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The Intellectual Synthesis Of The High Middle Ages

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The Middle Ages

Date:      1992


The Intellectual Synthesis Of The High Middle Ages


The Intellectual Synthesis Of The High Middle Ages


     In addition to the general level of education, interest in intellectual

matters declined rapidly in the period following the fall of the Roman Empire

and the establishment of the early Germanic kingdoms. And even among the

intellectual community that did survive, a controversy raged over the value of

studying subjects not directly pertinent to the saving of souls for the

church. So dim had the light of learning become by the end of the eighth

century that Charlemagne found it necessary to order the monasteries to revive

their schools and resume instruction in the rudiments of "singing, arithmetic,

and grammar."


     Despite the fate of his political achievements, Charlemagne's modest

educational revival survived his death. At least partly as a result of this

stimulus, western Europe by the late eleventh century was on the threshold of

one of the most productive and energetic periods of the history of Western





     Living "religiously in a studious manner" characterizes the scholars of

the High Middle Ages. With few exceptions, medieval people did not think of

truth as something to be discovered by themselves; rather, they saw it as

already existing in the authoritative Christian and pagan writings of

antiquity. Spurred by a new zest for employing reason (through the use of

logic or dialectic), medieval scholars of the twelfth and thirteenth centuries

succeeded in understanding and reexpressing those elements in the Christian

and pagan heritage that seemed significant to them. Since this task was

carried out largely in the schools, these scholars are known as schoolmen, or

scholastics, and the intellectual synthesis they produced is called



     Each scholar formed his own judgments and earnestly sought to convince

others. This led to much debate, often uncritical but always exuberant, on a

wide range of subjects. Most famous was the argument over universals known as

the nominalist-realist controversy. This philosophical controversy centered on

the question of whether universal ideas - beauty, truth, and justice for

example - had a reality other than existing in people's minds as abstract

notions. The realists held that these universal ideas did have a reality, but

the nominalists believed that the universal ideas were nothing more than names

(nomina) used to identify abstract concepts. The debates and arguments between

nominalists and realists found receptive audiences in medieval universities

and in the writings of philosophers and theologians.


The Contribution Of Abelard


     The extreme views of nominalists and realists, along with other examples

of the sterile use of logic ("whether the pig is led to the market by the rope

or by the driver"), outraged the brilliant young student Peter Abelard

(1079-1142), later a popular teacher at the cathedral school of Notre Dame in



     Abelard's great contribution to medieval thought was an approach called

conceptualism his common-sense solution to the nominalist-realist controversy.

Abelard held that universals, while existing only in the mind as thoughts or

concepts, are nevertheless valid (real) since they are the product of

observing the similar qualities that exist in a particular class of things.

Thus, by observing many chairs and sitting in them, we arrive at the universal

concept "chair."


     In addition to redefining the purpose of scholastic thought, Abelard

perfected the scholastic method. Like others before him, Abelard emphasized

the importance of understanding. However, Abelard's predecessors had begun

with faith; Abelard started with doubt. We must learn to doubt, he insisted,

for doubting leads us to inquire, and inquiry leads us to the truth.


     In a very influential work, Sic et Non (Yes and No), Abelard

demonstrated his method. Listing 158 propositions on theology and ethics, he

appended to each a number of statements pro and con taken from the

authoritative writings of the church. Abelard did not reconcile these apparent

contradictions, but he urged his students to do so by rational interpretation.

Abelard's successors used his methods to absorb and interpret the pagan as

well as the Christian heritage of the past. The resulting scholarly

compilations, which bear such apt titles as concordantia (concordance),

speculum (mirror), and summa (total), constitute a crowning

achievement of the medieval intellectual synthesis.


     Abelard is remembered as a great lover as well as a great scholara rather

uncommon combination. His ill-starred romance with his pupil, the learned and

beautiful Helose, niece of the canon of Notre Dame, cut short his promising

career as a teacher. The two lovers were married in secret but Helose's uncle,

falsely believing that Abelard planned to abandon Helose, hired thugs who

attacked and castrated the scholar. Both Abelard and Helose then sought refuge

in the churchhe as a monk and she as the abbess of a convent.


The New Material And The Task Of Reconciliation


     In the twelfth century Western scholars flocked to Spain and Sicily and

there translated Muslim editions of ancient writings. As a result of these

translations a host of new ideas, particularly in science and philosophy, were

introduced to Western scholars. Western knowledge was expanded to include not

only Arabic learning but also such important classical works as Euclid's

Geometry, Ptolemy's Almagest, Hippocrates' and Galen's treatises

in medicine, and all of Aristotle's extant writing except the Poetics

and the Rhetoric.


     Because of the emphasis on authority and the all-pervasive influence of

the church, the medieval atmosphere was not conductive to free scientific

investigation. Those who studied science were churchmen, and their findings

were supposed to illuminate rather than contradict the dogmas of the



     When Greek and Arabic works were translated in the twelfth century, the

West inherited a magnificent legacy of mathematical and scientific knowledge.

Algebra, trigonometry, and Euclid's Geometry became available, and Arabic

numerals and the symbol for zero made possible the decimal system of

computation. Physics was based on Aristotle's theory of four elements (water,

earth, air, and fire) and on his theories of dynamics - doctrines that took

centuries to disprove. Some fourteenth-century nominalists were the first to

challenge Aristotle's theory, later conclusively disproven by Galileo, that a

heavy object falls faster than a light one. Chemistry was based on

Aristotelian concepts, mixed with magic and alchemy. Like the Muslim

alchemist, the European counterpart tried in vain to transmute base metals

into gold and silver and to obtain a magic elixir that would prolong life; in

both cases the attempts did much to advance true findings in the field of



     Two notable exceptions to the medieval rule of subservience to authority

were the emperor Frederick II and the English Franciscan Roger Bacon.

