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Medieval Latin Humanism

 The concept of medieval humanism

Whether medieval Latin humanism is a viable concept for scholarly research and teaching is a question that has been on the table in a way that no longer allows us to dismiss it as anachronistic at least since the publication of Richard W. Southern’s volume Medieval Humanism in 1970. Starting his book with captivating portraits of three thinkers representing different stages of European historical experience, namely Bede, St. Anselm and Meister Eckhart, Southern devoted its next chapter to a conceptual analysis of medieval humanism (Southern 1970, 29-60). He defines medieval humanism as distinct from renaissance humanism based on the following three characteristics: 1. a sense of the dignity of human nature; 2. a sense of the dignity of nature itself; and 3. a sense that the order of the universe is intelligible to human reason (Southern, 1970, 29-33). With the last characteristic touching on the question of anthropocentrism, the tension between nature and humanity should by extension also be considered in discussions of medieval humanism, even if Southern does not formally address it. Whether or not Southern was aware that underlying his definition of medieval humanism lurked an older Burkchardtian view of renaissance humanism as linked to human dignity rather than Paul Oscar Kristeller’s later view of studia humanitatis as a self-conscious revival of antiquity accompanied by an interest in paideia (Black 1998), he clearly felt the need to modify his ideas on medieval humanism in the two volumes of his subsequent incomplete trilogy Scholastic Humanism and the Unification of Europe (Southern 1995 and Southern 2001), qualifying it now as scholastic and adding themes like the inerrancy of scripture (Southern 1995, 108-109). If we take Kristeller’s view seriously, however, a larger revision of medieval humanism may eventually push it back to Carolingian times and, in that way, allow us to include the Carolingian classical scholar Lupus of Ferrières (Wallace-Hadrill 1983, 304-314). Since Southern’s original threefold definition remains the more influential and insightful, I will in this article’s first section comment on each of the three individual aspects he defined, i.e., human dignity, natural dignity, and the intelligibility of the universe. In the following sections I will fine-tune, update, and expand Southern’s position by including further aspects under the rubric of medieval humanism, while in the conclusion I will discuss humanism in relation to scholasticism and mysticism.

As the first of Southern’s characteristics of medieval Latin humanism, human dignity is generally associated more with the renaissance than with the Middle Ages, even though a more complex literary and philosophical perspective has replaced the Burckhardtian position (Jurdjevic 2007). The contrast is reinforced by the fact that medieval intellectual culture is considered more religious and theological, and hence heteronomous, than philosophical. This should not make us lose sight of the fact that a deeply rooted notion of human worth lies at the origin of the Christian and Jewish tradition, namely, the idea that human beings are created in the image of God (Genesis 1:26-27), which endows them with a sense of the divine. To bring this out Jean-Luc Marion has taken to explaining the expression “created in the image of God” as referring to man’s embodiment of the style of God. Just as a Rembrandt or a Cézanne is recognizable as just that, a Rembrandt or a Cézanne, doing all but away with the need for verification through the painters’ signatures, in that same way can it be said not that man is a god, as if a visible imago or copy, but that he is God (Marion 2011, 28).

The above point reverses the dynamic from seeing human beings as passive and receptive to considering their creative agency as a mark of divine likeness which also includes a capacity for science and technology (Carlson 2008, 830-833). With questions of pagan and heretical influence never far away in discussions of medieval intellectual life, it is worth pointing out that the orthodox trademark of imago Dei appears to have served as a receptacle in which gnoseological influences of, for example, the Latin Asclepius of Hermes Trismegistus with its notion that God has two images, mankind and the world, could be incorporated (Asclepius 10 in Copenhaver 1992, 72-73; cf. Dronke 1985, 32-47). This leads me to suggest that, although conventional historiographical interpretations tend to place the renaissance view of Pico della Mirandola’s Oration on the Dignity of Man (c. 1486 CE) in opposition to medieval humanism, comparable to how Southern distinguishes medieval humanism from renaissance humanism, the centripetal force of human dignity pushes us in important ways towards unifying rather than dividing these humanisms.

If we next turn to the place of nature, the situation is not all that different. Contrary to an exegetical sense of creation as the material product of God’s handiwork, which may be more reflective of reformation exegesis, medieval humanism typically sees nature as worthy of study even aside from, although never in disharmony with, scriptural exegesis (Harrison 1998, 34-63). A popular genre in the learned culture of the twelfth century, the many comparisons between Genesis and Plato’s Timaeus the latter known through Calcidius’ Latin translation (Gregory 1988; Dutton 2003) further testify to an underlying hermeneutics that allows humanist authors to analyze both texts within a single framework of interpretation (Otten 1995). Rather than fixating creation in its biblical status as called forth by God’s single and singular act of creatio ex nihilo, the comparisons between Genesis and the Timaeus reveal an appreciation of nature’s dignity as somehow woven into the invisible reasons and causes of its animated reality. Whereas for Origen of Alexandria (184/185 – 253/254 CE) nature’s invisibility had entailed the idea that a spiritual creation once preceded the existing material universe (Otten 2013, 59-61), twelfth-century Latin humanist thinkers see the invisible causes as holding together and animating one and the same the corporeal world (Otten 2004, 88-94). A similar fascination with that which cannot be seen leads William of Conches, who follows Constantine the African’s Pantegni here (Dronke 1988, 413-414), to call the four visible elements of water, fire, earth and air by the name of elementata, as each of them represents a differently balanced conglomerate of the underlying purer invisible elements (elementa) (Otten 2004, 92-93, 116), and persuades Thierry of Chartres, and Peter Abelard to speculate about the affinity between the Platonic World Soul and the Holy Spirit (Dronke 1985, 100-118; Gregory 1988, 54-70). In the learned medieval reconstruction of cosmic development divine intervention comes to play an increasingly marginal role, as what rather interests medieval humanists is to capture nature in full flight, putting the spotlight on what William of Conches in his glosses on the Timaeus calls natura operans (Glosae super Platonem 1.37; Otten 2004, 94-100).

