the official religion of the empire.

A minor comment might be worth following up: the various official creeds developed in response to the rise of various heresies, and became more precise in order to counter them.

Chapter 2, The Latin Church Fathers, 1: Ambrose and Jerome.

Ambrose (339-397) defended the freedom of worship for orthodox Christians and attacked the Arian heresy. Jerome (c.340-419) translated the Hebrew and Greek scriptures into the common Latin of the Vulgate Bible, as well as other influential writings.

Chapter 3, The Latin Church Fathers, II: Augustine and Gregory the Great.

Augustine (354-430) is described as the single most important of the Latin church fathers. He promoted the use of the classics and synthesized Christian ideas with classical modes of expression and thought. His Confessions is said to be the first personal autobiography. Gregory (540-604), as well as Augustine, worked in the era of Germanic conquest of the western provinces. In this environment, the church hierarchy asserted its authority in many civic duties formerly the responsibility of the imperial bureaucracy (e.g., civic welfare, education).

Chapter 4, Hanging by a Thread: The Transmitters and Monasticism.

The fourth to seventh centuries saw the work of the men who spread classical ideas wide enough to survive the political triumph of non-Romanized tribesmen in the West.

Donatus (sixth C) , Priscian (sixth C), and Macrobius (fourth C) were inadvertent transmitters of the verbal arts, classical literature, and philosophy. Donatus and Priscian produced standard textbooks of Latin grammar and rhetoric. Macrobius was a literary critic. As these men’s works were used in educating others, their examples, taken from classical works, became widely (if fragmentarily) known.

Martianus Capella (fifth C) deliberately strove to promote the classical ideas of the liberal education. His The Marriage of Mercury and Philology is a conscious and explicit (if allegorical) defense of the seven liberal arts.

The religions of these men is not known, but they did not promote Christianity. Their common belief was in the importance of summing up and preserving classical culture in an age when the Roman state was incapable of funding this effort.

Boethius (480-525), Cassiodorus (c.480-575), and Isidore of Seville (c.560-636) were Christians who consciously took on the role of preserving both the Christian and classical traditions. Boethius translated the Greek philosophers into Latin, so that those who knew no Greek could read them; this had not been necessary before him. His last work, Consolation of Philosophy, was written in prison while he awaited execution by the Ostrogoth Theodoric, whom he had served well. This work became a “bestseller” of its time.

Cassiodorus, after retiring from the civil service, used his personal wealth to found a monastery and school. He built up a library of secular and theological works, and produced his major contribution as a transmitter, his Institutes concerning Divine and Human Readings. This was “an extremely detailed annotated bibliography” that became the standard by which other libraries would be organized. In addition, he described the development of each discipline, and their important authors.

[A] major difference from Augustine is that Cassiodorus sees it as incumbent upon Christians to provide instruction in the liberal arts as well as in religious subjects. ‘Let the task of the ancients be our task,’ he exclaims. It is Christians like himself, operating out of monastic centers at the grass-roots level, not leaders in the upper echelons of the church or state, who must shoulder the burden, with commitment, enthusiasm, and good will. Otherwise, the Institutes intimates, both the classical and Christian legacies will be lost irretrievably.

Isidore was bishop of Seville as the Iberian peninsula was overrun by Visigoths, Vandals, Alans, Suevi, and other Germanic groups. Isidore’s primary work, Etymologies, was encyclopedic, ranging from the classical seven liberal arts to the best receptacles in which to keep leftovers.

The works of the transmitters were copied and used in what became monasteries, and the monastic movement was a leading vehicle for the transmission of ideas through the Celtic peoples to the Germanic peoples. The Benedictine rule was the most influential, but others are described that preceded and influenced it.

Chapter 5, Europe’s New Schoolmasters: Franks, Celts, and Anglo-Saxons.

This chapter should be the most interesting to me, but I found it thin. Certainly the manner in which the Irish (never part of the empire) adopted Christianity, and incubated it during the Germanic conquests, later carrying it out of their strongholds into the Germanic heartlands of England, France and Germany is a fascinating story. Unfortunately, the exact manner, the individuals involved, and all the other details are unknown.

I found Colish’s treatment of the Celts, Franks, and Anglo-Saxons too superficial and glib, as well as too nationalistic.

I didn’t read chapter 6, The Carolingian Renaissance.

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