You know the deal: mankind became civilized somewhen during the Sumerian/Egyptian era, reached a kind of plateau during Pericles's Athens, regressed slightly during the reign of Alexander, then went on to rest with the Romans, who civilized everything in sight until Pentecost, AD 34, when, after a prudent pause that seems to have involved a non-aggression pact towards lions, Christianity bulldozed down every last vestige of the above, and kept the secrets of literacy and learning to a small, decadent elite, until a cabal of right-thinking pagans, under heavy pressure from without, snatched the remnants of civilization from Islam, thus insuring the future of the World as We Know It, except those messy bits that outrage our Mother Gaia....

A good many people, whether or not they've read The Da Vinci Code, subscribe to some version of this, and fully expect this article to consist of a blank page, or of a rather dull list of saints and clerics, all right in their way, if you're religious, but...Let's go from this, to life in Christian Rome and beyond.

Ancient people didn't always think things happened for a reason: the Gods were like that, sometimes. Fortuna's rudder might sway the course of one's life towards riches or ruin; Diana might safeguard your daughter's virtue, but then decide to strike her down in childbirth for violating her virginity with marriage; a vengeful Persephone might refuse to leave her husband that year, and so, Spring may come late -- and these are just the Goddesses.

There were some philosophers that posited alternative explanations for natural phenomena, but mostly, they were considered merely speculations, not established facts, that only applied to the observed world -- not the anarchic world of the Gods. Mostly Babylonian and Egyptian "science" was more-or-less a set of tricks and stratagems arrived at by long trial and error, and transmitted as traditional "trade secrets" -- the average (or even upper-class) Egyptian was no more likely to know how to find the volume of a pyramid as they were to be fluent in Chinese. It was pretty good, at that, but not really science. The Greeks were a bit better, if only because they had philosophy, and had had to develop the concepts of rigor and logical argument, and in the Hellenistic period, we see Aristotle and Euclid taking all these stray bits and turning them into a unified system of knowledge, which was expected to be known by anyone in public life. Unfortunately, as with the Romans later, Greek science suffered from what could be called caste snobbery. You could be a philosopher all you liked, and still be allowed into polite society, but, with the exception of a few bits and pieces of military engineering, it was signally non-U to try to apply any kind of theory to the real world, or to make experiments. Coming up with say, a new kind of horse collar or grain mill, in their view, was the kind of thing that would interest a lazy slave, not a respectable citizen -- in the latter days of the Eastern Empire, it was a prime requirement for anyone who was anyone to have studied at least a year at medical school, and to take a keen interest in discussing medical matters, but flagrantly below the salt to stoop to treating anyone.

Early Christians were no better -- their internal squabbles more resemble a gang of rabid campus radicals than the gentle band of worthies that you read about in Sunday School. Although heirs to Rabbinic logic and (some) Greek learning, it was for a long time unclear as to exactly how much of the new faith should rely on logical thought, how much on revelation, how much on the collections of maxims and stories that were later to form the Four Gospels, and how much on the established canon of thought that was the Pagan world. Towards the end of the Western Empire, however, the new faith of the Nazarene joined with a revival of the Platonic stream of philosophy to form Neo-Platonism. If there is a truly good and just God, argued the Neo-Platonists, God and His Creation must "make sense" -- that is, to be orderly, rational, and capable of being comprehended by a (reasonably) learned person. Revelation can and should be respected, but it should fit in with what was known as "common sense": there was a progression in faith as well as reason, and religion should be considered to be working a greater understanding of both God and His Creation -- it could not merely be working for itself. Life in the cities was no longer safe and free: the City of Rome fell to the Ostrogoths in 410, and a century later, the European continent saw its population halved by a plague (which may have been measles) and several decades of hellishly cold weather, which some have gone so far as to brand "climate change". Small landowners increasingly took advantage of a tax loophole that exempted them from paying the increasingly intolerable price for the minimal protection of a fading Empire: declaring themselves dependents of richer, stronger landholders that would guarantee protection in exchange for goods, a development that further frayed the Empire in favor of feudalism. Therefore from c.300CE -c.1500CE we had a (chronological, but overlapping) mixture of:

