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  • Intellectual Culture in Medieval Paris: Theologians and the University, c. 1100–1330 by Ian P. Wei
  • Gillian Adler
Ian P. Wei, Intellectual Culture in Medieval Paris: Theologians and the University, c. 1100–1330 (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press 2012) 462 pp.

The notion of universitas did not originally imply the academic institution. Rather, the Latin term in its ancient etymology meant “the whole” or “the total.” Only later did it come to describe a corporate body organized by law, and eventually it was used to refer exclusively to communities of higher education. The abstraction of universitas transformed into literal centers of learned authority, established in major European locales like Bologna, Paris, and Oxford during the Middle Ages, and becoming the modern schools of advanced learning of today’s world.

While little evidence of the birth of the university survives, Ian P. Wei’s new book Intellectual Culture in Medieval Paris: Theologians and the University, c. 1100–1330 explores its foundations and development in Paris and the greater region of northern France during the Middle Ages. This study offers a comprehensive examination of the intellectual, social, and religious currents that formed the background to academic life, and gives new insight into the history of a broad range of concepts that became the basis of not only the modern university, but also the fields of philosophy, religion, law, and history. Wei draws connections between the spirited scholarly pursuits within the university and the broader movements of medieval Europe, and focuses especially on these interactions’ effects upon the urban center of Paris. Intellectual Culture in Medieval Paris treats diverse intellectual approaches of the most influential minds of the twelfth to fourteenth centuries, giving evidence that scholarly life during the medieval period was contentious, vibrant, competitive, and inventive.

Chapter 1 focuses on the achievements of the twelfth-century schools of northern France, institutions that placed new emphasis on texts and on contexts of learning, shaped particularly by “the lure of logic,” that departed from those of the monastic and cathedral schools of prior centuries (17). Tracing the intellectual developments of Abelard, John of Salisbury, Adelard of Bath, and Bernard Silvestris, among others, Wei offers strong evidence and thorough explanations of emerging philosophies, but also connects new ways of thinking to the growth of key debates and conflicts concerning the interpretation of texts, which laid the foundation for a highly selective and competitive university life. At the same time as a diversity of opinions marked the conversations of major thinkers, consensus on the use of dialectic and syllogistic reasoning, on the terms of basic education, and on the textbooks that should be required for students, showed a kind of standardization and systematization that benefitted centers of learning and the status of Paris as a pre-eminent seat of theology and philosophy.

The next chapter examines the influence of monastic change and the new religious orders of the twelfth century upon the secular and scholarly world of Paris. Supplying extended textual evidence which allows students to engage with historical sources critically, Wei proposes detailed accounts of the [End Page 360] philosophies of figures like Anselm of Bec and Canterbury, whose Proslogion established his ontological proof of God’s existence, and Bernard of Clairvaux, who drew on the same written traditions of Anselm but whose scholarship on the Bible, and specifically the Song of Songs, emphasized the intimacy of one’s experience with God. The contest between the approach to God through contemplation, mysticism, and personal experience, and, on the other hand, through reason and logic, leads Wei to explain the relationship between monks and schoolmen during this period and to show how “conflicts were exacerbated by the personalities of men like Bernard and Abelard” (77). Demonstrating the sheer variety of intellectual methods in this culture, Wei ultimately envisions Hugh of Saint Victor as a culmination of such debates, developing “a synthesis of the approaches characteristic of schools and monasteries,” examining the schools like a monk and reacting to religious experience as a scholar (78).

The relationship between schoolmen and preachers in the twelfth century becomes even more dynamic during the thirteenth century, when institutional changes at the University of Paris, including the Statutes of 1214...


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pp. 360-362
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