Monday, November 24, 2014

The Eleventh Century - Good News, Bad News

Central European cities like Speyer, Aachen, Bamberg, and Goslar contain evidence of the Middle Ages. Significant pieces of architecture are silent witnesses to events of a thousand years ago.

Historians distinguish the early Middle Ages, beginning around 500 A.D and lasting until around 1000 A.D., to the high Middle Ages. But such distinctions are at best vague and ambiguous, and should not be taken too seriously.

The eleventh century (1000 A.D. to 1099 A.D.) was a significant time, because it began with the turn of the millennium. Just as “Y2K” attracted large-scale public attention as the year 1999 drew to a close, the year 1000 was celebrated.

The century began with Islamic attacks on various parts of Europe: Muslims soldiers had occupied Spain for over 200 years, and in 1011, to celebrate the 300th anniversary of the Islamic invasion of Spain, they organize a pogrom in Cordoba, killing large numbers of Jews: peaceful and innocent men, women, and children.

Another pogrom was conducted in Grenada in 1066, and coastal raids by Muslim ships continued to attack various coastal towns in Italy and southern France. Islam threatened Europe’s security.

In response, military expeditions were directed to the source of this military aggression: the Muslim lands of the Middle East. Largely unsuccessful, these missions managed to achieve, at best, a mere pause in the Muslim attacks on Europe. These campaigns were called the ‘Crusades’ and are still staple in the both history classes and romantic fiction.

The First Crusade was planned in 1095 and began in 1096. 330,000 people set out for Jerusalem, but only 40,000 arrived there. They were not prepared for the military skill of the Islamic armies.

In central Europe, away from the Mediterranean coast which took the brunt of the attacks, life was more peaceful. Culture and civilization could flourish. Brilliant thinkers like Hildegard of Bingen could work on projects as diverse as musical compositions and the chemistry of medicinal herbs.

Cloisters and monasteries were home to intellectual development. Housing the philosophical texts of the past, from the Greco-Roman heritage of significant thinkers, they were the incubators of the intellectual future, laying the foundations of what would become modern mathematics, chemistry, and physics.

Life in the eleventh century was difficult. The average lifespan was 35 years. But the numbers mislead: the average life expectancy was much older. If a person survived childhood, she or he had a reasonable chance of living past the age of 50.

Schools were continuously improving. The educational momentum had started two centuries earlier with emperor Karl the Great - known as ‘Charlemagne’ - and had continued during the reigns of Heinrich I (ruled 919 A.D. to 936 A.D.) and Otto the Great (ruled 962 A.D. to 973 A.D.).

Literacy was on the rise, students learned Latin grammar, and literature became major occupation.

The word ‘Germany’ was not often used at that time to denote what we think of as the country of Germany. There were many small independent Germanic kingdoms, held together by the emperor in a defensive coalition called the ‘Holy Roman Empire’ (which wasn’t holy, and wasn’t Roman).

The empire also included a few kingdoms which weren’t Germanic. So the word ‘German’ referred more to culture and language than to a unified political nation. The empire was Germanic, the emperors were almost all Germans, but non-Germanic kingdoms were included.

People would have thought of themselves as Saxons or Hessians or Prussians or Franconians - all regions within the boundaries of modern Germany. They rarely thought of themselves as Germans.

Six Germans became pope between 996 A.D. and 1085 A.D., which is significant because the popes not only had religious importance, but also contributed to cultural and political trends.

The German emperors had influence not only in Germanic regions, but also inside France and Italy. The eleventh century was a high point in cultural development and civilization.

One man who might be a good symbol for this era is Heinrich III - in many history books known as ‘Henry III’ - who began his career as a highly educated Germanic king. Historian Hanns Leo Mikoletzky writes:

Henry was the son of the emperor Conrad II and Gisela of Swabia. He was more thoroughly trained for his office than almost any other crown prince before or after. With the emperor’s approval, Gisela had taken charge of his upbringing, and she saw to it that he was educated by a number of tutors and acquired an interest in literature.

An emperor who promoted the intellectual work of the universities, and a spiritual man who valued prayer and peace, his reign began in 1039 with every prospect of being a cultural high point in European history - and in some ways, it was. But by the time he died in 1056, the empire was weakened. His would be the last strong reign for many decades.

The eleventh century was a high point, but it also marked the beginning of a time when Europe languished without the help of Frankish or Saxon ruler.

Sunday, November 16, 2014

Inventing the University

Prior to the appearance of the university as we now know it, there were centuries and even millennia of educational institutions. Formalized, institutionalized, and structured schools have been found by archeologists in, e.g., the city of Ur dating from around 2000 B.C.

But the university did not arise until around 1088 A.D. - three thousand years later. What was the difference between a university and the schools which had existed up to that point? Historian Thomas E. Woods explains:

In order to identify a particular medieval school as a university, we look for certain characteristic features. A university possessed a core of required texts, on which professors would lecture while adding their own insights. A university was also characterized by well-defined academic programs lasting a more or less fixed number of years, as well as by the granting of degrees. The granting of a degree, since it entitled the recipient to be called master, amounted to admitting new people to the teaching guild, just as a master craftsman was admitted to the guild of his own profession. Although the universities often struggled with outside authorities for self-government, they generally attained it, as well as legal recognition as corporations.