  1. Villas in Gaul
    For a considerable while during and after the Fall of Rome, a kind of Roman life hung on, and in some ways flourished, in semi-autonomous villas along the rivers of the Roman Provinces, after the manner of Rivendell or the plantation in Apocalypse Now Redux. It was a leisurely, timeless life, far removed from the cities, oriented towards planting, harvesting, and keeping, full of lazy afternoons, visiting friends, writing letters or playing ball or word games, which might break into a debate as to how this or that word might be interpreted. Now and then, the local Padre would come to baptize, marry, bury, or simply administer Communion in the family chapel, or a friend-of-a-friend would stop by with news from Rome, but by and large, the storms blowing across Europe were of less account than a sudden shower over the Valley that might spoil the vines for good winemaking this year.

    Ausonius (ca. 310-395) is one such author that has survived: a physician's son, he'd been a schoolteacher and rose to become praetorian prefect and consul. In his youth, he traveled into Germanic territories, but his retirement from public life was spent in a villa in his hometown in Bordeaux where he ran a winery on the site of the modern Chateau Ausone (established in the 18th century). His writings are far from first rate, in many scholars' eyes, but they were never meant to be: travel memoirs of evenings on the Moselle, fairy tales, like the Crucifixion of Cupid, and wordplay, like his Wedding Quilt, a thoroughly bawdy account of a wedding day (and night) completely composed from lines taken from Virgil. As you can imagine, his Christianity was a flabby one, but his paganism was flabbier, and far from being banned by the Church, he was considered a model of Latin verse.

    There is also Wilfred Strabo, who wrote endearingly about his garden as well as several love letters to a gay friend, and also the unnamed, but invaluable copyists of the "Satrycon" of Petronius Arbiter and "De re Coquinaria" (otherwise known as Apicius). Although not writers on their own, it's worth pointing out that there was a certain "underground literature" going, comprised of what might be called romance novels, racy stories, and at least one cookbook, preserved, not by pious hands, but by private readers and collectors, whose standards of literature were, as you might imagine, quite different that that of a cleric.

    What would seem to be a shocking laxness in discipline was explained by a belief that Pagan authors were not so much to be shunned, but pitied as being admirable, but wrong, the unsuspecting victims of the fall of the Tower of Babel. However, God in His Wisdom had planted symbols and clues in pagan beliefs and practices (as He had in the rest of His creation) that the discerning eye could see as pointing to the truth of His Message.

    For example, let's take what a missionary monk might make of the beliefs of a Hindu, who'd traveled from India along the Silk Road. Well, it's pretty clear that the guy's a Christian, or at least kind-of-a-Christian. He worships this guy named Krishna, which is a close-enough mispronounciation of Christ, who appeared to a prince about to run away from a battle, and told him to be brave, which is kind of odd behavior for Jesus, but....who knows? He also believes in this fellow Shiva who is a Deva, clearly a devil of some kind, since he's so into destruction and lust. That this chap thinks Shiva is also a good guy...well, much the fool he is. Deluded. No problem, after a few good conversations, I can straighten him out. Or not. But still...In Scandinavia, Buddha was revered as a saint, and in Asia, a Christian Bishop in Beijing (sometime in the sixth century) spent fifteen years in translating the Buddhist texts for the Emperor of Japan which, later, became the kernel of Zen.

    The rest of Creation was to be seen in the same way. The pelican, for instance, feeds its young (some say with its own blood), which makes it the ideal of Motherhood, therefore of Mary or of Christ Himself, who gave His Blood to redeem humanity. A common walnut symbolized the difficulty of finding wisdom in the world: it had a hard shell, but a delicious kernel (not unlike Linux). No matter how odd the circumstances, no matter how far you ran, you'd find God staring back at you. So it wasn't that Saturnalia was the true holiday, which had to be expunged in favor of deceiving the laity that Christ was born conveniently at the same time, but that it is right and good to celebrate The Birth of Light on the twenty-fifth day in the tenth month, and the birth of Christ is the real reason why one should do so. Therefore, the good Christian's focus was not inward, but outward, to find the Gospel written in every grain of sand and star in the sky, to live one's life with one eye towards His Coming Again, no matter how good or bad the circumstances.