Yet however much medieval Latin humanists stretch the meaning of scripture to accommodate their cosmological interests, they do not leave it behind, as letting go of exegesis entirely is not an option for them. Far from perceiving scripture as an obstacle, however, they relish the intellectual challenge to harmonize scriptural interpretation with the observed truths about nature. As such, their efforts reflect the famous dictum that natura and scriptura are the two vestments of Christ, which the Carolingian thinker Johannes Scottus Eriugena (c. 810-866 CE) had lifted from Maximus the Confessor (c. 580-662 CE) (Periphyseon 3.723C-724A). While this dictum serves medieval Latin humanist thought throughout as a guiding motto, capturing its exegetical roots and cosmological reach in one sweep, it would be anachronistic to conclude from there the inerrancy of scripture. Medieval thinkers do not see scripture as wrong, but since it always stands in need of interpretation, its truth is by definition malleable. A more pernicious problem for current thought on medieval humanism is whether the scientific investigation of nature was held back in the Middle Ages because it was either exegetically embedded or doctrinally preoccupied. While the question may have to be differently framed for different individual thinkers, the medieval humanist tradition as a whole seems to have had a pronounced way of dealing with the issue. Attracted to nature’s invisibility, humanist thinkers display a general drive to read nature always more deeply, whereby it matters less to them whether they do so in a scientific or a literary way. Thus the deep reading of nature corresponds with how medieval exegetes handle the multi-layeredness of scripture: not subsuming the figurative under the literal reading or vice versa, but joining the strengths of both for the purpose of launching a new and more comprehensive vision.

With depth facilitating comprehensiveness, a further goal of the deep reading of nature for humanist authors is to enable the effective expression of its various shades. The various personifications of nature in the twelfth century, whether in Alan of Lille’s De planctu naturae and Anticlaudianus, in Bernard Silvestris’ Cosmographia, or in John of Hauville’s Architrenius, are an outgrowth of this. Combining nature’s various representations into what can be seen as another trademark of medieval Latin humanist culture, humanist authors propagate the idea that nature executes a semi-divine office, overseeing what Alan of Lille calls the production of “like from like” (De planctu naturae 8.29-30; cf. William of Conches, Glosae super Platonem 1.37). In doing so, they appear to have taken their cue from the stern and regulating voice of Lady Philosophy in Boethius’ Consolation of Philosophy (Economou 2002), which served as a paradigmatic text in the medieval humanist canon alongside Macrobius’ Commentary on Cicero’s Dream of Scipio and Martianus Capella’s On the Marriage of Mercury and Philology (De nuptiis Mercurii et Philologiae). It has been suggested that nature’s intermediary and potentially redemptive position was ultimately deemed unacceptable by the church and replaced by the spiritual-ecclesial role of Lady Love or the Virgin Mary, while the interest in naturre’s inherent workings would go secular (Newman 2003, 291-327). Yet whatever the assessment of Lady Nature’s emissary status, the creative poetic works in which she figures remarkably survived the scholastic later Middle Ages, which is due in large part to a vigorous afterlife in vernacular literature (Otten 2011).

The connection between personified nature and the earlier personification of philosophy in Boethius points not just to an allegorical parallelism but reveals also that nature, not unlike philosophy, constitutes a world deemed meaningful in and unto itself. This means that, in addition to being a cosmic entity, nature has epistemological rules of its own. Nature may well be invisible in fact, the deepest truth about nature in medieval Latin humanism pivots on its invisibility but this invisibility stands in the service of greater intelligibility, nature’s intelligibility being the third of Southern’s characteristics of medieval humanism, allowing its truth to shine on a higher plane. That nature is tailor-made for the investigation of human reason is a pervasive theme in the humanist nature-tradition, making it fertile ground for the encounter between God and humanity. If we conceive of medieval Latin humanism as a kind of trialogue between God, nature and humanity, nature’s specific role is always to provide middle ground, a task which it can only fulfill because its rules, while laid down by the divine, are open to the understanding of the human beings created in its image. That there is also a darker, more recalcitrant side to nature, medieval Latin humanist authors, foregoing gnostic bifurcation, tend to accept as part of creation’s final intractability. For medieval humanists then the intelligibility of nature does not primarily signal a transparent channeling of divine power but rather marks nature’s status as a captivatingly complex mix of resistance and fertility, in which matter is both a reality to be wrestled with and the principle of generation (mater generationis). Interestingly, nature’s growing independence does not detract from its role as divine conduit. Instead, it opens up a new realm to be mapped out, as Adelard of Bath (ca. 1080-ca. 1152) can showcase his newly acquired Arabic learning in his Questiones naturales. While the exploration of nature offers obstacles, therefore, it always also holds out the promise of an ever-widening horizon for human intellection.

