Reading and debating at the Arts Faculties
University life in the middle ages
University life in the middle ages
At medieval universities the faculty of arts was a so-called propaedeutic faculty. This meant that you first had to complete your studies at the Faculty of Arts before you were allowed to study at any of the other faculties. Unlike the other faculties - Law, Theology, and Medicine - the arts had no practical professional use at the time. One could not become an ‘artist’ as one could become a theologian, jurist or doctor. Rather, the curriculum focused on teaching skills that were similar to present-day basic research skills. Every university required a faculty of arts to exist. In this sense, the faculty of arts was the heart of the university and, although the objective of medieval education was theological knowledge, a general arts education was also desirable.
The arts faculty was organized around the seven artes liberales (liberal arts). These in turn were organized into two groups. One group, the Trivium, focuses on the study of language, offering courses in grammar, rhetoric and dialectic. The second group, the Quadrivium, focused on the study of numbers: arithmetic, geometry, astronomy and music. The Trivium formed the basis for correct communication, both orally and verbally. In the end, all seven arts were tools for acquiring knowledge and wisdom, a principle formalized as Philosophy.
Of the Trivium, dialectic, also known as logic, became the most important. The dialectic method was taught as an ideal way to reach knowledge, by positioning statements and using logical arguments to either support or contradict the statements. Over time the dialectic method was introduced as the main method for studying and teaching. Medieval didactic methods at all levels were based firstly on the heard and spoken word. Masters (magister) held oral lectures on fundamental texts, such as the writings of Aristotle on physics, metaphysics, ethics, economics and politics.
Even though the writings of Aristotle were one of the most important sources of study in medieval universities, other writers were of course also discussed. The works of Priscian and Quintillian, and other great classical grammarians, were also commented upon, and supplemented with useful and practical manuals with samples or exercises. Important texts, for instance, were the Ars Dictandi (on how to produce all sorts of juridical documents) and the Ars Epistolandi (on how to write letters).
Not only Aristotle’s ideas were influential, but his system of logic as well. Masters would debate with students (or let the students debate among themselves) on the interpretation of these texts. These debates were structured according to the Aristotelian system of logic: participants relied on statements from authorities, such as the Bible, the Church Fathers, Aristotle and others, to support their positions in the debates. Lectures and debates were held in Latin.
Although lectures were delivered orally, many found their way into writing. Students could rework their course notes into a full text, or the master himself could write them down. Such texts were called commentaries and often identified themselves as Lectura (lecture), Questiones (questions), or Expositio (explanation), followed by the name of the work they were written about. The manuscript below, for example, is known as Petrus of Przemyslavia’s Lectura super Aristotelis Metaphysicam (Lecture on Aristotle’s Metaphysics).
These texts did not pose as if they relied objective, canonical knowledge. Many of these commentaries were shaped as questions and discussions, allowing for divergent opinions. As medieval life and reality was markedly different from the times of Aristotle, they were not mere explications of Aristotle’s ideas, but they were Aristotelian elaborations on modern (and Christian) issues. This often resulted in texts that looked like commentaries but were more or less independent treatises.
After the peak of Scholasticism, between the first half of the 13th century and the beginning of the 14th century, some of these commentaries developed into completely separate treatises. Many commentaries arrived at entirely new ideas and, consequently, often provoked fierce debate. For instance, while the fourteenth-century French scholar Nicholas d’Oresme translated Aristotle’s Politica into Middle French, in his annotations he advocates for monarchy as the ideal form of government. This goes against original Aristotelian thought, in which democracy was valued higher.
As the dialectic method was employed in nearly all forms of teaching, life at the faculty of arts largely consisted of discussions on Aristotelian themes. The Philosopher (as Aristotle is usually named in scholastic texts) was held in such high esteem that over time the seven liberal arts were accompanied by three additional fields all taken from his works: natural philosophy, metaphysics and ethics. Natural philosophy touched upon nearly all fields of human knowledge, in what we now would call biology, cosmology or psychology.
These days you are of course no longer obliged to study at the Faculty of Arts before you are allowed to study anything else. But almost all universities have developed around the Faculty of Arts, and a lot of them still have the Arts at their core.