Thus it was that, while there were many schools which were centuries older than the universities, it was not until Bologna’s school emerged as the first clear university in 1088 A.D. that the conceptual difference became clear. It is probable that Bologna was functioning as a university some time prior to 1088, but the documentation is scant, and the very notion of the university hadn’t been precisely articulated yet.

There are many schools which predate Bologna’s university, some of which contend that they should be recognized ahead of Bologna. But the school of al-Qarawiyyin in Morocco, although it expanded beyond being a mere madrasa, was not a university until long after Bologna’s emergence. Located in the city of Fes, this school is also transliterated as ‘al-Karaouine’ or ‘al-Karueein’ and it was not until centuries after Bologna’s founding that al-Qarawiyyin added certain essential curricula such as mathematics or languages. Although some writers want to claim Morocco as the home of the world’s first university, such assertions lack any evidence, given the definition of university.

One fundamental aspect of the university was that it took the trivium and the quadrivium as foundational and essential, but not as limiting. The trivium consisted of grammar, logic, and rhetoric. The quadrivium included arithmetic, geometry, astronomy, and music.

Not to be left out of the competition, the Byzantine Empire asserts that its Magnaura University is a couple of centuries older than Bologna. In fact, however, the narrative of the Magnaura has been conflated with the University of Constantinople. While both institutions were admirable centers of learning, the Magnaura, founded around 855 A.D., was a palace school, and lacked the breadth and structure to be a university. The “University of Constantinople” was founded in 425 A.D. as a school, not a university, and lacked the structure and degree-granting privileges of a university until much later in its history.

The al-Azhar University, in Egypt, certainly predates Bologna, but as a strictly Sunni institution, its intellectual explorations were limited, and only centuries after its founding around 972 A.D. did it add the full range of faculties found in a university.

Another defining characteristic of a university is debate. Exemplified by in Paris in the 1200s and in Erfurt in the 1400s, the original form of this academic exercise require a student to prepare and present argumentation to support a thesis chosen by the professors, and then required the student to organize and deliver argumentation against the same thesis - a good student was expected to deliver plausible and persuasive arguments for and against any randomly chosen proposition.

By contrast, schools like Iran’s Nizamiyya, founded around 1065 A.D., while offering a range of subjects, lacked intellectual independence of a true university.

The seven subjects of the trivium and quadrivium were called ‘the liberal arts’ long before the university appeared in 1088. They were so called because they were the skills a citizen would need to be part of public life. During the era of the Roman Republic, ending around 27 B.C., citizens had opportunities to vote and speak publicly on political matters. The “liberal arts” ensured that their their balloting and opinions were informed and well articulated.

From this ancient Roman heritage, the university inherited some amount of civic awareness, and a mission to inform those who would take part in the public life.

Thomas Woods explains how, while the university received parts of its form and parts of its content from Greco-Roman Classicism, it represented simultaneously something new:

The university was an utterly new phenomenon in European history. Nothing like had existed in ancient Greece or Rome. The institution the we recognize today, with its faculties, courses of study, examinations, and degrees, as well as the distinction between undergraduate and graduate study, comes to us directly from the medieval world. The Church developed the university system because, according to historian Lowrie Daly, it was “the only institution in Europe that showed consistent interest in the preservation and cultivation of knowledge.”

The universities existed on the border of independence and dependence. While self-governing, and recognized as legal corporations, they sometimes needed external support, which came either from local nobility or from the church. With such support came, occasionally, the intimation that the university should honor its patrons by respecting them in lectures: a nod to the local duke or earl or baron, or a kind word about the church.

Yet the universities largely retained their intellectual independence. Bologna, during its first centuries, was explicit that it was run by laymen, not ordained church officials. This left the universities free to examine sacred texts as they saw fit.

Such intellectual exploration was the impetus for the invention of the university. After all, palace schools and cathedral schools and monasteries were educating enough people in the basics of mathematics and writing. But the desire for academic investigation of text drove people to design the university. The addition of professional schools - e.g., law and medicine - would come later.

Thomas Woods describes the gradual emergence of the universities.

We cannot give exact dates for the appearance of universities at Paris and Bologna, Oxford and Cambridge, since they evolved over a period of time - the former beginning as cathedral schools and the latter as informal gatherings of masters and students. But we may safely say that they began taking form during the latter half of the twelfth century.

Such a desire for scholarly creativity in independent thought could not have been the driving force behind the original founding of al-Qarawiyyin 859 A.D. - it was clearly bound by Sunni sensibilities.

Indeed, one of the hallmarks of the university was that it came into conflict with the church at different times and different places over its first few centuries.

Such conflicts - signs of intellectual independence - were based on scholarly study of text. Often, professors were more attuned to nuances in sacred scripture than church officials.