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The universities and the scholasticism

Literate Catalans of the 13th to 15th centuries began to make use of scholasticism, a name designating the organic systematisation of the philosophical and scientific knowledge inherited from the Greeks via the Arabs and reconceived from the viewpoint of theology, and which was taught at the universities. Since the time of Boethius (480/490-525), who translated part of Aristotle’s works, European intellectuals had not had the opportunity to expand the technical basis of the information they possessed in order to interpret holy Scripture and the physical universe. The translators of the 12th century brought to the public’s attention the first texts which were to revolutionize knowledge. In the following century the translators learnt Greek. The recovery of ancient philosophy and science (1150-1270) was an intellectual adventure turned to account by the Northern European centres of knowledge. It became a common heritage subsequent to the circulation of the great theological and encyclopedic syntheses of the second half of the 13th century, assembled by the top Masters, such as the Dominicans Albert the Great (1200-1280) and Thomas Aquinas (1225-1274), or the Franciscans Bonaventure (1221-1274) and Duns Scotus (1266-1308).

Gerard of Cremona, who died in Toledo in 1187, translated from the Arabic the logical and physical works of Aristotle, Arabic and Greek antique commentaries and medical and astronomical texts. Robert Grosseteste, Chancellor of Oxford and Bishop of Lincoln (died 1253) completed versions of Aristotelian texts concerning ethics and of many antique commentaries; the new translation of Aristotle’s complete corpus is attributed to William of Moerbeke, a Flemish Dominican.

The universities were born from the professional corporatism of masters and students, although some were founded by the Holy See or by certain monarchs. Bologna, which specialised in Law, was operative from the middle of the 12th century, but the most innovative centres dated from the start of the 13th century: Paris (1200), Oxford and Montpellier (1220), Padua and Naples (1224), Cambridge (1225), Toulouse (1229), Salamanca (1230). University life was enlivened by intense polemics (the condemnation of Aristotelianism, the regular against the secular clergy, Dominicans against Franciscans, debates concerning Averroism), which did not prevent their intellectual results imposing themselves at every level of social life.

On the one hand, the higher Faculties (Theology, Law, Medicine) prepared professionals of revealed knowledge, the majority of whom devoted themselves to teaching and to an ecclesiastical career; on the other, they provided lawyers and masters with the right to practise (these latter not necessarily belonging to the clergy). The study programme corresponded to the statutes of each centre and was expressed at different levels (bachelor or graduate levels), which could culminate in the doctorate in theology. Teaching was based on commentaries upon canonical texts (the lesson) on the part of the master, and on public debate (the disputation). In the 14th and 15th centuries the universities multiplied, appearing in Portugal (Coimbra, 1308), Scotland (St. Andrew’s, 1413), and Poland (Krakow, 1397). The monarchy made a bid to make the culture of the universities official in Catalonia: in 1300 James II (1291-1327) began the foundation of a centre for higher studies in the city of Lerida, situated at the heart of the territories belonging to the Crown of Aragon. The other university centres in the Crown of Aragon were: Perpignan (1349), Osca (1354), Gerona (1446), Barcelona (1450), Saragossa (1474), Palma (1483).

As Frederick II Staufen had done seventy years earlier, when he acted as patron for the University of Naples, the Catalan monarch revealed in this act of foundation that he wished to avoid his subjects going in pursuit of knowledge in foreign lands: the new faculties of arts, medicine, law and theology were supposed to provide the country with educated elites trained on home ground, comparable to those emerging from Paris, Oxford or Bologna. The University of Lerida took a long time before operating at full capacity and never absorbed all Catalano-Aragonese students, who continued to travel beyond their frontiers throughout the Middle Ages. The scarcity of economic resources of the new foundation (at its inception, above all), the competition offered by the Universities of Montpellier (a city which formed part of Aragonese domains until 1344) and of Toulouse, the dynamism of studies in Franciscan and Dominican monasteries and municipal initiatives (the Charter of Valencia in 1246 made provision for schools), undercut the academic superiority of the University of Lerida.

Scholasticism carried out an attempt to systematise knowledge comparable to that of modern information technology: Apart from thinkers of reknown, the 13th to 15th centuries, in fact, produced a legion of hard-working, disciplined professionals trained in the arts, who prepared reference books which, when later multiplied by the printing press, were still in use up to the 18th century: Biblical concordances, encyclopedias with a natural or historical theme, collections of the sentences of the Church Fathers and Doctors and also of classical authors, legal compilations. Alphabetical tables and subject indexes facilitated reference to these volumes.

Those who used these materials most assiduously were the clerics who had the daily obligation to produce commentaries regarding Christian doctrine: the preachers. In fact, in order to prepare a sermon it was necessary speedily and securely to locate a set of authorised facts which combined sentences from Holy Scripture with the contents of theology and moral philosophy. Scholasticism, in addition, provided the preachers with specialised tools (collections of examples, compendia of famous sermons, tracts concerning the rhetoric of sermons) which, in the long run, effectively contributed to providing the laity with access to the contents of knowledge within the universities.

Ramon Llull’s Art was conceived during the golden age of scholasticism by a thinker who had not received academic training, but who had at his disposal the tools needed to gain access to the knowledge of the world of the universities (encyclopedias, theological, medical, and legal treatises, various compendia) and who had lived in university cities such as Montpellier or Paris. The fact that the Art is regarded as a complete and unique system of knowledge, a ‘scientia universalis’, shows at the same time Ramon’s debts to scholasticism and the gulf which separated the two systems.

See: Ruiz Simon, Josep Maria, L’Art de Ramon Llull i la teoria escolàstica de la ciència (Barcelona: Quaderns Crema, 1999).