    Nonetheless, these authors, and the communities that supported them, were highly vulnerable: families, in time, could and did die out, through disease, famine or what was now constant conflict between the small warring fiefdoms that replaced the Pax Romana. What survived of many villas was taken by monasteries and invaders, while the huts and outbuildings (and their inhabitants --slaves, fieldhands, and the like) would often form the basis for a new kind of community called a village. It speaks volumes that, of all the hundreds of codices that survive from Medieval times, only four can definitely be dated as being in original Roman calligraphy. Yet their ideas persisted into the next stage, which overlapped with..

  2. The Courts of the Chieftains
    To English-speaking countries, the influx of nomads from Asia and parts of Eastern and Central Europe near the mid-point of the First Millennium is called the Barbarian Invasions. The Germans, who acknowledge that, after all, these are their ancestors, call it the Great Wandering, or The Great Migrations. I find the first name exciting, calling up images from Bob Dylan's "All along the Watchtower" or Cavafy's "Waiting for the Barbarians": thousands of horsemen riding out of the steppes, killing, looting and raping as they go along; the second name calls up a more poignant picture: families of weary people driven by hunger and poor weather, walking, leading pack animals, marveling at the vast, strange buildings which, some surmised, had been left by a race of giants. So, let's call the nomads the Newcomers, and leave it at that.

    The indigenous peoples of Europe conquered by the Romans considered Rome a country of admirable fighters, but otherwise nothing less than a giant bird of prey. To most of the Newcomers, Rome was a distant, enchanted land, somewhat like what we think of as the land of OZ, where everyone ate fine food, wore silks and jewels, and served a strange and awe-inspiring God who didn't even seem to have a name, who lived in a heavenly City, which was to Rome what Rome was to their own tent towns. Being Roman, or being Roman-like, therefore, was de rigeur for any chieftain who wanted to impress visitors. Having a Christian cleric around was part of this: they were extremely useful, since they made excellent bookkeepers and scribes, but were often good entertainers with songs, storytelling and recitations of classic and new Latin poetry, and were also often handy at medicine and other practical matters. (Pitting your cleric against another chieftain's cleric in word games, or perhaps "philosophical debate" was as keenly followed a sport as the clash of champions --a subject to which we will return later.) If having a cleric was a plus, having them tutor your younger sons or daughters in Romanish ways (including that mysterious thing called 'literacy') was a real plus. Soon having a younger son or a daughter in the clergy was a status symbol. Getting baptized, and encouraging your staff to do the same was the next logical step, and well, what doyou know, the more Christian you could be, the better, if you wanted to get anywhere in the world. (Let's get this straight, this is not learning and clarity going on despite Christianity's best or worst efforts, this is learning going entirely because of them.) Such a cleric was Venantius Fortunatus (530-609) who lived in the Merovingian court, whose patroness was the lovely and pious Queen Radegunde: her desk, carved with crosses and lambikins, is still extant. His writings include hymns that are still being sung today ("With our Banners Waving High"), letters in verse (a thank-you note for a dinner party held by someone named Gogo), and even a little note to Radegunde attached to a basket of violets.

    On the other hand, it might be hazardous to get in the way of local politics: Boethius was beheaded in 529, seemingly at the whim of Theodoric (during the time he was waiting to be executed, he wrote a book called "The Consolations of Philosophy", which proved to be a posthumous best-seller for the better part of a millenium). Therefore, most royal tutors wisely kept the curriculum to inoffensive subjects such as logic, music and astronomy, keeping questions of statecraft for advanced studies.

    Unlike the Romans, Newcomers had no squeamishness about tinkering and making things. In the Harley Psalter, there are numerous depictions of mechanical contraptions, and it's to the Newcomers that we owe such inventions as haymaking, which allowed farm animals to survive the winter in places where the ground froze, the horse collar, which allowed horses to pull from their shoulders, and not their necks and to use their full potential as draft animals, and all the myriad forms of pickled and smoked vegetables, meat, cheese and fish we know today. Even though these innovations were not always written down as such, due to the scarcity of writing material, they did form an important part of the developing European culture rising from the Classical world's ashes.