Frederick had a genuine scientific interest in animals and was famed for his

large traveling menagerie, which included elephants, camels, panthers, lions,

leopards, and a giraffe. He also wrote a remarkable treatise, The Art of

Falconry, which is still considered largely accurate in it observations of the

life and habits of various kinds of hunting birds. At his Sicilian court

Frederick gathered about him many distinguished Greek, Muslim, and Latin

scholars, and he wrote to others in distant lands seeking their views on such

problems as why objects appear bent when partly covered by water. He indulged

in many experiments; one was a test to determine what language children would

speak if raised in absolute silence. The experiment was a failure, because all

the children died.


     Roger Bacon (1214-1292) also employed the inductive scientific method, he

coined the term "experimental science" and boldly criticized the deductive

syllogistic reasoning used by scholastic thinkers. Bacon never doubted the

authority of the Bible or the church - his interest lay only in natural

science - yet his superiors considered him dangerous because of his criticism

of scholastic thought.


     By the thirteenth century learned Muslim commentaries on the medical

works of Galen and Hippocrates and on Aristotle's biology were available in

the West. This knowledge, coupled with new discoveries and improved

techniques, made medieval doctors more than just barbers who engaged in

bloodletting. Yet the overall state of medical knowledge and practice was, by

our standards at least, still primitive.


     As his works became known, Aristotle became "the philosopher" to medical

students, and his authority was generally accepted as second only to that of

the Scriptures. But because the church's teachings were considered infallible,

Aristotle's ideas, as well as those of other great thinkers of antiquity, had

to be reconciled with religious dogma. Using logical approaches, the

scholastic thinkers of the thirteenth century succeeded in this task of



     Scholasticism reached its zenith with Thomas Aquinas (1225?-1274). In his

Summa Theologica, this brilliant Italian Dominican dealt exhaustively

with the great problems of theology, philosophy, politics, and economics.

Thomas' major concern was to reconcile Aristotle and church dogmain other

words, the truths of natural reason and the truths of faith. There can be no

real contradiction, he argued, since all truth comes from God. In case of an

unresolved contradiction, however, faith won out, because of the possibility

of human error in reasoning.


The Decline Of Scholasticism


     Having reached its zenith, scholasticism declined rapidly. The assumption

that faith and reason were compatible was vigorously denied by two Franciscan

thinkers, Duns Scotus (d. 1308) and William of Occam (d. c.1349), who

elaborated on Aquinas' belief that certain religious doctrines are beyond

discovery by the use of reason. They argued that if the human intellect could

not understand divinely revealed truth, it could hope to comprehend only the

natural world and should not intrude upon the sphere of divine truth.


     After the thirteenth century, scholasticism increasingly became

criticized, for its adherents were obsessed with theological subtleties,

discouraged independent thought, and in general lost touch with reality. But

it should be remembered that the scholastics sought to compile and then to

interpret the vast body of Christian and pagan knowledge left to them by an

earlier civilization. In terms of their needs and objectives - an intelligible

and complete synthesis of faith, logic, and science - the scholastics were

extremely successful.


Origin Of Universities


     The rebirth of learning in the twelfth century, with especially its

revival of classical learning, its unprecedented number of students flocking

to the schools, and its development of professional studies in law, medicine,

and theology, led to the rise of organized centers of learning - the

universities, which soon eclipsed monastic and cathedral schools. Originally

the word university meant a group of persons possessing a common purpose. In

this case it referred to a guild of learners, both teachers and students,

similar to the craft guilds with their masters and apprentices. In the

thirteenth century the universities had no campuses and little property or

money, and the masters taught in hired rooms or religious houses. If the

university was dissatisfied with its treatment by the townspeople, it could

migrate elsewhere. The earliest universities - Bologna, Paris, and Oxford -

were not officially founded or created, but in time the popes and kings

granted them and other universities charters of self-government. The charters

gave legal status to the universities and rights to the students, such as

freedom from the jurisdiction of town officials.


     Two of the most famous medieval universities were at Bologna in northern

Italy and at Paris. The former owed its growth to the fame of Irnerius (d.

1130), who taught civil law. Because of his influence, Bologna acquired a

reputation as the leading center for the study of law. The students soon

organized a guild for protection against the townspeople, who were demanding

exorbitant sums for food and lodging. Because the guild went on to control the

professors, Bologna became a student paradise. In the earliest statutes we

read that a professor requiring leave of absence even for one day first had to

obtain permission from his students. He had to begin his lecture with the bell

and end within one minute of the next bell. The material in the text had to be

covered systematically, with all difficult passages fully explained. The

powerful position of the students at Bologna developed as a result of the

predominance of older students studying for the doctorate in law.


     At the university in Paris conditions developed differently. This

university, which had grown out of the cathedral school of Notre Dame,

specialized in liberal arts and theology and became the most influential

intellectual center in medieval Europe. Its administration was far different

from Bologna's. The chancellor of Notre Dame, the bishop's officer who

exercised authority over the cathedral school, refused to allow the students

or the masters to obtain control of the burgeoning university. Charters issued

by the French king in 1200 and by the pope in 1231 freed the university from

the bishop's authority by making it an autonomous body controlled by the

masters. Oxford, the oldest university in England, was founded in the early

twelfth century by scholars who were attracted to the town by the favorable

reception from the nearby court, and the large number of religious houses

established there. After numerous conflicts local residents and students, the

university became the beneficiary of the king's support, and Oxford's security

was assured.


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