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People, Towns, Univ's



In the art and literature of the Middle Ages, three basic SOCIAL GROUPS were represented:

Those who prayed (the CLERGY)

Those who fought as mounted knights (the landed NOBILITY)

Those who labored in the fields and shops (the PEASANTRY and VILLAGE ARTISANS)

After the revival of towns in the 11th century, there emerged a fourth social group: the long-distance TRADERS AND MERCHANTS.

Like the peasantry, they also LABORED, but in ways strange to the traditional groups.

They were freemen who often possessed GREAT WEALTH, yet unlike the nobility and the clergy, they OWNED NO LAND, and unlike the peasantry, they did not toil in fields and shops.

Their rise to power caused an important CRACK IN THE OLD SOCIAL ORDER, for they drew behind them the leadership of the urban artisan groups created by the new urban industries that grew up in the wake of the revival of trade.

During the late Middle Ages (1000-1300), these NEW “MDDLING CLASSES” firmly established themselves and their numbers have been enlarging ever since.

In the 11th and 12th centuries, towns held only about 5 PERCENT of western Europe’s population.

By modem standards, they were NOT VERY LARGE.

Of Germany’s 3,000 towns, 2,800 had populations under 1,000. Only 15 German towns exceeded 10,000. The largest, Cologne, had 30,000.

In England, only London had more than 10,000.

Paris was larger than London, hut not by much.

The largest European towns were in Italy. Florence approached 100,000 and Milan was not far behind.

Despite their comparatively small size, towns then, as now, were where the action was. One could find there the whole of medieval society and its most creative segments.

 The Chartering of Towns
Towns were originally dominated by feudal lords, both lay and clerical. The lords created the towns by GRANTING CHARTERS to those who would agree to live and work there.

The charters GUARANTEED THEIR SAFETY and gave inhabitants a degree of INDEPENDENCE unknown on the land.

The purpose was originally to concentrate skilled laborers who could manufacture the FINISHED GOODS desired by lords and bishops.

By the 11th century skilled serfs began to pay their MANORIAL DUES IN MANUFACTURED GOODS, no longer in field labor or products.

In return for a fixed rent and proper subservience, serfs were encouraged to settle and work in towns.

There they gained special rights and privileges by way of the charters.

 As towns grew and beckoned, many SERFS FLED THE COUNTRYSIDE with their skills and went directly to the new urban centers.

There they found the freedom and profits that could lift an industrious craftsman into higher social ranks.

As the migration of serfs to the towns accelerated, the lords in the countryside offered them more favorable terms of tenure to keep them on the land. In this way the growth of towns improved the lot of serfs generally.

 The Rise Of Merchants
Rural society not only gave the towns their craftsmen and day laborers, but the first merchants themselves may also have been ENTERPRISING SERFS.

Some of the long-distance traders were men who had nothing to lose and everything to gain by the ENORMOUS RISKS of foreign trade.

They traveled together in ARMED CARAVANS AND CONVOYS, buying goods and products as cheaply as possible at the source, and selling them for all they could get in western ports.

At first the merchants were NOT LIKED BY THE TRADITIONAL SOCIAL GROUPS of clergy,  nobility, and peasantry, who considered them an oddity.

As late as the 15th century, we find the landed nobility still SNUBBING THE URBAN ELITE.

Such snobbery probably never died out among the older landed nobility, WHO LOOKED DOWN ON THE TRADERS as men of poor breeding, little character, and money they did not properly earn or deserve.

Over time, however, the powerful GREW TO RESPECT the merchants, and the weak always tried to imitate them, because wherever the merchants went, they left a trail of wealth behind.

Merchants Challenged Traditional Authority
As the traders established themselves in towns, they grew in wealth and numbers, formed their own protective associations, and soon found themselves able to CHALLENGE TRADITIONAL FEUDAL AUTHORITY.

Townspeople needed simple and uniform laws and a government sympathetic to their NEW FORMS OF BUSINESS ACTIVITY, not the fortress mentality of the lords of the countryside.

Because the MERCHANTS were so clearly the ENGINE OF THE URBAN ECONOMY, small shopkeepers and artisans identified far more with them than with the aloof lords and bishops who were a town’s original masters.

Most TOWNSPEOPLE found their own interests best served by the development of urban life in the direction the merchants wanted it to go.  Namely, they wanted:

Greater commercial freedom

Fewer barriers to trade and business

A freer secular life

The LESSER NOBILITY (the small knights) outside the towns also recognized the new mercantile economy to be the wave of the future.

During the 11th and 12th centuries, the burgher upper class increased its economic strength and successfully challenged the older urban lords for CONTROL OF THE TOWNS.

