Reason and Society in the Middle Ages

by Alexander Murray

This was a gift from the attendees of the 2004 Phrontisterion. I was surprised at how apt a gift it was; apparently somebody had been closely following my research on The History of Thinking and realized that it met an important need. I was greatly pleased with the gift and immediately gobbled up the first third of the book. But then a bunch of books that I had previously ordered arrived in the mail, and in my excitement over the new books, I somehow shoved this book onto the bottom of the pile and never got back to it. I realized my mistake a few weeks ago and set to work finishing what I had begun.

The first two-thirds of the book are perfect for my needs; the author really knew his stuff. It’s chock full of fascinating details about the penetration of rationalism into Western culture during the middle ages. For example, did you know that in 1345 approximately 1,000 children were studying arithmetic in the city of Florence? That might not seem like a big deal, but in fact very, very few of the ancient Greeks or Romans could do any arithmetic. Neither could many Muslims, Indians, or Chinese, for that matter. 

I had not known that Roger Bacon was (according to the author) the first Westerner recorded to have urged the union of mathematics and physics — an idea that was to yield spectacular fruit a few centuries later. Or that a lecture on canon law in Paris in 1177 attracted a huge and eager audience that was greatly impressed by the logic and evidence demonstrated in the lecture. 

Here’s a quote from 1306 demonstrating the degree to which Westerners valued rationalism:

“The French use the true judgement of reason much more surely than any other nation in the world. They are not moved otherwise than in proper logic. They hardly ever, or never at all, impugn right reason.” 

A hundred years later, Bernadino of Siena repeated the notion with a different target of parochialism:

“Italy is the most intelligent country in Europe. Tuscany is the most intelligent region in Italy. Florence is the most intelligent town in Tuscany.”

Archbishop Federigo Visconti around 1265 told his subordinates that knowledge should be their most active concern. Numerous other prelates inveighed against the practice of selecting candidates for high Church office on nobility, wealth, or nepotism; the only considerations, they argued, must be learning and virtue — and learning was always listed before virtue. 

Murray also demonstrates that writing expanded greatly in magnitude during the fourteenth century. A graph showing the number of documents in the Vatican archives shows a big jump upwards at that time. The number of professional secular scribes in Milan jumped from 2 to 40. Perhaps the invention of spectacles around 1280 played a role in the process. As it happens, spectacles were discovered a thousand years earlier in China, and later by Islamic scholars. The West was late to pick up on the idea.

All in all, this is an important book that compellingly demonstrates that rationalism became important to Westerners during the period from 1100 CE to 1500 CE. By the end of that period, rationalism was so deeply ensconced in European minds that it was no longer questioned. It took just two more centuries to reduce superstition to refugee status.