The Relationship of Christianity and Scholasticism During The Middle Ages

by Elizabeth Anne Rathburn

The era of Scholasticism was not merely the narrow-minded and constricting form of education many modern scholars had deemed rank with intellectual stagnation. The overall concept of Scholasticism cannot be understood outside of its historical context. The Scholastic movement began as a response to the bitter turmoil of the Dark Ages, and at its peak in the twelfth and thirteenth centuries culminated into a well-refined method of critical thought. Scholasticism can be thought of as the intellectual refinement of the knowledge available to scholars of the Middle Ages. While the Middle Ages were not a time of great intellectual growth, it ensured that Europe would never again see a time of complete intellectual stand still. In relation to scholasticism’s historical context, the Middle Ages cannot be understood without the recognition of the dominating force of Christianity through out all of European society. The scholastic movement was seeded within, and grew with the progression of the Roman Catholic Church: its primary cultivators. The Fathers of the Roman Catholic Church became the initial authors of scholastic thought by creating harmony between the contrasting viewpoints of philosophy and theology. The works of saints became the texts, which the schoolmen of the monastic and cathedral schools committed to memory. As a result, the growth of Christianity and Education coincided with one another through out the span of Medieval Europe. The intellectual thought of the Middle Ages was highlighted by the symbiotic relationship formed between Scholasticism and Christianity, resulting in a fixed and formal system of education, and the preservation of religious, classical and antiquity works, which together, carved the intellectual path into the European Renaissance.

While the scholastic movement did not consist of new intellectual developments, it did serve the purpose of an intellectual awakening. This period of education and intellectual thought would serve as the foreground for the development of higher education. Scholasticism began in the Christian monasteries with the accumulation of knowledge, these monasteries would later transform into universities. The rise of universities however, began towards the end of scholasticism’s reign; as so, this discussion will stay within the confines of the development of the monastic and cathedral schools. In its broadest framework, scholasticism developed within the Church. Due to the meager intellectual material available, “the limited learning of the times arranged into a systemized form largely on the deductive basis of the Aristotelian logic” (Graves 51). Because of the power wielded by the Church, all subject matter, whether religious or secular, was approached through a highly theological perspective. Medieval thought from the ninth to the twelfth and thirteenth centuries was dominated by this ideal, and thus was taught within the schools of the Church, thereby solidifying the methods of scholasticism. Scholasticism was indeed, “the peculiar methods and tendencies of philosophic speculation that arose within the Church”. The term scholasticism was derived from ‘doctor scholasticus’, the term used for the authorized teachers in the monastic schools (Graves 50). From the very beginning of monastic education in the Middle Ages, scholasticism and Christianity were intertwined, influencing those who sought higher intellect within its schools. Both the Christian religion and scholastic method were the basis of a schoolman’s learning. It became a young scholar’s goal through scholastic deduction and argumentation, to show how doctrines, “were consistent with each other and in accordance with reason” (Graves 51). Even with its apparent flaws, such as its characteristic narrowed scope, the greatest aim of scholasticism was to equip a student with the dialectic and intellectual discipline that enabled an individual to be keen and well versed in knowledge of the time.

Medieval education in Europe began with the development of the monastic and episcopal schools, and thus is where the origin of scholasticism is found. The establishment of monasteries, “rose from a protest against vice and corruption, and pointed the way to a deeper religion and nobler life” (Graves 21). Based upon the Benedictine code, the primary purpose of monastic education was the discipline and repression of the body, and gave great prominence to doctrines of labor and systematic reading. It was through the daily devotion of reading that literacy began its revival in Europe (Graves 10). Small isolated communities formed around monasteries, creating a reserved educated culture, whose knowledge would soon spread with the growing influence and strength of the Church. Monks within these communities created the demand for manuscripts and the reproductions of the text. As a result monasteries became precious depositories, providing the preservation of ancient literature and learning. As monastic life grew, so did the interest and care of ancient manuscripts increase, and the demand for duplicates of the sacred writings resulted in the addition of the scriptorium, a room reserved for the copying of texts. Thus the preservation of texts became the primary source of labor in monastic life.

