Oxford, Blackwell, 1995, ISBN: 9780631191117; 330pp.; Price: £55.00
University College London
Date accessed: 26 February, 2021
After leaving Balliol, Sir Richard Southern had the compensation of daily contact with the early seventeenth- century collection of medieval scholastic writings which William Laud had built up at St. Johns. Presumably Laud was concerned to recover religious and intellectual values with which he felt in sympathy, although he could not he could not wholly share them. An analogous impulse would seem to lie behind this splendid book. The intellectual personality of the author permeates the interpretation. Sentences like the following are symptomatic: 'Scholastic arguments ... performed many of the functions of arguments in political assemblies today: they brought the issues Of faith and behaviour before a continuing stream of men, many of whom would one day have to administer what today they discussed'; or again: 'As late as 1930 no Oxford graduate went willingly "into trade" except in pursuit of a political, objective or to inherit a grand old firm'. Southern thinks with the whole of his mind and experience, not just specialised section.
This intellectual personality developed its individuality in the context of a group originally brought together by another famous Balliol medievalist, Sir Maurice Powicke. Though Southern was himself a pupil of V.H. Galbraith, he evidently felt a close affinity with the informal school which after Powicke's time gravitated around the office in Bodley of another Balliol man, Richard Hunt. The trilogy of which this is the first volume can be regarded as the last and finest product of a collective enterprise: the sympathetic exploration of medieval thought and religion in its relation to society and government. The trilogy's subject is one of the great movements in intellectual history, the effort the 11th to the 14th century to ' ... demonstrate the dignity of the human mind by showing that it can know all things", and 'to make man appear more rational, the divine ordering of the universe more open to human inspection and the whole complex of Man, nature and God more intelligible, than the bitter experience of either the earlier or later centuries of the Middle Ages made at all likely' No other member of the group chose to paint so large a canvass - the combination of synthesis with fresh and vivid work on detail is one of Southern's particular gifts - but the spirit of humane scholarship which animated these Oxford medievalists is very present in this book.
One sign of this intellectual setting is the chapter on 'The Bible', special field of his older colleague Beryl Smalley, even though a narrower conception of 'scholastic humanism might have excluded it. Southern explains how the masters of the high medieval schools took over the symbolic tradition of biblical exegesis and systematized it, collecting and arranging the spiritual interpretations of the past, producing manuals, and popularising doctrine through biblical imagery. A development which was closer to 'scholasticism' as usually defined was the method of resolving contradictions between Biblical authorities by means of verbal and logical analysis. Southern elegantly shows how discussion of the problem of 'Fear' (Proverbs 1:7 and Psalm 19/18:10 versus 1 John) developed in sophistication into a solution elaborated by Peter Lombard; and then how the Lombard's teaching was passed on by an ex-pupil to Henry II of England.
A sensitivity to the setting in political and social life of medieval religious has been characteristic of those members of the group who taught Oxford's perhaps rather conservative history syllabus: Miss Smalley, W.A. Pantin, but Southern most of all. There was perhaps a creative tension between, on the one hand, their research interest in intellectual history, and on the other, their teaching which Oxford tradition pulled towards the history of government and wider historiographical fashion towards social history. In chapters four and five the history of thought and life are more successfully integrated than in any previous history of scholasticism that I can think of. We are shown how a society in which the appeal of the church lay in its ritual powers, where secular rulers legislated on religious matters, reacting to short-term crises, and where the rules about such matters as marriage and penance were inconsistent and confusing, gave way to a society where the Schools, and governments run by the scholastically educated, made rules intended to organise life for all time. Southern reminds us that although scholastic training was a path to success, it could not guarantee a good job without connections and luck. It is typical that he brings the outcomes for the losers sharply to mind. As for the successful, they bought a sharp combination of broad systematisation with mastery of detail to the practise of government. A former Balliol tutor is peculiarly well equipped to bring out the connection between academic excellence and action outside the ivory tower. The human and personal aspects of the professional academics world are also skilfully evoked: loyalty of pupils, a growing sense of the place in history of contemporary intellectuals, the stories told about well-known teachers. Southern is able to turn the twelfth-century scholastics back into people.
He is even more original about places. First, (in chapter Two), he reasserts against various critics his thesis that the famous school of Chartres was never a significantly distinctive centre at all. Southern enjoys controversy, one suspects, and his ability to carry it on without innuendo or animus makes him a model for anyone engaged in the modern equivalent of scholastic disputation.
In addition to breathing new life into an old debate, Southern proposes two new (and this time positive) theses about places. He explains why Leon failed to compete with Paris, after a promising start, by pointing out that there was simply not enough physical room for expansion. Then - and this is the newest big idea in the book - he proposes a striking antithesis between the smooth and almost inexorable development of Paris into the scholastic metropolis of northern Europe, on the one hand, and the sudden prominence of Bologna as the centre of legal scholasticism on the other. Paris is structure, Bologna evenement, the event in question being the appearance of Gratian's Decretum (admittedly in a town which already had the advantage of proximity to the papacy). Before that, there was no academic school of law in Italy. Aficionados of Southern's work will feel the usual thrill as they realise that he has discreetly removed the pin of another grenade.
