Aristotle among his students. Miniature on the first leaf of Oresme’s translation of Aristotle’s Ethics, in a late 15th-century manuscript

Reading and debating at the Arts Faculties

University life in the middle ages

Zdeněk Uhlíř (National Library of the Czech Republic)
Mark Vermeer (Public Library Bruges)

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 seven liberal arts, depicted as women, with Philosophy at the top, carrying a sceptre. Folium from a 13th-century manuscript (Vienna, Österreichische Nationalbibliothek, cod. 12538, fol. 12r).

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.

14th-century depiction of a medieval lecture. The master is reading while standing on a pulpit, the students are sitting in rows.

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).

A page from a grammar, written c. 1200. The chapters on this page discuss different types of text elements found in juridical documents (Vienna, Österreichische Nationalbibliothek,
Cod. 621 HAN MAG, fol. 3v).

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.

An example of a commentary that stayed close to the original text: a manuscript of Aristotle’s Ethics, with notes made in between the lines and in the margins. Peter of Mladoňovice: Glossa interlinearis in I. – X. libros Ethicorum Aristotelis (Prague, National Library of the Czech Republic, V.A.20, fol. 1r)

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).

An example of a commentary that diverged further from the original text: a lecture from 1407 on Aristotle’s Metaphysica. Petrus de Przemyslavia: Lectura super Aristotelis Metaphysicam (Prague, National Library of the Czech Republic, IV.F.21, fol. 62r)

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.

A commentary on Aristotle’s Meteorology, discussing the weather, but also cosmology and the elements. Jacobus de Duaco, Sentencia quarti libri metheororum, manuscript of late 13th-early 14th century (Bruges, Public Library Bruges, ms. 513, fol. 76r)

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.

A commentary on Priscian’s Institutiones grammaticae, traditionally attributed to Petrus Helias. Priscianus metricus cum commentario (Prague, National Library of the Czech Republic, IV E 17, fol. 2v).

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.

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.