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The culture of the learned elite in the Latin world bordering on the Mediterranean and stretching north into Europe underwent a profound transformation between the eleventh and the thirteenth centuries. Although the traditions of the immediately preceding period were never completely submerged, speculative and literary activity from the twelfth and thirteenth centuries on began to generate a kind of work that speaks to us with a philosophical immediacy that almost nothing from the seventh through eleventh centuries can presume to do. As with any cultural process, the roots of the change reached back deep in time, and in its entirety it extended to all areas of society, economic and political as well as literary and intellectual. It is no accident that the twelfth century has been characterized by Western medievalists as a period of “renais-sance,” while the origins of “Europe” as we think of it, and as it has exercised power in the modern world, have increasingly been pushed back to that era.
In a guide to medieval philosophy there is no need to engage this historical phenomenon in all its breadth or to speculate very deeply on its causation. Reduced to the scope of medieval intellectual history, our concern is with the emergence of “scholasticism” in its strictest sense – or, as the title of this chapter suggests, with the appearance of a cultural sphere linked to the universities. Despite the fact that either orientation – broadly cultural or narrowly intellectual – must necessarily go seriously astray about the place it assigns the history of Arabic culture or of Byzantine Greek culture (see Chapters 1 and 3), the perspective they both provide gives us an entrée to a cultural shift of dramatic proportions.
What was it like to do philosophy in the Middle Ages? In this chapter I will try to answer that question by looking at relevant sociopolitical and economic circumstances, specific institutional settings for practicing philosophy, and several competing or cooperating intellectual currents. At the end of the chapter, I will say something about the place of authority in medieval thought, the philosophical sources available to medieval thinkers at different points in the period, and the literary genres into which they put their own ideas.
Briefly, the story runs as follows. What we know as medieval philosophy emerged in the late Roman Empire from a surprisingly complete mutual accommodation of Christian belief and classical thought. It then passed through centuries of dormancy in the West, while at the same time it began afresh in the Islamic world. In the eleventh and twelfth centuries philosophy reemerged in a new Europe, in altered formand against resistance. Then, both augmented and challenged by the work of Islamic and Jewish thinkers, it enjoyed in the thirteenth century a golden age of systematic analysis and speculation corresponding to a new degree of rationalization in politics and society. And finally? The significance of fourteenth-century thought remains contested, despite substantial recent scholarship demonstrating its brilliance. As my narrative ends, therefore, readers will need to move from context to content, acquainting themselves in succeeding chapters with the ideas and arguments on which their own assessment of medieval philosophy, not just the fourteenth century, must depend.