- The Medieval Culture of Disputation: Pedagogy, Practice, and Performance by Alex J. Novikoff
Alex Novikoff’s ambitious book seeks to survey a familiar theme, that of disputation, with particular attention to the period between the late eleventh and the thirteenth century. It aims more at cultural than intellectual history, with the emphasis on method rather than actual ideas. It appeared at the same time as Olga Weijers’s In Search of the Truth: A History of Disputation Techniques from Antiquity to Early Modern Times (Brepols, 2013), a much more compendious and detailed survey of disputation than the present volume. [End Page 394]
In many ways, its presentation of St Anselm as effectively responsible for re-introducing the Socratic ideal of disputation in the eleventh century reflects a traditional perspective on someone often perceived as foreshadowing ‘the twelfth-century renaissance’. The risk of focusing on the scholastic method rather than the actual ideas of these teachers is that we miss the substance of what they are talking about. The author’s contribution, however, is to argue that scholasticism deserves to be seen in the framework of cultural history, above all, as a method of teaching. Perhaps the canvas is so large that we never get into detail.
After chapters on the Socratic inheritance and St Anselm, there are overview chapters on ‘Scholastic Practices of the Twelfth-Century Renaissance’, ‘Aristotle and the Logic of Debate’, ‘The Institutionalization of Disputation: Universities, Polyphony, and Preaching’, and finally, ‘Drama and Publicity in Jewish-Christian Disputations’.
The suggestion that disputation at the universities can be linked to emerging polyphony is a fascinating one, although difficult to be precise about. Philip the Chancellor, as both a distinguished teacher and a poet, whose texts were often set to music, provides a rich case study in the interaction between teaching and liturgy. Disputation is as much a performance, Novikoff argues, as liturgy. Yet one has to wonder whether the parallel with polyphony is not so much in disputation, as in the weaving together (or deliberate contrasting) of different theological perspectives within the genre of scholastic commentaries on a set text, like the Sentences of Peter Lombard. Is disputation the heart of scholasticism, or one aspect of its performance?
This book has the great merit of making a practice that can seem arid alive and important. It is an open question, however, whether such cultural history can be written without study of the core ideas that were being debated.