Learning in the Dark Ages


Dr Foxhall Forbes

Dr Helen Foxhall Forbes (Durham) visited SAIMS yesterday to deliver a lecture on “Becoming a Scholar in the Early Middle Ages: Learning, Teaching and Writing”. It is typical of academics to be interested in other academics, she noted at the outset, but the subject is more important than that.

Modern study of early medieval education goes back to Pierre Riché’s seminal Éducation et culture dans l’occident barbare, VIe-VIIIe siècles (1962), translated by John Contreni as Education and Culture in the Barbarian West in 1975. The importance of Riché’s work then was that it provided a systematic and deeply learned account of the transformation of education from the later Roman Empire to the so-called Carolingian Renaissance. If it was true that learning in a classical style effectively ceased after the fifth century crisis, it was not true that learning ceased completely. Riché sketched the evolution of court, church and monastic schools, the spread of new forms of learning, and the development of new pedagogies. The world after Augustine (d. 430) seemed a little less dark than Riché’s teacher, Henri-Irénée Marrou, had once feared.

Despite Riché’s work and the learned contributions of numerous subsequent studies, the early Middle Ages still cannot quite shake the Dark Age tag. It is worth checking Matt Gabriele’s nice piece on “Five Myths about the Middle Ages” in the Washington Post:

Many interpret the Middle Ages as a period when intellectual inquiry went dormant and the dominance of religion either stopped the progress of mankind or actively worked against those few brave souls trying to lift humanity up.

(You can here Prof Gabriele talking about the article here). If people don’t just assume there was no intellectual life in the Middle Ages, then often they imagine that the “Great Men” (rarely great women, despite plenty of evidence for their important role in education) such as Bede were so exceptional that they were really aberrations. But there were many, lively cultures of learning after the Fall of Rome.

Foxhall Forbes provided some promising grounds for looking at education in the period afresh. Ranging from the seventh to the twelfth century, she found a wide variety of material hinting at the nature of lectures, note-taking, and classroom argument. There were subjects when a student had to be more accepting, such as in interpreting certain parts of the Bible, but others when they were encouraged to be more creative, such as in the composition of hexameter verse. One did not just learn things, but also questions and intellectual methods. Let’s not forget that the much-praised Church Fathers – Augustine, Jerome and more – rarely said anything without seeking to undermine their opponents’ arguments systematically and, quite often, changing their minds anyway.

An interesting question sat at the heart of this lecture: how did someone gain intellectual authority? There were undoubtedly times when intellectual innovations were condemned for introducing errors and unwelcome novelties –  the condemnation of Amalarius of Metz at Quierzy in 838 shows that. But knowledge did not stand still. Bede’s works were full of new ideas and concepts, even as he strove to develop his work conservatively. Was it a matter of style? Age? Charisma in the classroom? How often was it just a matter of being in the right place at the right time?

Let’s not think about authority here in terms of intellectual conservatism as such. What one sees time and again in the eighth and ninth centuries are not reactionary attacks on learning, but critiques of knowledge. In the Amalarius example, he was basically condemned for making things up. Bede faced a barrage of complaints after repeating a number of errors in his commentary on Acts of the Apostles, prompting him to issue a retraction of several points. It never hurts to ask how and why we seem to know something, especially if it turns out we didn’t know it after all. Things are not “true” just because someone believes them to be so, or because an expert said so. But people can get away with all sorts of claims if they do it right.

We look forward to seeing where Dr Foxhall Forbes’s work goes. Her first book, Heaven and Earth in Anglo-Saxon England: Theology and Society in An Age of Faith (2013), remains one of my favourite recent studies of the period.