The twelfth century oversaw an important widening of intellectual vision through the use of Arabic sources, by which medieval Latin humanism was considerably enriched. Arabic sources directly impacted the flourishing of the quadrivium. Adelard translated the astronomical tables of al-Khwarizmi, the Abbreviation of the Introduction to Astrology of Abu Ma’shar, the Centiloquium (astrological apophtegms) attributed to Ptolemy and the Book of Talismans (Liber Prestigiorum Thebidis secundum Hermetem et Ptholomeum) of Thabit ibn Qurra (Adelard, xi). He may have traveled to southern Italy and Sicily in the aftermath of the success of the First Crusade (1098), but with Daniel of Morley he also represents a group of young scholars inspired more by the new Arabic learning than the standard curriculum. Adelard felt that the ‘reason’ of the Arabs has more to offer than the authority of the schools of Laon, while Daniel thought natural knowledge nobler than the minutiae of texts studied in Paris (Southern 1986, 92-96). Related to natural science, the hunger for philosophy likewise led scholars to explore Arabic sources. Here we find the important Liber de Causis, which was translated in Toledo from Arabic into Latin by Gerard of Cremona between 1167-1187 and goes back to Proclus’ Elementatio Theologiae (Fidora-Niederberger 2001); it would become a key resource in thirteenth century scholastic thought. The translation efforts in twelfth century Spain from both Arabic and Hebrew like those of Dominicus Gundissalinus (ca. 1150) are perhaps best seen as preliminary moves towards an intended interreligious dialogue (Fidora 2011). How much the new learning could throw those who disseminated it in an epistemological vortex is shown by the remarkable case of the early translator Peter Alfonsi. A converted Jew from Aragon who was trained in Arabic, he brought Arabic texts north and, traveling to England, may have helped Adelard with the translation of al-Kwamirizmi. In his moral wisdom book Disciplina clericalis (Clerical discipline) Alfonsi adapted his translations to a new clerical Christian audience, while in his Dialogi contra Iudaeos (Dialogue against the Jews) he defended Christianity as opposed to Judaism and Islam as the choice of reason (Tolan 1993).

 The Latin humanism of the twelfth century: Bernard Silvestris and Alan of Lille

As hinted in the above, the twelfth century is a pivotal period in the debate on medieval Latin humanism for a number of reasons. Long before Southern commented on, and separated, medieval humanism from the humanism of the European renaissance, Charles Homer Haskins had labeled this period a renaissance in his eponymous book, after which Chenu fleshed out its religious and intellectual outlook (Haskins 1927; Chenu 1968). For Southern, whose concept of humanism does not explicitly engage Haskins’ concept of renaissance, the period after 1050 witnessed a sharp change. Starting with Anselm of Canterbury’s emphasis on the incarnation and his ongoing attempts to convey affection and piety through his hymns, Southern sees a remarkable intellectual push to make God seem human, which he calls “the greatest triumph of medieval humanism” and continues in the hymns of the twelfth and thirteenth century (Southern 1970, 37). It is followed by “the next triumph to make the universe itself friendly, familiar, and intelligible.” Perhaps the most important lesson Southern wants us to draw, however, one which came to especially great heights in the twelfth century, is the idea that the dignity of humanity, the dignity of nature, and the intelligibility of nature to human reason are not to be seen as compartmentalized aspects of reality. Instead, they invariably cross over, so that the dignity of humanity reinforces the dignity of nature and vice versa. Thus, while only the human person is created as imago dei, nature itself takes on the contours of a kind of imago creatoris, which in turn contributes to the idea that humanity itself, as the spider in the humanist naturalist web, is to be understood as a kind of imago naturae. Bringing this out are the following lines of verse in a twelfth century text that tries to conflate William of Conches’ Philosophia with Hugh of St. Victor’s Didascalicon (Southern 1970, 43) and has echoes in the Carmina Burana:

Nobilitas hominis – naturae iura tenere; --- Man’s nobility – to hold the laws of nature
Nobilitas hominis – nisi turpia nulla timere; --- Man’s nobility — to fear nothing but depraved acts
Nobilitas hominis – virtutum clara propago; --- Man’s nobility – clear wineshoot of virtues
Nobilitas hominis – mens et deitatis imago. --- Man’s nobility – mind and image of God

The above dynamic can best be summarized in terms of the aforementioned trialogue between God, humanity, and nature or creation, whereby each of the parties seems unable to thrive without not just the consent of the others but their explicit and full participation. The graceful with “grace” (gratia) here taken in the double sense of sensual elegance and divine favor splendor of the three-dimensional humanism that this trialogue yields shines especially in the magnificent prosimetric works of the twelfth century, whose visions of the ideal man are the yield of a long tradition of teaching the liberal arts in French and German cathedral schools (Jaeger 1994, 279-291). Of these I want to highlight the Cosmographia by Bernard Silvestris, dated around 1147, and the Plaint of Nature (De planctu naturae) by Alan of Lille, dated in the 1160s. Showing the seminal role of Boethian influence through their use of prosimetric form, they are no less indebted to Macrobius and to Martianus Capella’s instruction in the liberal arts, yet transcend their auctores in the creative and magisterial projection of a cosmogony whose mythical form does not hide their engagement of contemporary reality. Situated as it is at the intersection of macro- and microcosm, of myth and science, of grandeur and misery, their projected universe is both mesmerizingly suspenseful and utterly transformative. While the right calibration of the threefold interaction between God, nature and humanity is of key importance to prevent potential derailment, since even a partial derailment would begin to unravel the whole, twelfth-century humanists are remarkably casual about analyzing guilt or attributing blame. Just as the unde malum (whence evil) of later scholastic thought is surprisingly absent in twelfth century humanists, and in medieval humanism more broadly, as the need to preserve cosmic order outweighs the diagnosis of evil’s provenance, there is also no soteriological scenario to match. Both Bernard and Alan, though each in their own way, seem to upend the Augustinian tradition on this point, powerful in other twelfth-century thinkers like the Victorines, whereby original sin is perceived as a negative prerogative centered on humanity that pervades a rich but more passive and decorative cosmos. Even in sin then, the inviolability of the dynamic interrelationship between God, nature and humanity is cemented even further.

