How did this period of academic excellence come to be seen as a time of mental dullness? The answer is not simple, but part of it is due to histories written by Renaissance scholars who, hoping to cast their own era in a better light, denigrated the medieval thinkers.
One example of a superlative intellect was John Scottus Eriugena. Alternative spellings of his name include ‘Johannes Scotus Eriugena.’ He was born in Ireland around 800 A.D.
He was known for the ease and nuance with which he read classical Greek texts. He even composed poetry in ancient Greek. He read the writings of Plato, and was familiar with Aristotle. He voiced doubts about the Ptolemaic system of astronomy.
Eriugena died around 877 A.D., and this date, which places him solidly in the early Middle Ages, reveals the weaknesses in claims that the medievals were ignorant and superstitious. Eriugena was neither, and he was not alone in his era: he was appointed as a teacher, and his skill was widely recognized and praised.
The monasteries of the Middle Ages were the homes of learning. They copied the ancient Greek and Roman manuscripts; they were home to investigations about mathematics, physics, philosophy, and astronomy; they were the birthplace of new books and essays.
The monasteries also functioned as the social welfare agencies of the day, distributing food and clothing to the poor, and even offering a place to live and employment to those who had none.
One challenge for the medieval scholars was to get philosophy and mathematics to a wider audience: to those outside the monasteries. One way to do this was the establishment of ‘cathedral schools’ in larger towns.
Historian Thomas Woods writes that “one of the brightest lights of the early stage of” scholarship’s rise
was Gerbert of Aurillac, who later became Pope Sylvester II (r. 999 - 1003). Gerbert was certainly the most learned man in the Europe of his day. He was renowned for the breadth of his knowledge, which encompassed astronomy, Latin literature, mathematics, music, philosophy, and theology. His thirst for ancient manuscripts calls to mind the enthusiasm of the fifteenth century, when the Church offered rewards to humanist scholars who recovered ancient texts.
Gerbert led a school in the town of Rheims. His intellectual energy was part of the run-up to the founding of the world’s first universities. Bologna would be the first in 1088 A.D.
The Germanic Saxon King Otto III requested Gerbert to visit his court to teach the king about arithmetic and about Greek and Latin literature. David Knowles writes:
Despite the intrigues and restlessness of his later public life, Gerbert was — and was recognized as — the most learned, versatile, and influential master of his age. Rheims during his first stay (c. 966–980) became a principal center of the educational revival that was beginning to inspire the cathedral schools of France and that from them passed to the universities. Fulbert, founder of the school of Chartres, was Gerbert’s pupil.
Eriugena and Gerbert are merely two among many examples of intellectuals who flourished during the Middle Ages, even during the Early Middle Ages. The exact charges leveled against the medievals - they knew no Greek and weren’t acquainted with Aristotle - are refuted by these two alone, to say nothing of their many colleagues.
The Middle Ages may therefore safely be characterized as an era of intense intellectual investigation and philosophical debate.