Blog post

Monastic vs scholastic reading habits

Differences in medieval readers approaches

Hannah Johnson (Bibliothèque nationale de France)

With the establishment of universities, the 13th century saw a major change of reading habits amongst the literate (that is, those who could read Latin) elite.

Amongst the medieval literate elite, there were two major methods of reading: monastic and scholastic, each divided into three ‘levels’. Monastic reading consisted of lectio / meditatio / contemplatio - that is: reading / meditation / contemplation. This method was primarily concerned with memorisation and enlightenment through repetition and deep reading (contemplation). To read this way was to know by memory and intimately understand a very few books in their entirety.

Monastic reading was popular in the early Middle Ages (through the 12th century) and, as the name suggests, practiced extensively in monastic communities (male and female alike).

Scholastic reading appears in the 13th century and proliferates in universities, growing in popularity throughout the late Middle Ages. It comprised of legere / disputare / praedicare, or: reading / discussing / presenting. The emphasis here was on a person’s capacity to read widely and to be able to pull choice quotes from important works to use in intellectual debates (disputatio) or lectures. With an increasing emphasis on an individual’s ability to cite a vast number of key quotations, rather than having a critical understanding of the context and tradition of said quotations, reading became more fragmented in scholastic milieux. As a result, the ‘collection’ (similar to what we call an anthology today) as a ‘genre’ was created during the scholastic period.

University students and masters were no longer concerned with reading a few entire texts and memorising them, but instead with having easy access to ‘key passages’ in many texts which could be used as ‘authorities’ in debates and treatises.

In order to find the specific passage or quote, reading aids and methods had to be devised so that a person could find a specific place in a text easily, without having to read the whole work - since that information was stored on a page and not in their mind.

Luckily, reading aids like chapter headings (sometimes included as running titles - the appearance of the title of a book or chapter at the top of each page) existed already. They were originally used by patristic authors (c. 100-450) to make reading scriptures (finding the correct passage) easier, and then these same techniques were taken up elsewhere in order to facilitate the reading of patristic commentaries on the scriptures. Eventually, the use of chapter headings and running titles spread to other domains with the rise of scholasticism, including but not limited to: disputatio (debates), summae (a compendium of theology, philosophy, or canon law), and even vernacular reading (like romanz).

The Scholastic period also took the concept of ‘table of contents’ from Bible manuscripts and developed it into something like what we know today. Pictured below is a 14th century table of contents:

Each entry corresponds to the rubrics - a reading aid that had already existed but started to be used extensively from the 13th century onward - which can be found throughout the text. The word rubric comes from latin 'rubrica', meaning 'red colour'; they get this name because they refer to short introductory phrases written in red ink. The visual difference between red and black ink made rubrics stand out, meaning that they were easy to find without having to read the whole text, and thus allowed readers to find their place in a text easily.

Unlike today, medieval readers did not use page, or folio, numbers to locate different sections of a text, since folio numeration was not standard, and not even necessarily permanent within a given manuscript. In luxury editions, the rubric would be accompanied by an illumination to mark the beginning of a chapter, providing the reader with ample visual stimulation to help divide up the text.

Another way that scholastic reading further dismembered texts was through marginal notes to indicate important passages or note a relevant citation from a related work. See below marginal commentary and a manicula - the hand pointing to indicate important information, which is a particularity of late medieval manuscripts - at bottom left of the image below.

Marginal notes would be taken either by scholars studying a text to prepare for disputatio or during the composition of their own written work, or by students at university during a lecture as they read along with the master and listen to his argumentation on the topic. Thus, we see how medieval people actively became more focused on studying brief, specific passages of many texts with the rise of scholastic reading, and less on deep contemplation of a single text.

This blog is part of the Art of Reading in the Middle Ages project which explores how medieval reading culture evolved and became a fundamental aspect of European culture.

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