Bernard’s vision in the Cosmographia is characterized by the interplay of macro- and microcosm, with the weight of the argument resting on its macrocosmic dimension, even if his interest in what may be called another typical humanist move may ultimately be slated towards the microcosmic. His cosmic view harks back to the later books of Boethius’ Consolatio in the important role for divine providence, but is updated to address twelfth-century rather than late-antique concerns. While his richly outfitted universe draws us deep into the sphere of the mythical, his lush descriptions of nature include a reference to the river Seine (Megacosmus 3.261). His poem was read to great acclaim before the Cistercian pontiff Eugene III in 1147, as if thereby acknowledging that a new Virgil had emerged in France. If we want to add another difference with renaissance humanism, it should be that under the guise of Bernard of Chartres’ famous modesty topos of twelfth-century authors as “dwarfs on the shoulders of giants” (nani humeris gigantum in John of Salisbury, Metalogicon 3.4; cf. Jeauneau 1973, 51-73), authors like Bernard Silvestris appear confident that their work approximates, if not yet outshines, their gigantic forebears in comprehensiveness of vision. Whereas Silvestris’s works stand out for their combination of myth and science (Stock 1972), the role of the divine is difficult to assess. It has been suggested that the elaborate pantheon of gods and natural entities in the Cosmographia represents a theodicy of sorts (Ratkowitsch 1995), deflecting blame from God for any cosmic shortcomings through a narrative that, unfolding in two parts (Megacosmus and Microcosmus), aims at the creation of a perfect man as decreed by Noys, even as it incorporates the recalcitrance of matter (Silva). In Microcosmus 11, Noys is assisted by Natura, who oversees the collaboration between Physis for the perfect man’s body and Urania for his celestial soul. Inasmuch as sin seems integrated with the make-up of the cosmos, furthermore, Bernard considers it the task of humanity to use the practical sciences of medicine and astrology not only to contemplate but to actively try and find the way back to God (Kauntze 2014, 173).

In Alan the narrative of cosmic unfolding starts when an entranced nameless poet encounters a mysteriously weeping young maiden, Lady Nature, who, when prompted, takes him into her confidence about the reason for her tears. At the outset, humanity appears to bear all the blame, which is illustrated by a tear in Nature’s beautifully decorated dress there where humanity should have been visible among the other depicted creatures. While the tear indicates human guilt, it prepares the readers at the same time for Nature’s threat to excommunicate humanity at the end of the work. Yet Lady Nature admits in passing that she herself is also at fault, for she randomly left her divine abode, delegating her task of producing like from like to irresponsible Venus (De planctu naturae 8.31), who made a predictable mess of it. With human nature and nature both at fault, Alan’s poem intimates that only their reconciliation can rekindle the favor of divine love and restore order.

The success of the literary humanism of Bernard and Alan hinges on their ingenious use of the trope of integumentum, a literary “wrapping” that enabled humanist authors to whitewash pagan myths while simultaneously integrating them into their larger vision. While integumentum has been described as secular allegory, its overall procedure is multidirectional, as a single term can denote various objects but also, conversely, different terms can denote one and the same object (Jeauneau 1973, 127-135; Otten 2004, 62-65). A subtle play of veiling and unveiling right meaning thus gets underway, whereby world and text become ever more intricately connected given that clarity is not the stated end goal; after all, the points of contact between words and objects are infinite and inexhaustible (Bezner 2005, 557-630). What makes the above two works typical of literary humanism, however, is not just their skilled integumental interpretation but the fact that these prosimetric works lay down their own integumental vision. Bernard’s series of cascading personified naturalistic figures, while revealing his scientific interest, lends the work an aura of obfuscation as to their precise meaning and function, as in the case, for example, of the joint appearance of Physis and Natura (Kauntze 2014, 64-65). This has led to the suggestion that the Cosmographia is a theodicy whereby evil is sown into the universe to circumvent divine culpability (Ratkowitsch 1995, 15-17). While individually the naturalistic figures in Bernard reflect his ambitious plan to connect the old reading of auctores with the new demands of Aristotelian science, their collective effect makes this work a complex text that itself demands to be unwrapped, as it recreates the integumenta of pagan glory as much as it unwraps them (Kauntze 2014, 173). Whereas Bernard’s work is pervaded by ambiguity as a trait of his literary humanism (Whitman 1987, 218-260; Godman 2000, 223-298), Alan presents us with a rather more straightforward scenario. In his Plaint, Lady Nature is an updated, naturalized version of Boethius’ Lady Philosophy, while her tears and the tear in her dress give integumental expression to, respectively, the injury inflicted and injustice done by humanity, whose fallen status makes it fraught and vulnerable (Economou 2002, 72-97). There is ambiguity insofar as Nature herself is not as innocent as she wants the entranced poet to believe. Having delegated her divinely deputized task to oversee creation’s production of like from like to Venus, she is victim and culprit at the same time.

Not surprisingly perhaps, Alan and his plaint of Lady Nature found a wider following in the later Middle Ages than Bernard’s more introspective and scientific nature. Lady Nature’s immediate afterlife, however, is through Alan’s later Anticlaudianus, where a frustrated Nature decides to create a New Man, identified by some as the perfect ruler, King Philip Augustus, and by others as an alter Christus, marking the triumph of twelfth-century educational ideals (Evans 1983, 133-165), while in a later non-humanist move, the novus homo even becomes merged with the incarnate Christ. There is a stronger case for treating him as an alter Adam (Otten 2004, 42-44, 279-285), his silence making him a cardboard character with an afterlife only in literature, as the work was immensely popular. That the ethical, de-cosmologized Nature (Kauntze 2014, 165) was to win the literary battle with Bernard’s more ambiguous and scientific one is also clear from her prominent role in John of Hauville’s Architrenius, a satirical text that shows the young protagonist or Arch-Weeper complaining to Nature about the corruption of all life. When he sets out to find Nature as the responsible party who can give him compassion, she is no longer portrayed as providential and beneficial, as Alan’s earlier naturalistic meditations are now considered scholarly diversions that entice but do not help students make progress in the world. On one hand a high point of humanist rhetoric, the Architrenius also signals the phasing out of Alan’s literary humanism, even as it uncovers the new poetic realm of lived experience (Wetherbee 1972, 242-255).