 New Models of Government
With urban autonomy came new models of self-government.

Around 1100 the old urban nobility and the new burgher upper class merged. From this new ruling class was formed the ARISTOCRATIC TOWN COUNCIL, which henceforth came to govern towns.

Only families of long standing in the town who owned property had full rights of citizenship and a direct say in the town’s government at the highest levels.

Government, in other words, was INBRED AND ARISTOCRATIC.

Over time, the formation of ARTISAN GUILDS gave workers in the trades a direct voice in government.

Ironically, a long-term effect of this gain was to limit the social mobility of the poorest artisans.

The guilds gained representation on city councils and, to discourage imports, used their power to enforce quality standards and fair prices on local businesses.

These actions created tight restrictions on guild membership, squeezing out poorer artisans and trades.

Unrepresented artisans and craftsmen constituted a true URBAN PROLETARIAT prevented by law from forming their own guilds or entering existing ones.

 Towns and Kings
By providing kings with the RESOURCES they needed to curb rebellious noblemen, towns became a major force in the transition from feudal society to national governments.

Towns were a ready source of EDUCATED BUREAUCRATS AND LAWYERS who knew Roman law, the tool for running kingdoms and empires.

MONEY was also to be found in the towns in great quantity, enabling kings to hire their own armies and free themselves from dependence on the nobility.

Towns had the  FINANCIAL, AND TECHNOLOGICAL resources to empower kings.

The Medieval Renaissance
By the late 11th century, Europe was on the threshold of one of the most productive and energetic periods in the history of the west -- the MEDIEVAL RENAISSANCE.

Byzantine and Spanish Islamic scholars had made it possible for these ANCIENT WORKS to circulate among Western scholars:

The works of Aristotle

The writings of Euclid and Ptolemy

The basic works of Greek physicians

The works of Arab Mathematicians

The larger texts of Roman law

They also wrote extensive, thought-provoking COMMENTARIES on Greek texts that were translated into Latin and made available to Western scholars and students.

 Origins of Universities
The renaissance of the 12th century, with its revival of classical learning, its unprecedented number of students flocking to the schools, and its development of professional studies in law, medicine, and theology, led to the rise of ORGANIZED CENTERS OF LEARNING -- the universities.

Originally the word university meant a group of persons possessing a common purpose. In this case, it referred to a guild of learners, both teachers and students, analogous to the craft guilds with their masters and apprentices.

In the l3th century the universities had no campuses and little property or money, and the masters taught in hired rooms or religious houses.

The earliest universities -- Bologna, Paris, and Oxford -- were not officially founded or created, but in time the popes and kings granted them and other universities charters of self-government.

The charters gave legal status to the universities and rights to the students, such as freedom from the jurisdiction of town officials.

 Two Systems: Bologna and Paris
The UNIVERSITY OF BOLOGNA in northern Italy acquired a reputation as the leading center for the study of law.

The STUDENTS SOON ORGANIZED A GUILD for protection against townspeople, who were demanding exorbitant sums of food and lodging.

Because the guild went on to control the professors, Bologna became A STUDENT PARADISE.

A professor requiring leave of absence even for one day first had to obtain permission for his own students.

He had to begin his lecture with the bell and end within one minute of the next bell.

The material in the text had to be covered systematically, with all difficult passages fully explained.

The UNIVERSITY OF PARIS, which had grown out of the cathedral school of Notre Dame, specialized in liberal arts and theology and became the most influential intellectual center in medieval Europe.

Its administration was far different from Bologna’s. The chancellor of Notre Dame, the bishop’s officer who exercised authority over the cathedral school, refused to allow the students or the masters to obtain control of the burgeoning university.

Charters issued by the French king in 1200 and by the pope in 1231 freed the university from the bishop’s  authority by making it an autonomous body CONTROLLED BY THE MASTERS.

Curriculum and Degrees
The degrees available at medieval universities were similar to those offered today.

The BACHELOR’S DEGREE, which could be obtained after studying from three to five years, was not considered very important.

For a MASTER OF ARTS DEGREE, which admitted the holder into the guild of masters and was a license to teach, particular emphasis was placed on the works of Aristotle.

In theology, law, and medicine, the highest degree was commonly called a DOCTORATE.

 It was no easy matter to get a master’s degree (or doctorate) from a medieval university.

Many years of preparation were required and at the final examination the candidate had to defend his thesis publicly for hours against the learned attacks of the masters.

If successful in his defense the candidate then stood the cost of a banquet for his examiners.

