The University in Medieval Life: 1179 – 1499 by Hunt Janin

The University in Medieval LifeAlready halfway through June, it’s summer break for many. Students and faculty are settling into summer routines. New graduates still have that glow of accomplishment and that “can-do” attitude of taking on the world. The last thing on many minds is school – in fact, our summer vacations are an escape from it! But against this instinct of escape, I invite the summer reader to bring a copy of Hunt Janin’s The University in Medieval Life to his or her next trip to the beach. In this readable work of scholarship, Janin blows the dust off of the seemingly dry history of universities. Beginning with the rise of universities in the early high Middle Ages and finishing with their educational changes during the Italian Renaissance, Janin pays special attention to the people who made the university, not to the university as an institution. The result is a book filled with the colorful cast of nobles, clerics and scholars who laid the foundations of our modern colleges and universities. In becoming acquainted with the shocking people and interesting events that shaped the medieval university, the summer reader will find Janin’s work more fulfilling than the latest gossip in People magazine and, surprisingly, more worthwhile than people-watching at the beach.

Janin’s work, however, does share something in common with most popular magazines: it is a collection of snapshots as opposed to a work that supports a major thesis. In a given edition of People magazine one may find a few articles on the latest pop sensations; Time magazine will have essays on various contemporary issues. The University in Medieval Life has a similar format: sections on various medieval universities and the people who made them. At the core of the book is discussion on the three major medieval universities, Bologna, Paris and Oxford. Janin also gives a brief summary of ten other notable universities. This includes the institutions at Cambridge, Padua, and Prague. This main body of the work is set between an introduction to life in the Middle Ages, particularly in the universities, and a conclusion which discusses both the introduction of humanism into the medieval curricula and the overall impact that universities had, and continue to have, in Western civilization.

Included in Janin’s treatment of the medieval university are many historical gems that, despite their ambition and beauty, make one grateful for the modern changes and developments in university life. Take for example the typical daily schedule of a university student (p. 49):

4:00 am, Rise
5:00 am, Lecture by the Faculty of Arts
6:00 am, Church Service
8:00 to 10:00 am, Breakfast (9:00 to 11:00am during Lent)
Formal debates before the noon meal
3:00 to 5:00pm, Memorization Drills and Lectures
5:00 to 6:00pm, Disputations
More memorization drills after the evening meal
9:00 am, Bedtime

To obtain a baccalaureate degree at the University of Erfurt (Germany) a student spent several years, usually four, attending lectures and exercises on the following texts of logic (pp. 40 – 41):

Ars minor, Donatus
Doctrinale, Alexander de Villa Dei
The Supposition of Terms; Confusions; Alienations; Remotions; Syncategoremes; and Consequences, Thomas Maulevelt
Proof of Propositions, Richard Billingham
Obligations; Insolubilia, Hollandrinus
Isagoge, Porphyry
Categories; Perihermeneias; Analytics; Elenchi; Physics; De Anima, Aristotle
Spaera materialis, John of Hollywood

The scholasticism of medieval education, steeped in metaphysics and logic, was far from easy. But some of the most fascinating characters in history made it through these rigorous curricula and made their own contributions to it. Janin introduces the reader to the brilliant scholastic professor, Peter Abelard (1079 – 1142), who is known for his philosophic works, including Sic et Non, and also for his affair with a student 23 years younger than he (pp. 20 – 23). Joan of Arc (c. 1412- 1431), the warrior saint, is discussed at length. Though Joan was not educated at a university, the University of Paris, in a political wrangle with the papacy and the French monarchy, was involved in her eventual trial and execution (pp. 103 – 106). Martyrs of an academic bent, including John Fischer and Thomas More, are praised for their humanistic scholarship and learning (pp. 157 – 159). And no survey of humanism is complete without mention of Desiderius Erasmus (1466 – 1536), the wandering scholar and author of The Praise of Folly, the so-called forerunner text to the Protestant Reformation (pp. 159 – 163).

After reading Janin’s The University in Medieval Life, the beach bum and the medieval scholar will become intimate friends, noting all that they share in common. Historic town-gown issues, that is, problems between the university and the surrounding area, will seem oddly similar to contemporary problems. The massive ego of a modern applied psychology professor will appear comparable to that of a sixteenth century poetry professor. And the humble origins of the modern university – stemming from the neighborhood cathedral school – may surprise many modern readers.

Hungry for gossip and intrigue, but still want to feel cultured and esoteric in the process? Janin’s work of popular scholarship is for you.

Availability: SMCM
Review Submitted by: Edward A. David, Teacher at Trinity School in Meadow View
Rating: Recommended

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