 Nature and cosmic order: Johannes Scottus Eriugena and William of Conches

While medieval literature is famously known from the epithet “allegory of love” coined by C.S. Lewis, there seems ample reason to draw attention to medieval humanist literature under the rubric of the “allegory of nature” (Otten 2005, 99). Whereas at first blush this expression seems to highlight only the literary aspects of nature, such as the use of personification and integumentum, the study of nature in medieval humanism is always a holistic affair. If we add to this Southern’s emphasis on its intelligibility, it becomes clear that nature in medieval humanism always also includes scientific aspects, thereby beckoning us to a more naturalistic and possibly experimental worldview. In this section I will amplify nature’s literary profile by commenting on its more scientific role as both overarching framework and as an object of study open to classification and subject to laws.

The author who appears to have been single-handedly responsible for introducing natura as an overarching framework in the medieval Latin world, even if he counterintuitively divides rather than defines it, is Johannes Scottus Eriugena (810-877 CE). Possessing wide knowledge of both Greek and Latin patristic thought, this Carolingian court intellectual bequeaths us, through his Periphyseon (“On Natures”), a magisterial and material overview of natura’s full development which begins and ends in God and unfolds according to the Neoplatonic stages of procession and return. The take-away of the Periphyseon on nature is twofold: on the one hand, Eriugena posits a concept of natura that is all-encompassing, maximizing reason’s scope as he implicates even God in the investigation of nature, while, on the other hand, Eriugena subjects natura to classification. He divides it as a genus into the following four species: natura creans et non creata, i.e., God as nature that creates but is not created, natura creans et creata, i.e., the primordial causes that create but are themselves also created, natura non creans et creata, i.e., created material nature, and natura non creans et non creata, i.e., non-creating God in whom all natures, that is, everyone and everything, come to a final rest (Periphyseon 1.441A-443A).

The impact of the Periphyseon is difficult to assess. Since it was condemned in 1225, most likely in connection with the anti-Aristotelian climate at the University of Paris, all copies of the work were ordered burnt. While Eriugena’s ideas may have influenced the so-called School of Chartres, there is an affinity of thought but no concrete traces of influence. As in the Periphyseon, the Neoplatonic structure of procession and return is a prominent feature in various humanist authors, both literary ones like Alan of Lille and more scientifically-minded ones like Bernard Silvestris and William of Conches, while the view of the divine as incorporated in nature resonates with the idea of natura operans in William of Conches. Although the term natura operans in William has a Timaean pedigree, it similarly disavows any dichotomy of creator and creation, which in the twelfth century comes to mean that creation is enriched by including its invisible parts alongside its visible ones. In result, the term nature takes on the sense of being more than the sum of its parts, that is, of creation and creatures, rising above its phenomenological status. While Eriugena’s Periphyseon may be a driving factor in the development of this concept of nature, older influences, for example of Cicero’s Dream of Scipio, commented on by Macrobius, inspire it as well, as a result of which a scintillating aura of transcendence surrounds nature in medieval humanism. Recounting a vision of his father and grandfather in the highest heaven in Somnium Scipionis 6.16, Cicero states: “When I gazed in every direction from that point, all else appeared wonderfully beautiful. There were stars which we never see from the earth, and they were all larger than we have ever imagined… The starry spheres were much larger than the earth; indeed the earth itself seemed to me so small that I was scornful of our empire, which covers only a single point, as it were, upon its surface.” Robert Bellah has called this passage a case of a unitive religious representation, as the visionary medium allows Cicero to put reality in true perspective (Bellah 2011, 15). It is a similar shift of perspective that the use of natura in medieval humanism allows its students to bring about. Interestingly, in doing so nature relativizes human subjectivity and unleashes it at the same time. As the theme of selfhood will be addressed more fully in the next section, suffice it here to state that the role of the self in Eriugena’s Periphyseon should not be underestimated. Given that its extensive cosmological vision starts out with a Ciceronian phrase: “…. Often as I ponder” (saepe mihi cogitanti, Periphyseon 1.441A)), one wonders at the single spark of human insight from which the entire work stems.

Perhaps counter to first intuition, the flipside of nature’s majesty in Eriugena is not rampant, unorthodox pantheism, but rather a lack of materiality, since at any time is it possible for nature to disappear whence it came, namely, the human mind. Following from this it appears that creatio ex nihilo (creation from nothing) in the context of medieval humanism is not primarily the guarantor of bonafide Christian origin, as an orthodox shibboleth that wards off any pagan cosmic nascence, but more a protective device against nothingness as creatio ab nihilo (creation away from nothing), as if safeguarding that, once created, nature is here to stay. William of Conches’ interest in chaos-theory supports the idea of nature’s staying power. In contrast to claims that only God’s active intervention could prevent the four elements of fire, earth, water and air from erupting into disarray, William abides steadfastly by the claim from his Timaeus glosses that God created the material elements as one unmixed body (chaos) after which through their inherent qualities he guaranteed their cosmic order (Philosophia 1.11.35-39). Just as heavy earth naturally gravitates to the lowest position, so air and fire naturally occupy the higher ends of the universe, but by securing their fixed place inside the cosmos God keeps evil at bay through anticipation and correction (Glosae super Platonem I.50-53) For William’s scientific mind, divine activity cannot be a substitute for psychological assurance, as it has to be minimal and precise. Not only has God outfitted the universe such that it can function on its own, and in William natura operans includes biological growth and reproduction, but he has equipped humanity with all the rational tools to skillfully adjudicate difficult scientific problems without the need to call on divine assistance at every turn.

