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In this impassioned and challenging lecture, Gillian Evans addresses the interdisciplinary nature of the study of medieval texts and its inherent problems, drawing important lessons for teaching and research within the modern university. Through discussion of the practices, philosophy and constitution of the medieval community of authorship, Evans throws into relief the assumptions which surround our current practice of dividing the subject matter of study into discrete educational 'portions' by discipline and ...
In this impassioned and challenging lecture, Gillian Evans addresses the interdisciplinary nature of the study of medieval texts and its inherent problems, drawing important lessons for teaching and research within the modern university. Through discussion of the practices, philosophy and constitution of the medieval community of authorship, Evans throws into relief the assumptions which surround our current practice of dividing the subject matter of study into discrete educational 'portions' by discipline and subject. While acknowledging that the task of pursuing the truth through academic study has perhaps been made more manageable by classification, Evans argues that ancient and medieval scholars would not have flourished in a world of single-subject disciplines. Instead, she calls for disciplinary bounds to be broken and for the modern university to lead in the preservation of learning for its own sake and the fostering of a culture of open-ended enquiry.
BREAKING THE BOUNDS
An Inaugural Lecture given by Professor Gillian R. Evans in the University of Cambridge 16 February 2004
For many centuries until the 1820s every graduate of the University of Oxford had to agree never to be reconciled with Henry Simeonnis. Those who wish to know why must pursue the matter in the footnote, which will remain tantalisingly invisible to you this evening, but which I will gladly supply to anyone on request.1 But, for Cambridge, this evening is bound to have something of the character of the removal of that draconian ban. And this Henrietta is glad to be reconciled.
I am aware that I am at both an advantage and a disadvantage in keeping you here for an hour, since this Inaugural Lecture has not been arrived at inconspicuously. The road to it in the archives of the University is deeply rutted with many footprints and the passage of tumbrils. I expect there are quite a few who have come in the spirit of Augustine of Hippo when he went to hear the sermons of St Ambrose at the end of the fourth century, hoping to be able to write him off. (Old Ambrose had a rhetorician's trick or two; he knew a few things Augustine found he wanted to know, and in the end Augustine, to his considerable chagrin, had to wait in a queue to talk to him.)
But you will be reassured (and not surprised) to know that all this is in the best medieval traditions of our two ancient universities, going back before there were professors, properly speaking. After a stipulated period of practice lecturing and disputation came the formal admission to the guild or corporation, with the inception and the inaugural lecture of the Regent Master which involved exactly the putting up of verbal swords and the exchange of controversy for courtesies which enables us now to spend an hour in this room on serious scholarly questions.
The earliest element to appear in the process seems to have been the expectation that there would be some celebratory eating and drinking. (And this is the moment for me warmly to thank the Faculty of Divinity for its hospitality today.) The conceited Gerald of Wales tells a story of his own prowess as a lecturer in the late 1180s, before even Oxford was really a university, let alone Cambridge. He gave a reading of his 'Irish Places' (Topographia Hibernica) to all comers.2 I am afraid that was in the Other Place. He gave three dinners, one on each day of his three-day Oxford reading. The first day's dinner was, piously, for the poor and needy. To the second day's dinner he invited the most senior scholars, the doctores of the 'different Faculties' (diversorum facultatum) and their favourite and most promising pupils. To the third day's dinner he invited other scholars and the townsfolk. The whole thing was more of a book launch than an inaugural, and there were no Statutes to be complied with yet, but a proper sense of the priorities is evident already.
In Oxford, as in Cambridge, the Masters were (and remain) the only body of people who could decide to admit someone to join them, for 'nobody in the world could wish a colleague on us'3 remains our sentiment. This meant that a student could pass the required examinations (with admission to the degree or gradus), and even be granted a licence to teach, but still not have been admitted as a Master.
The method of 'incepting' in Oxford survives as set out in December 1431, in the form of a 'statute' drafted by the Proctors with the agreement of senior scholars.4 The holder of the new licence sent to each Master the information that he intended to hold his vesperies, or 'evening before' ceremony. There might not be a large attendance, for the Masters were not obliged to attend, but the University Church could be full for the inception of someone likely to be exciting or controversial, and it seems that the inceptor could choose the subjects for disputation, with the other Masters present putting in their arguments in turn. This was intended to give the new Master the opportunity to show off his talents and perhaps attract students to his future lectures. When the disputation was concluded the presiding Master was expected to make a humorous but laudatory speech about the new Master-to-be.5 One such surviving speech emphasises how he profited particularly from the teaching on the natural sciences and as a result he was fired with a passion for philosophy and accordingly went to Paris for the purpose - exactly the sort of teasing reference to the rival show which now goes on between Oxford and Cambridge, though then it was Oxford and Paris.6 This pleasant task of panegyric falls today to Professor Ian Leslie as the Vice-Chancellor's deputy and I shall not mind a bit if in his concluding remarks he proposes a visit to Paris for me.
The next day the formal inception was held, in the University Church, where staging was erected.7 First there was a Mass. One of the Masters then admitted the inceptor into the Guild by placing a cap on his head. The new member read out a text and drew from it two questions for disputation, in verse. The ensuing formal argument was a display piece. The next day, the new Regent Master gave his first solemn lecture, his inaugural. The modern Cambridge professorships are an invention of the late fifteenth century. In 1488 the Regents voted to set up salaried professorships (and students did not have to pay fees to hear these new-style lectures). One result was the decay of the old lecturing requirements which were formerly part of the degree course, and the Regents subsequently had an easier time.8 But the ancient inception, with its assumptions, is the proper context of an inaugural lecture given by a professor today, though we have our own modern conventions about delaying it, sometimes until it becomes a valedictory lecture.
