Medieval and Early Modern Scholasticism Conference

 

In early September, a two-day conference on the topic of Medieval and Early Modern Scholasticism took place at St John’s College. We originally pitched the event to TORCH as a series of weekly seminars, but ultimately settled on a conference format in order to give our speakers the opportunity to engage with one another in a more cohesive, focused environment, and especially to encourage discussion across specific topics, periods, and places. Issuing a call for papers in the late spring, we hoped to attract scholars from all stages of their academic careers and across disciplinary boundaries, as well as from both medieval and early modern backgrounds. These hopes were met on every count, as reflected in our final programme. 

The event was long in the planning, underpinned by the organisers’ shared interest in medieval and early modern intellectual history, with a broad aim of investigating and ultimately challenging dominant historiographical claims that scholasticism was completely replaced by humanism during the late Middle Ages. Central to the problem is the very definition of scholasticism, and whether it ought properly to be construed as a methodology, as a kind of intellectual school, as indication of a formal affiliation with a particular ecclesiastical denomination, or something else entirely. A related problem is the long-enduring negative connotation evoked by the very notion of scholasticism, which began in the early modern period at the instigation of both Catholic and Protestant thinkers who equated it with pedantry and nit-picking and who contrasted it negatively with their own humanistic approach, a perspective which has endured among many scholars even into recent times. These theoretical questions are compounded by the inherent difficulty of many scholastic texts, the style and contents of which are often formidable. 

The conference was spread over two days to allow attendees – many of whom had travelled across continents to join us – to see more of the city. A conference dinner at the end of the first day allowed participants to discuss the ins and outs of their work and get to know one another in a more informal environment. We settled on dividing the proceedings into four different sessions. 

In the first session, we heard papers on Scholasticism and Literature. Dr Hélène LeBlanc (Geneva) examined the influence of classical literary stories on texts produced in fifteenth-century Coimbra, making a compelling case for their inclusion in works of theology and philosophy as a self-conscious indication of erudition, and for the particular characteristics of their presence in the works of that school. Andrew Hanson’s (UCL) paper considered the influence of scholastic biblical exegesis on the production of the illuminations in manuscripts of religious texts, providing an interesting case-study which demonstrated how methods of textual analysis could influence the material substance of the manuscripts themselves. The final paper, by Thomas Vozar (Exeter), catapulted us into the seventeenth century. He offered insight into John Milton’s complicated relationship with ‘the Scholastick grossness of barbarous ages’, to which his early works were in some ways indebted despite his own critical view of both its Catholic connotations and its methodological trappings. Covering such a diverse range of material, the session particularly challenged the notion that the scholastic method was restricted to a theological context. 

The second session considered The Patristic Inheritance so prevalent in scholastic texts. Amy Ebrey (St John’s) discussed the importance of Augustine’s influence in the context of the religious rule attributed to him, considering the ways in which the fourteenth-century theologian Nicholas Trevet attempted to balance the saint’s authority against the glosses and comments of other more contemporary sources. Conor McKee (Cambridge) offered a fascinating look into the influence of the Dionysian corpus on later medieval thought. Focussing on the sacraments, he showed the ways in which Pseudo-Dionysius' distinctive mystical theology influenced Hugh of St Victor’s tendency to conflate the mystical sign with the liturgical sacrament in such a way the existence of an aetiological process, which definition went on to influence that of Peter Lombard. The session was rounded out by Alexander Peplow’s (Merton) thoughtful examination of Peter John Olivi’s angelology, especially the notion of obedience within the celestial hierarchy. Drawing again on the Dionysian corpus and its influence on the Victorines, he showed how the seemingly speculative notion of angelic obedience played into Olivi’s practical vision for the Church, especially in the context of the disputes which divided members of his own Franciscan order during the late thirteenth century. All three papers strongly emphasised the central importance of authority for scholastic authors, and examined the ways in which high and late medieval theologians incorporated these within the concerns of their own works, which often had a practical dimension. 

The second day began with our third session, Theology and Politics. Eloise Davies (Cambridge) discussed the influence of scholasticism on the political writings of Catherine of Siena, especially the Thomist notion of the bonum commune. This paper offered insight into the accessiblity of scholastic texts to audiences outside of the typical university context in the course of examining the distinctive use to which Catherine put them, and it also emphasised the moral difficulties which she perceived in privileging learning over Christian caritas. Dr Sophie Nicholls (St Anne’s) took us into the sixteenth century, examining the sometimes-unconscious influence of scholasticism on the production of French political thought in the Wars of Religion. Both papers emphasised the fundamental applicability of scholastic ideas to concrete political situations, even during a time when humanism was held to have overshadowed scholastic modes of thinking. 

The fourth and final session was entitled Casuistry, Cause, and the Society of Jesus. Dr Emily Corran (UCL) made a case for casuistry as a distinctive kind of scholasticism, examining the influence of the form of twelfth-century casuistical problems on later texts now regarded as typically scholastic in style. She also pointed out similarities in the reception of both genres in the early modern period, wherein the intentions of the authors were overshadowed by accusations of pettifogging and pedantry. César Félix Sanchez and Carlos Eduardo Llaza (Piura, Peru) gave a joint paper on the work of Juan Pérez de Menacho, offering insight into the prominent position afforded to scholastic thought by South American universities well into the early modern period, and with a special emphasis on the continued significance of the traditional commentary format in Menacho’s theological output. Finally, Giuseppe Capriati (Salento/Paris Sorbonne) examined the development of Francisco Suárez’s distinctive answer to a question entrenched in early modern scholastic thought, ‘What is a cause?’ Seeking to show how a full understanding of Suárez’s definition of causation cannot be properly obtained outside of the context of sixteenth-century Jesuit thought, this paper demonstrated both the novelty of the substance of his approach as well as the indebtedness of his material to earlier scholastic modes of thinking, whose lack of clarity he and other Jesuits sought to rectify in their own work. 

We enjoyed a successful and intellectually stimulating two days in the company of these and other intellectual historians. The range of topics and the breadth of time covered exceeded all our greatest hopes, shedding light on the many practical applications found for ideas which are often regarded as having developed in an atmosphere of intellectual pedantry, and demonstrating decisively that scholasticism was by no means a moribund relic even by the close of the sixteenth century. Rather it remained a significant influence on the works of later authors, with an impact – whether positive or negative, conscious or unconscious – that belied its troubled reputation. Most of all, this conference underscored for us the rich intellectual rewards which may still be found in engaging directly with scholastic texts and ideas. 

The organisers would like to thank TORCH and CEMS for the funding which allowed the conference to take place, and to St John’s College for hosting us so hospitably. Particular thanks also go to our chairs, Audrey Southgate (Merton) and Sophie Nicholls, and to all those who attended in any capacity and helped make the conference such a success. 

 

 

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