If we pursue the comparison between the Carolingian Eriugena and the twelfth-century William of Conches, the various parallels and differences between them and their eras help us flesh out the role of nature even further. One of the main differences in their work is the changed role of scripture. Significantly, the second half of Eriugena’s Periphyseon consists in a hexaemeral commentary, that is, an account of the six days of biblical creation, for which he takes his cue from the Eastern church father Basil of Caesarea as well as from the western Ambrose and Augustine. As a direct instantiation of Maximus’s motto that natura and scriptura are two vestments of Christ, Eriugena herewith indicates that, since both can lay claim to their inspired status, the analysis of the one can be substituted for that of the other. After all, both have God as their author. Although the motif of the double vestment of Christ is not actively invoked by the time of William, his reflections on nature are not cut off from the exegetical narrative of sin and redemption, or unity and fragmentation. This is true in two ways. Firstly, despite William’s more overtly scientific, and hence presumed secular outlook, his aim is, in the end, still to connect creation with God in conformity with the reigning motto …per creaturas ad creatorem…, giving his work a doxological alongside a cosmological purpose. Secondly, while for his narrative of cosmic unfolding William no longer follows scripture as a script comparable to how Eriugena follows the opening chapters of Genesis, their naturalist worldviews are closely aligned in their shared interest to portray the universe as both wholly integrated and rationally comprehensible.

There are two particular motifs that drive and consequently hold together William’s synthesis as distinct from Eriugena’s. The first is an interest in the invisibility of nature, derived from the proemium to Boethius’ De arithmetica. This leads William to speculate on the invisible waters above the firmament as well as to reconstitute the definition of element (Otten 2004, 90-92). As for the waters above the firmament: William rejects Bede’s explanation that they were made of ice, the weight of which would have made the firmament collapse. He suggests instead that they were made of air, given that the closeness of these waters to the highest element of fire would cause them to evaporate. As for the elements: according to a theory William derived from Constantine the African’s Pantegni, a source containing Arabic learning, he holds that the four visible elements are more truly elementata than elementa, by which he means that visible water, air, fire, and earth are each constituted of a mixture of the four elements, in which the visible element for which they are named dominates. By contrast, the underlying pure elementa are invisible. Not unrelated to invisibility, the second motif concerns William’s persistent quest to identify a unifying power that holds nature together. The drive for a single unifying force seems not only an elaboration of the idea of natura operans, but is also another expression of his contempt for the chaos-theory of his day. While God had indeed created the elements, caused the virgin birth, and the resurrection, everything else falls squarely within the domain of natura operans and is hence governed by its laws. In his Timaeus glosses William defines the scope of natura operans by inserting the work of nature (opus naturae), i.e., the object of natura operans, between, on one hand the work of God (opus dei), i.e., God’s direct actions, and on the other, the work of the human craftsman (opus artificis), whose actions like building a house protect humans from rain, storms, and the like (Glosae super Platonem 1.37). Natura operans provides literally the middle ground that sustains William’s cosmology, allowing him to bring and bind all things together. In his final work, Dragmaticon, named for its dialogical form rather than its scientific content, William, whom John of Salisbury called the greatest grammarian after Bernard of Chartres (Metalogicon 1.5), establishes a parallelism between macro- and microcosm, between the workings of nature and those of the mind who uncovers them. That both are subject to a mix of physical and psychological reasons is clear from the way that Adam is simultaneously physically impeded by his expulsion from ideal paradise and psychologically exhorted to advance through learning (Otten 2011). In another difference with Eriugena, William and Thierry of Chartres consider biological development an organic extension of cosmogony.

In a first crack of the medieval humanist worldview of nature William’s interpretation of the creation of the first man and the first woman provoked the ire of the monk William of St. Thierry, who denounced him as a potential heretic. In conformity with his quest for cosmological consistency, William of Conches held in his Philosophia that the first man bubbled up from the earth, that is, from the mixed element of earth, which became moist under the heat of fire. The first woman, created from Adam’s side, came from the inferior mud lying nearby (Philosophia 1.13.43), in accordance with Galen’s view of women as deficient men. Insisting on the literal interpretation of scripture, William of St. Thierry rejected the metaphorical-cum-scientific reading of the creation of Adam and Eve, after which William of Conches simply revises his position, for it is “not the mistake that makes the heretic, but his adherence to it” (Dragmaticon, Prologue 8). Given this adaptability, however, one wonders whether it is William of Conches’s scientific position that formed the innovation here or the new dogmatism of William of St. Thierry and others. Fixated on a sacramental reading of Eve’s creation from Adam’s side, William of St. Thierry forged a link with the water and blood flowing from Christ’s side and, from there, with the sacramental elements. His attitude exhibits an inherent anti-humanist tendency whereby creative rational ways to bridge nature and scripture are no longer tolerated, and the former must henceforth defer to the regime of the latter. From the twelfth century onwards, the experimental hermeneutics by which literary humanism and scientific cosmology are integrally linked is increasingly under siege. Concomitant with this, the aura of transcendence, by which nature could give rise to Cicero’s unitive experience, is claimable for ecclesial purposes only. While in some ways this makes new room for the strictly scientific study of nature (Speer 1995, 130-221), the question arises, given the loss of its wider cultural appeal, to what extent nature does not thereby forfeit the possibility to express its intrinsic order on its own terms, a characteristic that is key to medieval humanist cosmology throughout.

 Monastic humanism and the ethical self: Peter Abelard and Hildegard of Bingen

It is important at this point to clarify that even in the case of nature’s most comprehensive and by extension, unitive expression, nature’s comprehensiveness in Eriugena is always supported and sustained by a sense of human self-identity. This connects it with the problem of medieval selfhood, which is a fertile area for current analysis and speculation (Morris 1987; Bynum 1982) and one in which attention to humanism, given the prominence of its trialogue between God, nature and humanity, can and should play an important role.