While the copying of sacred texts were in primary regard to the neatness of lines and careful ornamentation, monks gained both intellectual and moral influences from the content of their work. Not only did the text strengthen an understanding of language, reading, and writing, but also monks began to make their own personal connections to the religious topics. As a result monks became authors concerning mainly religious topics such as, “commentaries upon the Scriptures or the Christian Fathers, The Lives of Saints, and the sermons or moral tales” (Graves 12). These writings indicated the first instances of the rudimentary characteristics of scholastic thought/education. The monks and schoolmen of the monasteries began what would be a strong emphasis on the extension of knowledge through dialectical reasoning. What began in the writings of monks was the method of critical thought that would dominate the teachings of Medieval Europe.

A greater understanding of the relations between the Christian faith and the scholastic method can be seen within the influential writings of medieval monks. Their works solidified both the understanding of the doctrines of Christianity and the growth of the critical intellectual thinking characteristic of scholasticism. One such Benedictine monk was St. Anselm of Bec (1033-1109), whose writings, consistent with the methods of scholasticism, contributed greatly to the understanding of the intricacies of the Christian faith. Remember that scholasticism combined, “philosophy, seen as the autonomous operation of reason, and theology, where certitude of the conclusions is based on the principles of faith” (Vignaux 35). This concept was considered an idea under the generalized term of philosophical theology. With the growing influence of secular works through out the middle ages, monks such as Anselm supported the Christian dogma through the elimination of contradictions by intense dialectical analysis. Anselm believed in the accord of reason with dogma, but held that faith must precede knowledge as he once said, “The Christian ought to advance to knowledge through faith, not come to faith through knowledge” (Graves 51). Anselm spent much time in making clear various Christian dogmas such as the Trinity, becoming the most influential/famous to future scholars in his ‘ontological’ argument for the existence of God (Graves 51-52). Adhering to scholasticism, Anselm didn’t seek to discover new truth, but sought to define a clearer concept of his existing beliefs through reason. Reason came through the comparison of works such as his De veritate, what would be considered philosophical, to the Holy Scripture (Vignaux 35). Luscombe supports this idea, for in his perspective Anselm, “sought to explore his existing beliefs with the instrument of reason – and not with this alone for prayer was used as well – and with the aim of bringing out and elucidating the meaning, the implications, and also the truth and the plausibility of Scripture and of revealed truth” (44). Anselm’s work, like many other scholastics, furthered the complex understanding of traditional doctrines. The most significant characteristics of Anselm’s arguments were that while they were purely arguments of Christian faith, they also proceeded as arguments of logic and reason.

While the monastic schools established small communities of education, it was not until the establishment of Abbey and Cathedral schools that learning became widespread. It was through the relationship between education and the Roman Catholic Church that scholasticism became well established during the Middle Ages. This progression took form during a short period within the Middle Ages called the Carolingian Renaissance. The Carolingian dynasty arose out of a period of time reflecting political disintegration. One of the more prominent figures of this era known as Charles the Great, or Charlemagne (742-814), who utilized his power given to him by the Pope over the united Frankish state to ensure a genuine unity of his people (Pedersen 72). Charlemagne, having been taught by monks and thus receiving some formal education recognized that the unity of his people, “could be brought about only through the inner life by means of a common language, culture, and ideas”, and so a revival of learning was deemed necessary (Graves 27). Historically during the end of the eighth century, there existed a lack in education found within not only the officials of the Church, but also the ‘secular’ clergy and nobility. The monastic and cathedral schools had become sadly stagnant in manuscript and intellect production. This case was proven through Charlemagne’s letter to the Abbot of Fulda, in which he states,

We have frequently received letters from monks and in them have recognized correct sentiments, but an uncouth style and language. The sentiments inspired in them by their devotion to us they could not express correctly, because they had neglected the study of language. Therefore, we have begun to fear lest, just as the monks appear to have lost the art of writing, so also they may have lost the ability to understand the Holy Scriptures; and we all know that, though mistakes in words are dangerous, mistakes in understanding are still more so (Graves 27).