    The greatest (and one of the last) of the Palace Scholars was Alcuin, who served under Charlemagne.He was born in York, around 735, and joined the Court of Charlemagne in 781, until his death in 804.
    He was a lover of puzzles and riddles, and wrote, merely as an exercise, the well-known puzzle of the fox, the goat, and the head of cabbage, the three jealous husbands, and the beautiful line "How fares Man? As a candle in the wind." (which got put into a song, sometime later, about a minor 20th century screen actress), as well as numerous other writings. Under him, the official script, which had devolved into a mishmash of ligatures and nigh-illegible abbreviations, became a clean, rounded, regular hand, easy to read and to write, and, with some adaptations, forms the basis of the font in which you are most likely reading this now. (Charlemagne also insisted upon properly written records and "paperwork" for all official functions,and although he never rightly got the hang of it, encouraged the laity to read and write as well.) Upon hearing that Charlemagne was threatening to abolish paganism in his kingdom by beheading anyone not baptized, Alcuin argued "Faith is a free act of the will, not a forced act. We must appeal to the conscience, not compel it by violence. You can force people to be baptised, but you cannot force them to believe." (He won.) Alcuin's successor, Theodulf, went even further by proudly commissioning a magnificent mosaic depicting the Ark of the Covenant in his private chapel as a bold break with the anti-artistic Iconoclast tradition: if God Himself had mandated images of cherubim on His Most Sacred Altar, then who were we to say that our own churches should not display beautiful and holy images? (So there.)

    It was in this period (roughly from 500 onward) that there began a long-running debate that would color every part of learning for a thousand years, and has been considered the first definitive break of Reason with Faith: the Scholastic Controversy, which was conducted, not in Palace Schools, but by the developing world of the monasteries that took over from them, and were, for a time, even more secure than the mightiest stronghold.

  3. In a Monastery Cloister
    The monastic life began with the Desert Fathers of Egypt, of the 2nd - 4th century, who forsook the temptations of life to live in small hermitages, alone except to worship together on Sundays. They lived on greens, and some bread, considering oil, wine, and cheese luxury fare, and left behind a body of maxims and anecdotes that many have compared with the Zen masters, several centuries later. While some found the desert life appealing, others found it better to band together against the dangers of solitude and living in a harsh climate alone, and others found themselves sought-out as counselors, teachers, and sages.

    Monasticism, as we know it, was outlined by Cassiodorus in the sixth century, who concieved the idea of the vivarium, a word originally meaning an artificial pond, or pool, where fish were kept, as an adjunct to a kitchen. It was a self-sufficient living quarters that contained, not only cells for hermits and a dormitory for the cenobic, or communally-living monks, but vegetable and herb gardens, a chicken yard, barns and stables for various other animals, a vinyard and grain field to produce the wine and wafer, and yes, a fish pond, an idea that was later to be accessed by Nicholas Roeg in "Performance". The idea was, as he stated, to have such a well-ordered and harmonious dwelling, so as to have people beating to get in, rather than trying to make their way out. In terms of architecture, the ideal building would be either an old, abandoned villa, or a new building strongly resembling one, with the addition of a chapel, library and writing room, where old books could be copied and their data transmitted to the next generation. He strongly encouraged the reading and the copying of Holy Writ and also pagan authors, and to give a good example, he produced an allegorical poem summarizing the seven liberal arts as an idea of what kind of books monks should write: personal wikipedias of things that people ought to know, with an eye towards ease of reading and learning.

    This set the tone for most Scholastic literature, and I won't pretend to say that all these works are necessarily interesting: a lot of these were grammars, etymologies, and obscure restatements of even obscurer books. Grammars proceed from the letters of the alphabet to words, from parts of speech to figures of rhetoric, with the plodding surety of third-grade arithmetic. Commentaries excruciatingly dissect bits and pieces of ancient learning, sometimes to the point of unintelligibility, in a manner that is well known to fans of "A Canticle for Leibowitz" and "Zardoz". As late as 16th century we have authors like Francois Rabelais and Robert Burton, who, on one hand writing on a given subject (tall tales, clinical depression), feeling that every last bit of their learning and experience had to be crammed into one book. However, there are undeniable gems in the heap.