What was revived during the medieval renaissance, first of all, was INTELLECTUAL CURIOSITY. This is evident from contemporary accounts, such as the following concerning an 11th century scholar from Liege:

Olbert was not able to satiate his thirst for study. When he would hear of ‘some one distinguished in the arts he flew there at once, and the more he thirsted, the more he absorbed something delightful from each master. At Panis he worked at Saint-Germain and studied the Holy Faith which glowed there. In Troyes he studied for three years. learning gratefully many things.... He felt obliged to listen to Fulbert of Chartres who was proclaimed in the liberal arts throughout France. Afterwards, just like the bees among flowers, gorged with the nectar of learning, he returned to the hive and lived there studiously in a religious way, and religiously in a studious manner.

Living "religiously in a studious manner" aptly characterizes the scholars of the medieval renaissance and points up an ESSENTIAL DIFFERENCE between medieval thought on the one hand and early Greek philosophy and modern scientific thought on the other.

With but few exceptions, medieval man did not think of TRUTH as something to be discovered by himself; rather, he saw it as ALREADY EXISTING in the authoritative Christian and pagan writings handed down from antiquity.

Spurred on by a new zest for employing REASON, medieval scholars of the 12th and 13th centuries succeeded in understanding and re-expressing those elements in the CHRISTIAN AND PAGAN HERITAGE that seemed significant to them.

Since this task was carried out largely in the schools, these scholars are known as school men -- or SCHOLASTICS -- and the intellectual synthesis they produced is called scholasticism.

The Nominalist-Realist Controversy
Each scholar formed his own judgments and earnestly sought to convince others. This led to debate on a wide range of subjects. Most famous was the argument over universals known as the NOMINALIST-REALIST CONTROVERSY

Nominalists and realists battled OVER THE PROBLEM OF UNIVERSAL IDEAS basing their arguments on indirect evidence that Plato and Aristotle did not agree on the subject

Plato had argued that IDEAS (UNIVERSALS) HAD REALITY apart from their existence in men’s minds and that a specific object (a particular chair) existed only as a reflection of its universal idea (the Idea of Chair).

Aristotle maintained that PARTICULARS EXISTED -- a human being was a real entity, NOT JUST A REFLECTION OF THE UNIVERSAL Idea of Man.

The opposing points of view seemed irreconcilable:

To the REALISTS in the Middle Ages, only universal Ideas could be real and exist independently.

To the NOMINALISTS, abstract concepts, such as universal Ideas, were only names (nomina) and had no real existence.

Both realism and nominalism -- if carried to their logical extremes -- resulted in principles equally abhorrent to the Church.

Realism became pantheism (the whole universe is God).

Nominalism became materialism (the universe is composed solely of matter).

The extreme views of nominalists and realists, along with other examples of the sterile use of logic (whether a pig is led to the market by the rope or by the driver) outraged a brilliant young student named PIERRE ABELARD (1079-1142).

Abelard’s great contribution to medieval thought was FREEING LOGIC from barrenness and rerouting it to become again a means to an end rather than an end itself.

CONCEPTUALISM, his common-sense solution to the nominatist-realist controversy, held that universals, while existing only in the mind as thoughts or concepts, are nevertheless valid (real) since they are the product of observing the similar qualities that exist in a particular class of things. Thus by observing many chairs and sitting in them, we arrive at the universal concept of “chair.”

In addition to redefining the purpose of scholastic thought, Abelard PERFECTED THE SCHOLASTIC METHOD.

Like others before him, Abelard emphasized the importance of understanding, but whereas the former had begun with faith, Abelard STARTED WITH DOUBT.

We must learn to doubt, he insisted, for doubting leads us to inquire, and INQUIRY LEADS US TO THE TRUTH.

He aimed to AROUSE INTELLECTUAL CURIOSITY in his students and turn it into useful channels, bringing reason to bear on inherited truths in order to achieve understanding.

In an epoch-making work, SIC ET NON (Yes and No), Abelard demonstrated his method. Listing 158 propositions on theology and ethics, he appended to each a number of statements pro and con taken from the authoritative writings of the Church.

Abelard did not go on to reconcile these apparent contractions, but he urged his students to do so by rational interpretation.

 The Zenith of Scholasticism: Thomas Aquinas
Scholasticism reached its zenith with St Thomas Aquinas.

In his SUMMA THEOLOGICA, this Italian Dominican dealt exhaustively with the great problems of theology, philosophy, politics, and economics.

Aquinas’ major concern was to reconcile Aristotle and Church dogma -- in other words, the truths of natural reason and the truths of faith.

There can be no real contradiction, he argued, since all truth comes from God.

In case of an unresolved contradiction, however, faith won out, because of the possibility of human error in reasoning.



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Copyright © 1999-2000 Edrene S. Montgomery
Last modified: October 31, 1999