The graduating and incepting Masters were faced in those days not only with the tuition fees, but also with some considerable expenses for an occasion like this. Certain 'gifts' to the University administrators were also expected. The Franciscan William Woodford, a contemporary of John Wyclif who practised disputation with him, was on his way back to Oxford to incept in theology with the then enormous sum of £40 for the purpose, when he was mugged and lost it all.9 He says 'I have never found greater charity anywhere than among the friars when one of them has to Incept in theology.'10 I have received no intimations that a pour-boire or gratuity will be expected by the University in connection with today's event, but no doubt if I am wrong the Old Schools will be in touch.
Give me an hour, then, and I will endeavour to do two things which should not, I believe, be entirely separated in that Statute D duty of a University teaching officer in Cambridge to foster religion, education, learning and research. I want to look at the assumptions which surround our practice of dividing the subject-matter of study into discrete educational 'portions' by discipline or subject. The late Roman grammarians introduced the student to the Latin language as though it were a kit made up of planks and screws with instructions for assembly, dividing it into sounds and syllables, and discussing the way words are put together from these elements. Cambridge successfully resisted political pressure to adopt the 'bite-sized Mars bar' approach of 'modularisation' a few years ago, but it is still finding it difficult to think pedagogically outside the not much bigger boxes of single-subject disciplines.
But, first, I am going to reflect on the implications of such considerations for future study in my own area of work, the Latin texts of the ancient, early Christian and medieval worlds. For this is the inaugural lecture of a new professor who took an interdisciplinary title.
Words put together in the right way become powerful. The world of classical Greece and Rome understood this so well that the educational system set itself to turn out persuasive speakers, who could not only argue a case but argue it irresistibly. The sixteenth-century Renaissance rediscovered some of these skills in a social and political context in which they began to have a natural place once more. Between the late antique world and the Renaissance stretches more than a millennium of Western European writing, by authors who knew much of the classical Latin corpus and respected it. They could no longer enter without an effort of imagination into the kind of world which produced it, but they used it assiduously nevertheless. This created a more or less conscious 'community of authorship' in which medieval writers strove for a curious like-mindedness with their sources, with the authorities on which they relied, and with each other.
That is a phenomenon so familiar to those who work with medieval Latin texts that it may not strike them as sharply as it should how very singular it is. Here are centuries of intellectual endeavour in which the best, and to our modern eyes most original, minds did all they could to sink their distinctiveness in a pool of shared wording and harmonised ideas.
For a medieval author did not begin with a blank page. He wrote with a consciousness that other minds had been at work, authoritative authors, who were offering him words and phrases and images. He did not hesitate to use them. Indeed, he wrote in others' words for preference if he could. In the view of Augustine of Hippo (354-430), himself among the authors most heavily borrowed from, this was not to be discouraged. Even those not able to compose for themselves may be able to deliver a speech written by someone else. If what they take from others is 'eloquently and wisely written' (eloquenter sapienterque conscriptum) and those who 'deliver' the words are themselves good-living men, there is nothing wrong with that,11 he suggests.
There are exceptions, of course - individuals who express some exasperation with the conventions and restriction of having to work as the humble follower of the greater writers of the past. Adelard of Bath in the early twelfth century explains in his book on the same and the different (De Eodem et Diverso) that when he reads earlier authors on the sciences and compares them with the moderns he is struck by the richness of the earlier ones and the comparative silence of the latter. He responded by travelling to the parts of the world where he could talk to Greek and Arabic scholars and learn more of science and medicine than could be got in the West.12
In a similar spirit of going it alone, one should not be afraid to find oneself in a minority, asserts Roger Bacon in the thirteenth century, though he relies for comfort on a series of authoritative 'companions'. He quotes: 'You are not happy until the mob derides you' (nondum felix es, si nondum turba te deriserit).13 Authorities are not always right: 'It is fitting to add to the authorities and to correct them on many points' (in quampluribus).14 Indeed, the authorities correct themselves and one another, and dispute what other authorities say.15 We should prefer truth to authority, and put the authorities right when we can see that they are wrong.16 With heavy irony, he points out that, for a warrant to do that, we may rely on authority. 'For Plato says, "Socrates my master is my friend but truth is a better friend"' (Amicus est Socrates, magister meus, sed magis est amica veritas). A similar alleged sentiment of Aristotle is cited.17
Like Adelard, Bacon was reluctant to accept that all the best discoveries have been made already. Human understanding progresses and develops, he contends. One age (una aetas) is not enough for inquiry into many of the subjects the authorities have written about. People are aware that many things which will arise in time to come are unknown to us, and in future ages it will be wondered at that we did not know things which will be then be obvious.18 Bacon, too, bewails the contemporary neglect of important subjects, multa quae sunt utilissima et omnino necessaria, such as mathematics and languages.19 This was not the spirit of a scholar altogether persuaded of the helpfulness of the 'dwarfs and giants' mentality. The clever idea that writers of later ages are like dwarfs sitting upon the shoulders of giants (nani et gigantes) is attributed by John of Salisbury to the earlier twelfth-century Bernard of Chartres. (It is not, as sometimes suggested, Isaac Newton's original idea.) Its peculiar neatness is that, with every appearance of proper humility, it allows the later author to think that he may see more and see further than the 'authoritative giants' could (plura eis et remotiora videre).20 But it requires as a 'given' the acceptance that all useful study and writing is done within a community of existing work.