    For instance, there is the enigmatic Virgil of Toulouse, who wrote a bizarre book parodying all these grammars, which claimed there were twelve versions of Latin, but only one was spoken. His style of teaching is sharply at variance with the dry tomes listed above, giving colorful anecdotes and examples for every point: for instance, he famously claimed that two monks got into a debate over the grammatical way to talk to yourself, and ended up killing each other with daggers. Then, there is the Commentary on the Apocalypse, by Beatus of Liegebana, with its luminous illustrations, which, drawing from the heretofore mute voices and pens of Iberia, forged a new ground of beauty never seen before in Classical Art, and an altogether new voice, that of women.

    For those who claim that Christianity was a calamity for women, and convents a kind of concentration camp, I tender the example of Hroswita, whose plays inspired novels and operas in the 19th century, and have been performed to good reviews in our own time. (Fans of A Confederacy of Dunces remember her as the "sybilline nun" who would have been Not Amused by American Bandstand--apparently our good Ignatius had read her often sharp rebukes of the local government--what she would have made of otherwise pious lay young people dancing to loud, raucous music is another story). There is also Hildegarde von Bingen, who is the first composer to have left a biography, who often traveled to preach at other convents at a time and place when travel was considered too dangerous for most men, wrote about gemstones and gynecology (the first known depiction of a female orgasm, which she contrasted with mere lust is hers), and even invented her own language. There is also the example of Dame Julian of Norwich, who wished, in her prime, to be walled up within a church, so as to live and die ever in earshot of the Mass -- and indeed, lived in that fashion (with her cat), teaching and thriving, for many years, and wrote the immortal lines of hope, "All will be well, and all will be well, and all that is, will be well." While these may seem isolated sopranos in a chorus of baritones and basses, in classical times, they were not to be heard at all.

    It started with the most innocuous of sentences, in what was held to be the least controversial book in common use: the Isagogues (είσγωγή) of Porphyry, a minor Neo-Platonist c. A.D. 233–c. 309, who was writing about the "Categoria" of Aristotle, that is the part of logic that deals with the definition of words (and, by extension, all objects) through five concepts: Genera, Species, Property, Difference, and Accident. That is, to take the example of a chair, we can speak of, say chairs as a species, part of the genera (or family) of "furniture", or "resting places", having certain properties (a flat surface, legs, and back) essential to them being considered chairs, to differentiate them from a stool or bench, and which may have accidentals (such as upholstery, arms, wings, skirts, or various kinds of ornament) the omission or inclusion is inessential to them being considered chairs as such. Thus, we can speak of "easy chairs" (with upholstery, arms and wings as properties), as being a species of the genera of chairs, differentiated from thrones, club chairs, beanbag chairs, etc. with crewel embroidery, carved arms, antimacassars, a matching ottoman or a skirt (over the legs) as being accidental details. We might even go further, and specify in the genera of side chairs (no arms), the species of folding card-table chairs, and taking folding card-table chairs as a genera, go so far as to specify, say, Glenn Gould's piano chair the day the seat cushion fell off. Now, the question is, is the notion of a chair, or a side chair, a real object, or is it simply a name arbitrarily given to a class of similar objects? Porphyry raises this question on the first page of his book, and quickly goes on to say that he doesn't care to discuss it.

    Now, to a novice, this is hardly a moot point. Why is it that he does not want to discuss it, and what might happen if it were not as he had stated? Well, the teacher doesn't want to belabor this, and wants to get to the more pressing point of how you define a word. However, it's a great debate subject, maybe you'd like to talk about it among yourselves after class? These debates, summarized and entered into philosophy, became what was called The Scholastic Debate, and was the Apple vs. Microsoft of its day.

