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  • Print publication year: 2020
  • Online publication date: April 2020

Preface to Part II: Intellectuals, Leaders, Doctores


In the first of the four chapters gathered together as Part II, Sean Field maintains that Agnes of Harcourt was “a leader in her world,” but then wonders: “was she an intellectual?” Towards the end of the chapter, having unearthed a wider range of sources and textual witnesses than hitherto associated with Agnes, he affirms that she was “an important intellectual.” Agnes flourished at or near Paris, and Parisian academics of our own time would have fewer hesitations in recognizing her status as an intellectual than their Anglo-American counterparts, since “the terms ‘intellectual/ intellectuals’,” Rita Copeland has argued,

… are still not accepted or used comfortably in all quarters. The terms have found a more secure usage among French and other continental historians of the Middle Ages than among Anglo-American historians of medieval English universities.

Mention of “universities” here invites us to consider a peculiarity of Paris: that university, royal court, and commercial city were all gathered at one site, whereas in England (particularly) and elsewhere this was not often the case. Jacques Le Goff has associated “the appearance of the intellectual as a distinct social type in the twelfth century” with the appearance of towns, and in a city such as Paris there is scope for university learning to bleed into urban institutions (as it bleeds into Jean de Meun's unmistakably Parisian, secular continuation of the Roman de la Rose). But for the two Paris-identified women in Part II, Agnes de Harcourt and Christine de Pizan, it is sponsorship of the royal court that decisively enables their authorly work. Again, such an option was hardly on offer in England for literary authors, male or female. Chaucer and Gower tried to float the idea that royal personages might protect and encourage literati, with Chaucer placing his faith in queenly rather than kingly fictional surrogates. But there is scant support for royal-sponsored, institutional provision of literary learning in England before the monks of Sheen begin supplying the Bridgettine nuns of Syon with texts for perusal within private, enclosed spaces.