Because of this lack of sustained knowledge, Charlemagne utilized his power over the monasteries and bishoprics as the foundation of a revised organized system of education. It was Charlemagne who wished to therefore link public education with the already established education of monks (Pedersen 74, 78). In 787 an educational capitulary was issued to the abbots of all the monasteries, to reprove the clerics of their literacy, and for the schools to offer at least a complete elementary course of education. By using the Church as a vessel of learning, the floodgates of knowledge began to open enabling the scholastic movement to reach a wider pool of intellects. Teachings that were once reserved for the ‘regular’ clergy of the monastic community were brought forth to the general European society.

The schools established within the churches served significant roles to the growth of intellectual awakening during the Middle Ages. Granted, these schools began as institutions of fundamental knowledge in which, “the word school almost invariably mean a grammar school: its chief function was to supply the Church with clergy” (Lawson 8). The schools initially began teaching reading, writing, computation, singing, and Scriptures, which would later lead to the trivium (grammar, rhetoric, and dialectic) (Graves 34). Eventually, through the work of Alciun of York, the educational advisor of Charlemagne, was encouraged the adoption by the Carolingian Franks a program of education in the liberal arts (Luscombe 29), a conjunction of both the trivium and quadrivium (arithmetic, geometry, astronomy, and music). As the Middle Ages progressed, scholasticism began to involve more areas of study as opposed purely to the realm of theology. However, throughout all education, the Church held great influence and control over knowledge, and schoolmen were affected through the direct association with their teachers. The Fathers were the first interpreters of the sacred texts; “it was they who gave inspiration and direction to the achievements of the Schoolmen with the importance of philosophy and theology so that the science of God became the monument of medieval learning” (Cassidy iii). It was not until the decline of scholasticism that the Church began to lose power over the intellectual knowledge of European schools, thus proving the close relationship between scholasticism and Christianity.

In regards to the scholastic movement, it cannot be judged fairly apart from the historical context in which it took place. Scholasticism developed within confines of the Roman Catholic Church, and thus like all aspects of European society of the time, submitted to its power of Divine revelation. The range of knowledge the scholastics of the time were able to investigate, served as both an advantage and disadvantage. Unfortunately, only the subjects deemed orthodox by the Church could be defended, lest the men wished to endure persecution. The Middle Ages presented the great thinkers with a fine line between secular knowledge deemed useful and acceptable, and that which threatened the foundation and power of the Church. Counter to this regard, the limited knowledge forced the schoolmen to reduced knowledge into an extreme and logical system, and therefore, “obliged to exercise their keen analytic minds most intensively, and so divided, subdivided, and systemized their material beyond all measure” (Graves 59). Scholasticism allowed these schoolmen to sift through centuries of traditional and rather irrational doctrines, and culminate their findings into a rational system of intellect. Not only did scholasticism equip its subjects with the skills necessary to be keen in what was considered ‘modern’ knowledge, but also it forced the highest accuracy in thinking, refined by careful analytical argumentation. Scholasticism therefore fostered the intellectual development necessary for the beginning of the Renaissance. As Cassidy stated, “whatever is learned that is new must be learned in terms of what is already known (27). Scholasticism, through the preservation of knowledge, as well as the refinement of intellectual thought, became the foundation for new thought to occur.

Bibliography

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Angeles, Moses Aaron T. “St. Anselm on the Being of God.” Philippiniana Sacra. 64.130 (2009): 5-20. Print.

Cassidy Ph.D, Rev. Frank P. Molders of the Medieval Mind. Binghamton: B. Herder Book Co. , 1944. Print.

Graves, Frank Pierrepont. A History of Education During the Middle Ages and the Transition to Modern times. Norwood: The Macmillan Company, 1910. Print.

Pedersen, Olaf. The First Universities studium Generale and the Origins of University Education in Europe. New York: Cambridge University Press, 1997. Print.

Vignaux, Paul. Philosophy In The Middle Ages. London: Burns & Oates, 1959. Print.

 

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