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When you learned about the Middle Ages in history, you became familiar with its a dubious nickname: The Dark Ages. This nickname was bestowed upon the years directly following the collapse of the Roman Empire (6th/7th century) up until the beginning of the Renaissance, which eventually bore the Early Modern Period or Enlightenment. So then, the story supposedly goes like this: Western Europe was trapped within the clutch of tradition and religion until a “rebirth” (or renaissance) in which ancient philosophical texts were newly discovered and translated into Latin (making them available for study).
Such a narrative depicts the Middle Ages as a period of philosophical and academic poverty, which could not be further from the truth. The eyes of the people were opened, they revolted against the system (which is more or less synonymous with Christendom) and began studying philosophy again which allowed for the scientific revolution. Furthermore, religion hardly served as an impediment to such philosophical inquiries but was a stimulus for them. So, this short essay will aim to give a brief sketch of the intellectual landscape as it pertains to Christendom in the Middle Ages.
Scholastics did not regard faith as something contrary to reason but believed that the intellect was a medium of growing in faith through meditation on God and his mysteries. Such intellectual rigor and discipline would lead one to further understanding. Scholastics did not only study theology using dialectic, though. Many such as Abelard were skilled logicians or grammarians and dabbled in metaphysics, ethics, ontology, legal and political philosophy as well.
In the “high middle ages” (the thirteenth and fourteenth centuries) two religious orders dominated the realm of scholasticism: Franciscans and Dominicans. One of the most discussed and heavily debated questions amongst these two religious orders was something contemporary philosophers might call moral psychology or philosophy of mind. The debate was in regards to whether the will was determined by the intellect in terms of choice. The Dominicans (to which Aquinas belonged) believed that the intellect was dominant and did determine the will. This meant that in moral deliberation if one truly knew what was right (what was good) then the will would carry said action out. This position is dubbed the “intellectualist” position.
The Franciscans were representative, generally, of what is called voluntarism. This view is more or less opposite of the intellectualist position. It holds that the intellect could supply the will with the right option, but that the will could simply refuse to carry out what it knows, or even believes to be, is good. In other words, they observed that sometimes the will is “weak” and doesn’t carry out what it knows it should.
As Irvin and Sunquist note, Monasticism has always been known as a dominant center of learning in the West. Monks during the Middle Ages were responsible for the preservation of Europe’s intellectual history. Because the printing press had yet to be developed, books had to be copied by hand--monks were primarily responsible for doing so due to their extended amount of free time (as opposed to farmers, merchants, or knights who were burdened by intense physical labor) and their knowledge of grammar that was deemed necessary for participation in liturgical life. Indeed, many monasteries had libraries that served as archives for local records and contained a vast collection of invaluable manuscripts that were carefully preserved for scholars and clerics to study.
Further, an important aspect of monastic life was education, specifically the study of the scriptures, the early church fathers (Patristics), and the classics of the Greco-Roman period. Learning was considered a form of devotion to God and a necessary component of loving God in body, mind, and spirit. In addition, it is also known that some convents even engaged in the copying of manuscripts and provided intellectual avenues for learned (albeit aristocratic) women to pursue a scholarly life.
The Creation of the University
As John C. Scott describes, the university in the Western World was a creation of the Middle Ages. The very first institutions for higher learning apart from the monastery were known as cathedral schools, specifically designed by the bishop in major cities to train and educate clergy. As European societies became increasingly complex and new forms of specialized education were in need, the university extended as a natural outgrowth of these cathedral schools. For instance, the University of Paris (est. c.1150) was an extension of the cathedral school at Notre Dame, the cathedral in Paris.
However, the University of Paris is not unique in its Christian affiliation. Cambridge’s first college was founded by the Bishop of Ely (in the province of Canterbury) in 1284. Oxford too, the oldest university in the English-speaking world, is known to have had strong ties with the Dominicans, Franciscans, Augustinians, and Carmelites as early as the thirteenth century. So, it would be safe to say that the creation of the modern, western university had its roots in Christendom, particularly the cathedral schools and monastic movements of the Middle Ages. It would be hard to defend an anti-intellectual caricature of religion in light of these realities.
A Cautionary Note on Orthodoxy
All of this is not to say that the medieval university was a place free from any academic restriction whatsoever. Although education featured largely in the Christian world it was most certainly restricted in some significant ways. A major concern of both the Church and its related institutions was the maintenance of orthodoxy (straight teaching in Latin). Certainly, scholasticism provided a means for philosophers and theologians to extrapolate on the tradition (and sometimes even explicitly questioning it), but too far of a deviation was no doubt a cause for concern and sometimes scholars were forced to recant their positions or were expelled from the university if found guilty of heresy.
The concern appears to be mostly theological on the surface; however, there is significant evidence to suggest that many instances of condemned heresy were more rightly political disputes and controversies. 
Hopefully, it has become clear that through an investigation into the actual intellectual climate of the Middle Ages that it was a period of intellectual growth and interest, not a period indebted to scholarly barrenness. Monks, scholastic philosophers, and clergymen alike all rendered study as an essential component to growing their faith and devotion to God. Not only were the Bible and the Patristics suitable for study, but also subjects such as logic, grammar, and the classics of the Greco-Roman Period, including Cicero, Plato, Aristotle, and the Stoics.
Indeed, there was an obvious synthesis between Christianity and reason that existed during the Medieval period. Reason was thought to shed light on theological questions; it was not viewed as a danger to the faith. The dichotomy between faith and reason that many are surely familiar with today’s political and cultural climate would not be introduced until after the Reformation and grew substantially among fundamentalist reformed movements in America in the seventeenth century.
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- For more on Franciscan Voluntarism see: Williams, Thomas. John Duns Scotus: Selected Writings on Ethics(Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2017).
- Irvin & Sunquist, History of the World Christian Movement (Indianapolis: Orbis, 2008), pg. 423.
- Scott, John C. "The Mission of the University: Medieval to Postmodern Transformations." The Journal of Higher Education 77, no. 1 (2006): 1-39.
- Haskins, C.H. The Rise of Universities.(Holt and Company, 1923), pg. 292.
- Courtenay, William J. "Inquiry and Inquisition: Academic Freedom in Medieval Universities."Church History 58, no. 2 (1989): 168-81.