Christians and Jews in the Twelfth Century Renaissance.

Christians and Jews in the Twelfth Century Renaissance. – book reviews

R.I. Moore

Scholastic Humanism and the Unification of Europe is the first of three volumes in which our finest medievalist brings together the achievements and conclusions of a scholarly career now well into its seventh decade. It is a summa worthy of both subject and author. in combining precision and economy with the hint of paradox which undertakes to combine an esoteric, even rather technical, investigation with a larger claim of startling boldness the title conveys something of its savour. The claim is that the way of thinking which was worked out in the schools of Paris and Bologna in the first half of the twelfth century, and the great intellectual projects which it engendered, laid the foundations of a high culture (an abstraction of a kind that Southern eschews) upon which the common intellectual, governmental, and, therefore, very largely the social structures of Europe rested until the eighteenth century. It was a humanistic way of thinking because it was founded on belief in the human capacity to comprehend a logically-ordered universe and consequently in some degree the divine purpose in the creation, ‘to understand the principles of the organisation of nature, and to order human life in accordance with nature’.

As we might expect, we spend most of this first volume in Paris and Bologna, in the company of the great masters of the early twelfth century, among whom Abelard and Gratian are given their due preeminence. But neither the cities nor the men nor their works stand alone. What makes this book a delight to read as well as a masterpiece of the historian’s craft is the precision with which everything is placed fully in context. The situations and circumstances of Paris and Bologna – as well as those of other schools important in their time – are carefully explored to show why they, and nowhere else, became the great centres of scholastic development. The family circumstances and career ambitions of the students who flocked to them, and of their patrons and future employers, are fitted into the great transformation of European society – Southern, in The Making of the Middle Ages (1951) was one of the first to call it a revolution – which had begun a hundred years or so earlier.

The teachings themselves are not expounded in this volume. Instead we are prepared for the approach to the thought and writings of the masters by considering fully the intellectual and pedagogical climate in which they appeared, the aspirations and dilemmas which attended their conception. All this is presented with such simplicity and lucidity, and such serene command of its subject matter, that though it deals with some of the most technical and obscure problems imaginable there is hardly a page which could not be read and understood by a sixteen-year-old. The last English work on medieval history of this quality and importance, Maitland’s History of English Law, appeared in 1895. It may well be another hundred years before it happens again.

One of the paradoxes of the twelfth century, as it seems to modern eyes, is that it laid the foundations not only of European humanism, but of European anti-Semitism – it learned to portray men as made in the image of Christ, and the Jew as his crucifier, the blasphemous and depraved defiler of holy images and murderer of Christian children. It is hard to accept that this happened just when Christian scholars were making more frequent contact with Jewish learning, and even sometimes – Abelard was not alone in this – to admire it. Anna Sapir Abulafia probably knows the records of these encounters better than anybody, and her admirably clear and concise discussion provides much the best account we have of them. Her explanation of the paradox is that Christians came so fully to identify reason with their own faith that it became inconceivable to them that anybody could reasonably doubt its truth and authority; consequently the refusal of Jews to convert increasingly appeared to be both deliberate and perverse.

It may occasionally be a question whether in presenting this conclusion as the outcome almost wholly of intellectual evolution and perception Abulafia allows enough for the choices which all readers make, consciously or unconsciously, in selecting, understanding and remembering their texts. Nevertheless, this is an absorbing and essential account of a dimension of the twelfth-century renaissance that has been too often overlooked, as well as an important and challenging contribution to the continuing debate on one of the crucial moral and cultural dilemmas of the European, and therefore the liberal, inheritance.

The Jews were victims of the fact (among others) that in order to construct new identities and a new past the twelfth century destroyed old ones. Patrick Geary, coming from the other side of the abyss which divides specialists on either side of the millennium, though we still do not find it easy to agree on why it should be so, attempts to come to terms with the observation that so much of what we think we know about the eighth, ninth and tenth centuries comes from memories and documents constructed and reconstructed for their own purposes by people of the early eleventh century. In order to do this they destroyed a great deal that they did not want or found unhelpful. ‘Not only is it proper for the new to change the old, but if the old is disordered it should be entirely thrown away, or if it conforms to the proper order of things but is of less use it should be buried with reverence’ as Arnold of St Emmeram put it in the account of the miracles of its patron saint that he wrote around 1030, at a time when the separation of his monastery from the bishopric of Regensburg made it imperative to secure its claim on its properties and define its independent standing in the aristocratic society of the empire.

Phantoms of Remembrance is an attempt not so much to recover what was destroyed in the eleventh century construction of a new and useful past, as to work out what it might have been like by tracking the process of destruction, by looking at ways in which families (and within families women) and institutions preserved the memories of their forebears and formative experiences, and the accumulation of their properties. As such it is a brave and ingenious experiment in historical method, though not always easy reading. And it poses in particularly tantalising form the question which is raised by every argument for sudden and unprecedented change. Each generation writes its own history, after all. Why should we think that the way in which the generation that was born around the millennium did so more sweepingly or more profoundly than its predecessors had done in their time?

We have in the works of Southern and Abulafia a sharp reminder that just as so many of the famous white mantle of Romanesque churches with which Radulphus Glaber celebrated the covering of the world in the eleventh century quickly made way for the Gothic, the mental world which Geary finds disposing so ruthlessly of its past soon appeared to its successors to be equally expendable.

COPYRIGHT 1996 History Today Ltd.

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