    Scholastic realism holds that the genera, that is the 'families' of objects are in some sense real, an idea that is echoed by certain parts of the Kabbalah. That is, if one were a scholar studying chairs, one would waste one's time examining physical chairs in favor of speculating what an "ideal" chair would be like, what it would be composed of, what it would look like, exactly which personages of the Christian pantheon would sit on one, and so on. This philosophy had a great influence on art, especially that of the Irish/Anglo-Saxon/Nordic school: partisans of Scholastic Realism loved neat geometric patterns, knotwork, few illustrations as such, and idealized scenes with a few figures against a gold background signifying a heaven beyond space, time and imagination. This side also argued for a pedagogy based on logic and reasoning in itself, without reference to outside influences, you might call them the concrete math school.

    Nominalism held that all the words that we can imagine are but names for things: given X many like experiences, we naturally try to name them, if only to be able to remember them. (Apparently, human beings have a hard time remembering what they can't put words to: small kids who don't know the word 'ball' yet can't remember having played with one.)Nominalist art is what many people think of when they try to picture anything having to do with King Arthur or the Captive Unicorn: backgrounds are natural, people are shown doing ordinary things, and there's the use of gold to model and highlight backgrounds. (It also had a great deal to do with kickstarting the notion of romantic love: while Roman erotic lyrics were mostly of the "You're cute, I'm horny." variety, and the Chieftain and Monastic love lyrics were more hymns to friendship than real love, it's only starting in the Nominalist age, you find poets writing erotically about individuals -- it's not Beauty or Wit or Learning Dante loves, it's Beatrice, and far from being simply who he'd like to fuck, she's wow, an angel!-- 50's rock does it pretty well..) If the other side is concrete math, Nominalism is calculus, full of approximations and make-dos. Natural philosophy, or what we would call "science", is emphasized in this kind of learning: if you want to study chairs, therefore, you should travel, see as many chairs as you can, and report back on what you've seen, and substituting for "chairs", any other object or idea, you'd better put on your walking shoes and be prepared to get your hands dirty.

  4. The Student's Life
    Wandering scholars had to be, by nature, generalists and teachers, as adept at healing the sick as chanting a psalm, able to read and speak at least two languages, and identify exotic objects ("Why, this is no ordinary chicken bone! It's a relic of St. Eligius!") as well as having a good background in observational astronomy, number theory, and geometry (useful for establishing, among other things, the exact date of Easter each year.) Traveling by whatever means they could (the interminable hikes and boat rides in The Lord of The Rings are a fairly good illustration of this) these men lived to get to the next monastery, where they might read (and perhaps copy) this or that rare text or speak with a kindred sage or scholar. To survive, they relied on charity, their wits, their skills at letter-writing, bookkeeping, or surveying, storytelling and most importantly, tutoring.

    Since the Church and Cathedral Schools had a near-monopoly on teaching, there was a ready niche for "public" schooling: that is, teaching those young'uns whose parents couldn't pay the steep fee to join a monastery, or the Cathedral Schools. Or simply the curious, who wanted to snatch fire from the gods, and get this mysterious thing called literacy for themselves. Soon, regular meetings of students would convene in taverns and inns, and even rented rooms above. These were called colleges, a collegium of young men, who had much more authority over their professors than now, setting their salaries and curriculum and even bargaining for degrees. Soon, the once-travelling scholar might find himself a sedentary Don, teaching a dozen or so students nearly every day who likewise stayed in town, and with one thing and another, they might need to have a building fund. The general curriculum fell into four stages, the trivium (grammar, logic, and rhetoric), the quadrivium (music, astronomy, geometry, and arithmetic), professional studies (military science, law, and medicine), and philosophy/theology, with a few odds and ends, such as architecture (which covered art appreciation, domestic arts, and some drawing, painting and sculpting skills), nutrition (food science, from hunting/fishing to cooking/serving/eating to diet planning), agriculture, and nautics (which covered bookkeeping, economics, shipbuilding, and navigation). Trade and craft guilds were always fighting against the Academy, charging them with divulging 'trade secrets', a controversy that holds true even today.

