Tuesday, January 18, 2011

Scholasticism and witchcraft theory 3

When historians talk about scholasticism, they have something fairly precise in mind. The hallmark of scholasticism is a method of problem-solving that was taught in medieval universities. It is essentially a method whereby one tries to resolve a problem with the use of semantic and logical analysis.

So, for example, if you were a student at a medieval university, a typical lecture might begin with the professor asking a yes/no question. For instance: is it permissible to lie? That is, are there any cases when it is okay to lie, or is lying always wrong? Students were then expected to come up with an answer through the use of semantic and logical analysis.

Semantic analysis, because students were expected to distinguish between various meanings of the words being used. E.g., ‘lying’ could mean X, it could mean Y, and so on. Logical analysis, because students were expected to figure out what would logically follow from any given hypothesis. E.g., if ‘lying’ means X, then one set of consequences would logically follow, but if ‘lying’ means Y, then another set of consequences would logically follow.

That’s the scholastic method, and as I said, it was taught in the university classrooms. Virtually every problem was approached in this way.

Now, angels and demons were apparently discussed quite a lot in medieval university classrooms. If you were a student at a medieval university, chances are that you would study angels and demons at some point in your university career, and you would study angels and demons quite intensively.

Fortunately for us, university students were very good note-takers. They had a system of short-hand that allowed them to transcribe lectures pretty much word-for-word.

Also, medieval students had extend breaks just like students do today, so they would go home, trade notes, and talk over all these ideas with their friends.

For instance, if you were an Italian studying at Oxford, you might go home for summer break and exchange lecture notes with all your friends (who might be studying at Paris, Bologna, and so on). Then the next year, you would go back to your university, with your friends’ lecture notes, and you would exchange those lecture notes with your friends at Oxford. Those lecture notes would get spread around, and they would undoubtedly end up in the hands of your Professor, who would make a copy for himself. Your Professor would then discuss the ideas he had learned from Paris or Bologna in his own lectures.

Many of these lectures notes have survived, and that is immensely useful for the historian of medieval thought. And indeed, if we restrict ourselves just to the notion of angels and demons, we have a huge body of material, consisting of lecture transcripts (many of which have been edited by the Professors themselves) which record practically all of the theories about angels and demons that were discussed in the university classroom.

All of this material offers us a convenient lense through we can start to get at the role that angels and demons might have played in the medieval imagination. Of course, we need to be clear: this material represents the thoughts of the educated; quite literally, it represents the thoughts of medieval people who were either attending, or were teaching in, a medieval university. So we need to be aware of that before we try to make any inferences about what the ‘common folk’ might have thought about angels. But nonetheless, all this scholastic material is a piece of the larger puzzle, and if we want to understand the role of religious belief in the medieval imagination as a whole, we need to account for each piece of the puzzle.

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