Current historiography on medieval selfhood has it that after Augustine’s Confessions, seen as the high-point of interior selfhood in late antiquity, attention to the self more or less disappeared, a process that coincided with the fall of the western Roman Empire. Indeed, there is considerable difference between the personal tone in Augustine’s Confessions and the more formal, ritualized tone of voice in Boethius’ Consolatio or Gregory the Great’s Moralia in Job. While the divide should not be exaggerated, as due to the renaissance makeover by which the Augustinian self was launched into modernity Augustine’s rhetorical skills to keep both his readers and his own emotions at bay are often overlooked (Pranger 2010, 219-242), making Boethius and Gregory, when read along the lines of Pierre Hadot’s idea of spiritual exercises (Hadot 1995), draw much closer to Augustine than expected, medieval historiography does not speak about the discovery of the self before the eleventh or even twelfth century.

Careful scrutiny of medieval humanism would seem to alter this conventional view in two ways. First, it appears that the intelligibility of nature does not limit medieval humanists to the instrumental use of reason only. For Eriugena, comprehensive natura taps into a deeper sense of selfhood, making the role of reason more charged than a Cartesian notion of cogitatio would lead one to suspect. Precisely because reason’s purview outweighs its control in the Periphyseon for while God transcends human understanding, he is included in natura and part of its rational investigation only its embeddedness in a deeper sense of self allows Eriugena to launch this project notwithstanding its structural overreach. Moving beyond Eriugena, the analysis of medieval humanism helps to uncover expressions of medieval selfhood beyond Augustine’s autobiographical Confessions. As indicated in the section on medieval literary humanism, the cosmogonies of Bernard Silvestris and Alan of Lille are underpinned by a sense of moral examination, revealing a guiding sense of self-worth as underlying their exterior of cosmological myth. What has been analyzed as a debate on nature’s orthodoxy (Newman 2003, 51-137) reflects a much broader debate on how best to cajole the human self into returning to God by way of mirroring oneself in and through the allegories of nature. If we also factor in the criticism of the experimental hermeneutics of medieval humanism by William of St. Thierry and others, it appears these works also negotiate the problem of self-censorship (Godman 2000). The second way in which medieval humanism alters the standard narrative of the medieval self also connects to ethics. Not affecting cosmic order alone, moral concerns are especially important in swaying certain thinkers who find themselves increasingly ill at ease inside a static, masculine, monastic context, towards embracing a more individualistic, inclusive, and personal expression of monastic life. Peter Abelard and Hildegard of Bingen, neither commonly ranked as medieval humanists, qualify as such and inserting them in the humanist tradition facilitates a more integrative approach to their thought, especially as it relates to the aspect of monastic introspection. In the case of Hildegard of Bingen, there may further be Eriugenian-Dionysian influence on the notion of reditus (Meier 1987).

Hildegard of Bingen is best known for her visions, which show her to be a polymath whose impressive range of talents musical, visionary/visual, and intellectual stands in sharp contrast with her claim to be illiterate. Not unlike Eriugena, her position in the medieval canon is unstable, as she is considered more a visionary or a prophet-teacher than a mystic (McGinn 1994, 333-337). Devoid of feminist aspirations, she advocates a traditional view of marriage in divine support of cosmic order (Scivias 1, vision 2.11). Hildegard was no less reform-minded than less traditional contemporary monastic intellectuals like Abelard and Walter of St. Victor, even if her prudent way of going about reform made her embrace Benedictine conformity rather than voicing protest (Deploige 1998, 72-75, 115-142). Styling herself as an illiterate virgo (virgin) who bears a virga (prophet’s rod), she is able to call for reform without being perceived as a threat to the clerical class. In this way she wins the sympathy of Bernard of Clairvaux, the co-conspirator of William of St. Thierry in his battle with Abelard as well as, like Bernard Silvestris, the approval of Pope Eugene III. Although her visions show her to be a smart monastic strategist, they reveal rather than conceal the idiosyncracy of her thought. The reason she fits well in the humanist canon is because she presents her hybridic amalgam of intellectual tensions and anomalies within a consistently holistic framework. Rather than seeing Hildegard as a deficient mystic hiding behind the conservative exterior of femina indocta, placing more emphasis on the intellectual arc of her visions shows how she underwrites her view of a reformed cosmic-social order through her manifold mediation between God and fallen creatures. The use of the term viriditas (greenness) in her Ordo virtutum, a morality play of the virtues set to music, resonates with virgo and virga in its respect for the phenomenology of women’s physical experience, while allowing Hildegard to see the virgins who form the Tree of Jesse actually performing the task of ongoing incarnation (Ritchey 2014, 55-90). Understanding her visions’ cosmic-moral projection is all the more important given Hildegard’s prelapsarian Christology, meaning that Christ’s incarnation occurred independent of human sinfulness (Scivias 1, vision 2.15). As conformist as her plea for women’s marital subservience may be, it should not blind us to the redemptive role of her green incarnate virgins, just as her explicit attention to the fall of Lucifer should not make us lose sight of the contrasting divine power of God as creator. Hildegard remains a woman of tensions, between men and women, Church and Synogogue, Eve and Mary, God and Lucifer, but far from being rampant or eclectic, her visions whose nature a creatore ad virginem serves as a mark of divine authorization are robustly calculated as well as exegetically supported for the purpose of furthering restoration and redemption through an affirmation of the right cosmic-social order.