    Until the introduction of linen paper, parchment was always at a premium (papyrus having died out sometime during the twelfth century), and so, for quick notes, people used slates and wax-covered tablets, much as we'd use a laptop. (Getting a double tablet, or diploma, with a strap to keep them together, was a popular graduation gift, even if its prime function was to show you'd actually been to school at all.) Arithmetical manipulation was done with a form of abacus where small pebbles (calculi) were laid on lines, and geometry, on sand-covered trays with compasses (notoriously unstable) and unmarked straightedges. Until the twelfth century, it was unusual for a student to own their own textbooks: since they tended to be the same ones year in and year out, they leased them from a stationery store or consulted library versions, fastened to their shelves with light chains (kind of makes you wish we did the same...). The advent of the private Bible was considered as much as a milestone as that of the personal computer in the Eighties: it's from the twelfth century we can date the familiar, two-column Bible, with numbered chapters and verses on thin pages. In order to fit all the words on the pages, scribes were forced to make letterforms tall, narrow, and roughly hexagonal, thus inventing the familiar typeface used for the mastheads of newspapers and the like. (Letters are still extant, however, between students begging their parents for a copy, no matter what the cost --roughly $2000 in today's money--and indignant replies back, "who do you think you are", "do you think I'm made of money?", "You'd only lose or break it" and the ever-popular "In my day...")

    I have the privilege of being taught logic by a professor of the old school (the college in question was Southern Connecticut State U., but the prof was doing research at Yale). The coursebook was held in common: unlike every other course, where one had to purchase one, or several expensive dead trees, there was only one book, and we could either buy it for ourselves, or consult the copy, either after class, or on appointment. I remember few people did this, mostly people who had missed a few classes. The professor would cover pretty much the same topics in the book, with liberal paraphrases, comments and topical humor, and we had to keep up as we could with note-taking and lengthy question-and-answer sessions. Tests were essays where you had to prove you'd understood the basic material by supplying your own paraphrases, comments and topical examples, and at the end of class, your notes and corrected test pages formed a daughter of the original text -- a bit dry perhaps, but certainly not without its charms. (I remember having fun discovering how my notes could be formatted into pretty outlines.)

    Students tended to be an unruly lot, of every age and nation, and, although it was stated over and over, that the University was their new home and their new family, students (especially on the Continent) banded into fraternities, called "nations", according to quasi-geographical origin, to eat familiar foods together, sing sentimental songs, speak their own languages, and often, to fight the other nations in rumbles. (In Germany, these, after about a half-millenium of refinement, became the storied Corpsmen, with their ultimate test of mettle, the Mensur.) Not constrained (at least in theory) by vows of chastity or poverty, students found their recreation in local girls, picnicing and fishing, the bottle, and the pen, producing such works as "The Vigil of Venus", "On sleeping out-of-doors", and the "Carmina Burana". It seems a shame, as someone said, that no one had thought to invent or import the idea of coffee.

    A grand academic debate was a festive affair, and was often held out-of-doors. Though Latin was only a semi-intelligible language for most people who spoke French or Spanish (and for people who spoke Germanic languages, hardly intelligible at all) it was attended by both the Academy and the general public, to great interest, and was sometimes part of a courtly entertainment of masquing, jousting, song and dance. You must think about this as not just a dry debate how many angels can dance upon the head of a pin, but a grand affair, with the Doctors of the Academy seated in their robes, the Lords and Ladies in all their grandeur, such bits of finery as the merchant classes could find, and even common people, taking sides, championing favorites, cursing the Dean for not calling this or that infraction of the rules, and of course, betting on the outcome.

    "Resolved, in this University of Cologne, that the Virgin Mary has a throne, with arms, a back, a seat and legs, in Heaven. For the defense, we have Batchelor Abelard of the Sorbonne. For the challenger, we have Friar Benno, of Uppsala. Let the debate begin."

    Old Kyte, standing in the Commoner's Gallery, mutters "Can't say I've ever gone to school, but that there Benno is a-spoilin' for an ignoratio e-clench-i.", she says, making illustrative fists. Around her, there is laughter, and money, or promises to pay, changes hands rapidly: as cleaning lady to the dorms, she's not only fluent in Latin, Greek, and several other languages, but she's called the winner of every debate for -- well, as long as anyone can remember.

But what about the witch burnings, the persecution of scientists, censorship, all that we've been told was the work of a jealous Church against scholarship? That's all in the future, and is another story....

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