Before Gratian, Canon Law did not exist in a form capable of serving as the 'software' for a hierarchy of working Church courts. Gratian made the difference not only by synthesising the mass of past ecclesiastical decisions, but above all by incorporating procedural systems borrowed from Roman Law. As for Roman Law, that too was a novelty as a subject for systematic academic teaching. the well-known specialists before this time had been practising lawyers, not academics. The novelty of the argument is not the emphasis on Gratian's importance, but the contrast with the situation before him, and the implication that but for one man the great studium of Bologna might never have been. Some may argue that it is not certain whether Gratian himself bought the Roman Law into his synthesis, but even if he did not, the essence of the thesis could be preserved by substituting 'one work' for 'one man'.
The Decretum not only made Bologna the southern metropolis of thought, but began the process of transforming the scholastic vision of the world into practice backed by government sanction. Southern sees Theology and law as closely allied, and it is with the triumph of Bologna that he finishes the first instalment. The proportions of the book will fit harmoniously into the overarching structure outlined at the start of the book, but this volume an also stand just as well on its own - already a classic.
In writing this response to David d'Avray's review of the first volume of my Scholastic Humanism and the Unification of Europe I hope that I - as indeed David has done - interpret aright the reason for this new initiative of the Institute as an opportunity for considering individual works in relation to the general shape of historical studies in our universities. If I understand your purpose aright, we are not simply considering the volume under review in itself, but rather as the product of a process of development, and perhaps as a possible influence of the shape of things to come. I certainly agree that there is a quite urgent need for general discussion on this matter, and it with this in mind that I make the observations which follow.
If this understanding is correct, I must first say that, having spent most of my working life within a system and syllabus that were still recognisably similar to, and derived from, the creators of History as an academic subject about a hundred and fifty years ago, we are now likely to diverge pretty widely from it.
The central theme of historical teaching during the first hundred years of this period was the tracing of institutional developments from the earliest period after the break-down of the Roman Empire to the present day. Of course this institutional theme varied in emphasis in different universities: constitutional in Oxford, legal and ecclesiastical in Cambridge; administrative and economic in Manchester; and so on. But the essential point in all these varieties was continuity in the governmental, administrative, and - rather later - economic aspects of (in the first place) British society,
These themes were certainly still dominant in the Oxford history syllabus when I was an undergraduate between 1929 and 1932; and, even for twenty years after the second War, the history syllabus was still largely based on an institutional and national approach to the past. Of course there were many varieties of emphasis; in Cambridge, the strong emphasis on religious institutions was fostered by David Knowles's volumes on the monastic orders; in Manchester and Birmingham, and elsewhere, administrative and economic changes as elucidated by Tout and Unwin, Tawney and Postan and Rodney Hilton.
The important thing about all these varieties was that they were all in various ways institutional and public in their emphasis, and they could all be studied as extensions of a broadly institutional approach to history.
If this is broadly true oft the past, the question for the future of historical studies seems to be this: does this institutional approach still satisfy us; and, if not, what is to be put in its place? This is an extraordinarily difficult question to answer and I do not think that we are likely to get much help in answering it from the regulations for the study of History in the present university statutes - at least not in those, so far as I have recently seen them - of my own university. I am of course out of touch with the present state of affairs now is that I find the present regulations quite difficult to understand; and one has only to look at them to see that the subject has become apparently irretrievably fragmented.
I think it is against this background that I should like the book reviewed by David d'Avray to be judged. In a broad sense I see it as an extension of the new impetus given to the subject of medieval history by Powicke in the 1930s - as indeed David rightly points out. Of course there are still two volumes to come and I have no assurance at all that I shall live to finish them, but their most important theme is that scholastic thought, as developed in the twelfth and thirteenth centuries provided the outlines of a common aim and organisation of life which, despite many varieties of dissension, was at its fullest expansion throughout western Europe by the end of the thirteenth century and thereafter disintegrated into a number of local varieties.
As for the source of this general view of European history David is right in thinking that my book is essentially an extension of what was going on in Oxford in the 1930s. I must however say that, although Powicke very firmly from 1929 onwards put into the History Faculty library the new review Recherches de theologie ancienne et medievale , which was the most important journal for medieval theological studies; and although he was in many other ways very largely responsible for introducing a consciousness of speculative elements in the past into the Oxford historical consciousness; and although his lectures on Stephen Langton were the initial inspiration for Beryl Smalley's study of the Bible in the Middle Ages, he himself remained very strongly orientated towards politics and persons in political situations. He was really a law to himself and he would have found it quite difficult (as his Three last Lectures testify) to say what he thought the new structure of historical study in the universities should be.
Indeed, are we not still in that state of mind) And with this question I come at last to David d'Avray's comments on my book, which are the occasion for your inviting me to make these remarks. To speak boldly, I should like to think of the first volume of my book as a contribution towards a fuller recognition of the complicated association of intellectual, religious and governmental influences in the formation of European society in the period of decisive growth and development in the twelfth and thirteenth centuries. The second volume will fill in some lines of intellectual development and their practical application; and the third will trace the causes of disintegration and provide examples of continuing scholastic influence and revival down to the present day.
I don't think I can say more than this at present, except that I am grateful for David's remarks and for the opportunity to review the reviewer. If History is to continue to flourish as an academic subject which satisfies the aspirations of the quite large number of those who study it, we certainly need to try to understand what our predecessors were trying to do, and in what ways - if any - we think we may be able to improve on their efforts.