If Hildegard can navigate the limitations of her traditional monastic persona without breaking through its conventions, Abelard pushes the boundaries of monastic life even further, with gender again playing a role of importance (Flynn 2014). Forced to adopt monastic life after his castration, Abelard confesses that outward conformity to the monastic way of life preceded his inward commitment. When he eventually comes to embrace it, he recoils at its imposition of intellectual submission, as he rather prefers to style monastic life on his own terms. Without Hildegard’s visionary powers, he reconstitutes the monastic self in the image of his two archetypal models, Antony in the desert and Jerome (Otten 1997). Combining anchorite withdrawal with erudition in his Historia Calamitatum, he later pushes even further when at the request of Heloise he composes a separate monastic rule for women (Letter 7). While her goal was to accommodate women’s experience, in their correspondence they strive for a more radical monastic makeover that allows for individual freedom of expression. They especially want room for shared collaboration in an ascetic life devoted to study and self-reflection, as for them, monastic men and women should be able to cooperate in their joint life project (von Moos 2002). Through writing the rule for women and in other ways, Abelard pushes the ethical dimension of selfhood not only beyond the notion of cosmic-social order found in Hildegard but also beyond the notion of self-knowledge known to Augustine and the earlier monastic tradition. Abelard’s ethics, famously subtitled Scito te ipsum (know thyself), shows how the interest in self-examination can leave the formal monastic context from which it sprang behind, even if through the focus on intentionality the practice of introspection is maintained. Abelard’s move to situate his ethics inside a larger anthropological frame lends them a distinct humanist quality, even if it would be pushing too far to reduce the presence of the divine to a Kantian postulate. With only the divine capable of guaranteeing final justice, there is a felt sense of personal liberation in Abelard, who favors the examination of intention over ecclesial penitential structures. While Abelard’s readiness to forgo punishment has been overstated, he clearly values the ethical progress of gaining moral self-clarity about one’s intentions over the attribution of guilt or innocence.

If Hildegard shows us an awakening female self underneath her traditional monastic habit, identifying morality with right cosmic-social order, Abelard shows us a flawed monk (moine manqué, cf. Otten 2005) who aims at turning outward discipline into an individualized program of personal self-examination and free intellectual endeavor. For both authors, gender impacts and sensitizes their sense of monastic self: for Hildegard, this is true for the way she circumvents and upends a deeply misogynist system, while Abelard opts, on the one hand, to make explicit room for women inside the monastic sphere, while on the other, redefines monastic life more broadly. His key monastic insight is that, if monasteries are to continue their role as the intellectual and spiritual laboratories of medieval Europe, they need to be able to accommodate cross-gender collaboration and personal development. His key ethical insight is to show us a way forward in which the formation of moral conscience can survive also outside the monastic sphere.

 Medieval Latin humanism between scholasticism and mysticism

If we make up the balance of this survey of medieval Latin humanism, what it entails and who is covered by it, the following profile emerges. Since its contours and portrait equally matter, they should be considered in common. The contours of the profile show medieval humanism referring to an area of thought that has often been negatively defined before it could be positively assessed. Even R.W. Southern could only describe its three central categories of (1) the dignity of humanity, (2) the dignity of nature and (3) the intelligibility of the cosmos by differentiating medieval humanism from renaissance humanism. This first negativity is also a corollary from the larger historiographical problem by which the Middle Ages are generally defined in contradistinction to the renaissance, as they represent a period not named after itself but after the eras that bookend it. A second and related negativity stems from the fact that, almost from their inception as a period so-called, the Middle Ages have been typecast as scholastic, with all the negative overtones of arid and uncreative reasoning that went with that name, and as Catholic, leading to the perception of the era as quintessentially religious. As we fill out the portrait of medieval Latin humanism, it is against the backdrop of these contours also that we have to situate Southern’s comments.

To start with humanism’s religious nature: it is clear that medieval humanism should not be defined in opposition to medieval religion or theology, as doing so is counterproductive. Unlike the connotations of later humanisms, medieval Latin humanism is steeped in religion. Yet its premodern religious quality is distinct in that it projects a strongly literary vision, as medieval humanist knowledge certainly in its prescholastic phase, but also beyond does not only refuse compartmentalization, but assumes an encyclopedic guise, comprising scientific and philosophical aspects while being cast in the overall framework of philosophy as a way of life. The question should be asked, therefore, what there is to gain from using the term medieval humanism, especially since the term appears to cover authors or areas that also fall under other disciplines like literature, philosophy and even theology.

Here it is easiest to comment first of all on its separation from scholasticism. To the extent that medieval humanism is about form as well as content, medieval Latin humanism proves very open to the dialogue form, which held intellectual sway from Boethius through the twelfth century, but far less so to the more constrained format of the scholastic quaestiones. The most important reason for this would seem to be that there is a self-consciousness to medieval humanist texts which makes them deeply ambiguous and potentially transgressive. For this, the objectifying mode of scholastic reasoning does not seem to leave room. Hence, we should not call Aquinas a humanist but Dante may be considered one.

A second separation differentiates medieval humanism from monasticism and mysticism. Clearly, medieval mystical accounts also exhibit a strong self-awareness on the part of the mystic to the point where the experience of selfhood and of God at times nearly merge. Be that as it may, whereas medieval humanist texts want to achieve some form of return to the divine or the universe not always clearly distinguishing between the two in the context of the ongoing trialogue on the whole, humanist texts do not primarily aim at realizing union with the divine. The author’s self-consciousness would actually be in the way of such a union which, in turn, likewise seems to defy the process of exploring the self for the sole purpose of sacrificing it in the end. On that basis, we might call Eriugena a humanist thinker but preferably not a mystic.

The one author who remains anomalous throughout is Anselm of Canterbury, ironically the medieval thinker closest to the heart of R.W. Southern who seemed to include him. Steeped in biblical language as well as in Augustinian vocabulary, however, Anselm’s reasoning is scholastic even as his language is personal, and yet it is so in a way that should be called monastic before it can be called individualistic. Here the crudeness of terminology simply falls short of the subtlety of its subject. Anselm thus remains an outlier whose various labels, ranging from monastic thinker to the father of scholasticism, disqualify themselves more than they qualify him; adding the term humanist would no doubt have the same effect.



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Willemien Otten, «Medieval Latin Humanism », in Houari Touati (ed.), Encyclopedia of Mediterranean Humanism, mars 2016, URL =