Kalamazoo Session 2 – re-thinking Southern, reform and knowledge

Marmoutier Abbey in eastern France
The great Cistercian abbey of Alcobacer, north of Lisbon

 Our second session dedicated to medieval science provided three papers focused around the issue of scientia as knowledge within 12th century monastic contexts. Church reform and the place of the monastic curriculum in the final decades of the 11th and first of the 12th centuries, the place of reason and knowledge in Cistercian thought, and a fresh look at the scientific learning in the Severn valley in England formed the basis for the session. Jay Diehl of Long Island University led off on the issues of church reform, using two contrasting examples of Rupert of Deutz (d.1119) and Manegold of Lautenbach (c.1030 to after 1103). The former was Benedictine, Abbot of Deutz, in the Rhineland region, near Cologne, the latter an Augustinian Canon, active in the south-west of Germany. Rupert is often considered representative of conservative Benedictinism, and it was on these grounds that Southern made comparison to Grosseteste. For Southern, with respect to characterisations of Grosseteste’s theological style,  his ‘pre- or anti-scholastic state of mind was like that of Rupert of Deutz a hundred years earlier – a world in which those who had read their Augustine and Gregory felt so confident of possessing the spirit of their spiritual fathers that they could speak on their behalf and shape their words as if they were their own’ (Robert Grosseteste, 2nd edit. p. 34). Now, this interpretation of Grosseteste’s theological vision can and has been challenged, and the same is true of Rupert. As Jay argued, far from conservative, Rupert, and his near contemporary Manegold, otherwise famous for his involvement in the long and bitter controversy between the Papacy and the Holy Roman Empire at the end of the 11th century, created curricula for a broad-based programme of education, biblically but also classically centred. Far from reacting to changes in learning, they were, in some senses in the vanguard. Monastic knowledge should definitely not be cosily distinguished from scholastic; and that knowledge was at the service of a societal ideal.

Cistercian Abbey of Escaladieu, Pyrenees,
Cistercian Abbey of Escaladieu, Pyrenees,
Escaladieu, interior
Escaladieu, interior

Devin O’Leary took up the issue of knowledge and reason in William of St Thierry (d.1148), a Benedictine abbot, long-time correspondent and associate of Bernard of Clarivaux who was the most dominant of the first generation of Cistercian monks espousing a stricter interpretation of the monastic rule of St Benedict. William, who predeceased Bernard, eventually became a Cistercian himself, and produced some notable spiritual writings, as well as a series of biblical commentaries, and more speculative theological works. A reading of Bernard might pre-dispose an interpretation of Cistercian thought where reason is not given an especially high place, but William is different. Even Bernard did not despise reason, despite the caricature of the fanatic of faith zealously pursuing the calm and rational Peter Abelard to a conviction of heresy at the trial of Sens in 1141. William clearly did not, creating a role for knowledge, scientiaas a tool through which human reason can be trained and disciplined to approach spiritual learning and the spiritual state.This is particularly the case in his treatise ‘On the Nature of the Body and the Soul’, through which Devin led us.  Science then, but with a means to an end.

The Temptation of Knowledge, Strasbourg Cathedral

With a different sense of means and ends, Kathy Bader completed the session with an exploration of the use made by John of Worcester of Arabic astronomical data in the period of the late 1120s and 1130s. John, Benedictine monk at Worcester, and who died in about 1142, compiled an important chronicle from 1118 until the early 1140s, formerly attributed to another monk, ‘Florence’. John, however, also displayed interest in new Arabic texts, such as the tables of Al-Khwarazimi, and is an early witness to their use within England. He also made the first drawing of a sun-spot. His awareness of these writings stems from the activities of other scholars within the Severn valley region, Walcher, Prior of Malvern, and Petrus Alfonsi, a Jewish convert to Christianity from the Iberian peninsula, whose engagement with Arabic astronomy John evinces. A strong computistical element to the interest in this knowledge can be detected, the ability to describe and plot time more accurately. The new tables were used, and, it could be put, experimented with within these decades. The Severn Valley material requires more examination, as an early part of the reception of Arabic knowledge within the west. If the experience of the first half of the 12th century is held up against the the presence of in the south-west of later 10th century computus collections, with other texts related to time and creation (from Bede to Helpericus and Isidore) as exemplars of manuscripts from 1070 and a little later,  questions are posed of a longer-term dynamic to the receptivity of particular English monastic houses, to the new texts on this subject – namely the Arabic material.  From an historiographical point of view this longer perspective poses interesting questions about the interpretation built up by Sir Richard Southern of an English interest in science born of provincial interests. Grosseteste was the inheritor of a long, and immediate tradition, of mathematical interest. However, that interest is deeper than the 12th century, and more widespread within the monastic communities whose engagement with learning old and new was dynamic and reactive, not merely meditative. Scientia, and in the case of astronomical data an interest in mathematical data, held more than abstract interest, it was intensely practical and related to the interests and needs of the day. The study of science served the communities in which it was undertaken in the Middle Ages as much as in the modern day.

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