Part III.4. Literary genres (1/2)

Apart from the methods of teaching and research at the faculty of arts, another topic seemed of primary interest to me: the literary form in which the texts were written. Educated as philologist, I have always been attentive to the form in which concepts and ideas are formulated, with regard to the correctness of the expression as well as its form and aesthetic quality.

I am convinced that authors do not choose the form of their writings unconsciously; they inscribe their work in a tradition. Thus, the authors of philosophical commentaries wanting to explain in detail what Aristotle meant in his treatises naturally chose the expositio form for their work. In doing so, they followed an already long tradition. Others mixed the exposition with short questions –the last also being a traditional form -, still others established a new tradition: the commentary exclusively composed of disputed questions.

The form they chose includes a message, not to be ignored. One cannot isolate a sentence from a commentary without knowing if it is a traditional exposition or a questiones commentary containing parts dedicated to contrary arguments, for example.

Some authors create their own style: Albertus Magnus apparently preferred the cursive exposition (sententia), more or less rewriting Aristotle’s texts in a more readable form. Another example of an author carefully choosing the way to express his ideas is Adam of Buckfield, a popular commentator of the middle of the thirteenth century (see for instance III, 2).

As many scholars writing on medieval philosophy superbly ignore the literary forms of the writings they quote from, I thought it useful to provide an overview of the literary genres one encounters when reading the texts produced in the context of the faculty of arts. The small article resulting from this intention, “Les genres littéraires à la Faculté des arts”, judged too short by some but enthusiastically supported by Louis Jacques Bataillon, was published in the Revue des sciences philosophiques et théologiques in 1998 (see Publications, art. 32; reprinted with corrections in my collection of articles, see Book n° 20).


The genre of the commentaries


At the start, my study of literary forms primarily concerned the commentaries produced in the context of the arts faculty. The title of some articles attest to this, in particular the explicit “The Literary Forms of the Reception of Aristotle: Between Exposition and Philosophical Treatise”, a paper I presented during a congress on the reception of Aristotle, organised by Rega Wood and Ludwig Honnefelder in Bonn, in 2008. The proceedings appeared under the title Albertus Magnus und die Anfänge der Aristoteles-Rezeption im lateinischen Mittelalter, in 2015 (see List of publications, art. 53). The article entitled “La structure des commentaires philosophiques à la Faculté des arts: quelques observations”, is of course also related to the theme. It is the result of a paper given at a congress in Florence on the theme of the philosophical commentary in the Latin west (Il commento filosofico nell’occidente latino, organised by Claudio Leonardi, Gianfranco Fioravanti and others); the proceedings appeared in 2002 (see List of publications, art. 41; reprinted in Book n° 20).

A somewhat earlier publication: “The Evolution of the Trivium in University Teaching: The Example of the Topics” (see List of Publications, art. 37) treated the question how the literary form of the question-commentary contributed to the establishment of independent disciplines. Three commentaries on the Topics are compared with regard to four different passages. I reproduce the conclusion:




These four examples show that in the lectio-commentary (Adenulphus of Anagni, Notule Topicorum) everything serves the purpose of explaining, clarifying, or smoothing Aristotle’s text; everything, including the questiones or dubia, which mostly consist of a number of objections. There is one exception: for the important passage in the introduction which contains the definition of syllogism, Adenulphus discusses this matter in a question with a fuller argumentation. The other points are treated without formal discussion, each objection receiving a simple answer.

In the sententia-commentary (Angelus of Camerino, Sententia totius libri Topicorum) there is also a running explanation of the text together with a clarification of difficult points and of inconsistencies by means of inserted notanda and dubia. These are treated without argumentation. Sometimes the dubia introduce a point of doctrine not directly necessary in context, which may have been suggested by another master’s differing treatment of the text.

The questio-commentary (Boethius of Dacia, Questiones super librum Topicorum) clearly represents a transitional phase, for it also contains paraphrases of those parts of Aristotle’s text not dealt with in the questions. Still, it is essentially composed of questions, and these are real questiones, that is to say, they represent a very simple but complete form of the questio disputata: the statement of a problem, arguments for both sides, the solution and the refuting of arguments offered in behalf of the opposite opinion. Boethius’s commentary clearly arose as a redaction by its author (as is also proved by the insertion of paraphrases). Yet it must in some way also represent discussions held during his teaching, even if this represented only a simple disputation with his own students in his own classroom. Even if some later question-commentaries do not reflect actual disputation practice, they no doubt originated within the disputation part of lectures, which early on gave rise to independent disputations separated from the rest of the lecture. And, later question-commentaries, whether representative of actual performance as a disputation or not, employ similar structures and methods.

The questions in Boethius’s commentary in part relate directly to Aristode’s text and in part are meant to clarify it—but always by means of discussion and reasoning, and often touching upon more general points of doctrine. Some are only suggested by the text and are independent of it. Such questions deal with fundamental points of logical teaching and are meant not to explain Aristotle, but to discuss the contents of the discipline in general. Moreover, while in the lectio- and sententia-commentaries many small questions concern details from the whole portion of text dealt with, the questio- commentary concentrates on a limited number of questions broader in scope.

The questio-commentary therefore not only introduced formal discussion, but also raised questions of a more general nature—not to explain the text commented on and defend its author, but to discuss fundamental points of doctrine and to teach the basic principles of the discipline. The sententia-commentary seems to borrow and to incorporate some of these points, but without formal discussion, and is essentially devoted to a thorough literal explanation of Aristotle’s text. Questio-commentary, with a small number of broader questions, and sententia-commentary, with many questions of detail concerning the whole text, thus complement each other in the teaching of the Topics and provide, in the second half of the thirteenth century, a differing but no less satisfying treatment than that provided by the lectio-commentary.

We may conclude that the change has come by way of the questio- commentary. The disputatio not only brought formal change; it also modified the nature of the questions. Instead of asking whether Aristotle was right to say this, or how to harmonize this statement with a passage taken from another work, or whether the subjects were being treated in the right place, questions of a different kind arose, more fundamental and touching upon essential points: for instance, what is the difference between a conclusion and a syllogism? does the definition apply to the thing itself or to the intentio? is every property immediate to its subject?

I do not say that the disputatio was responsible for the change or the development of particular points of doctrine. In fact, as Green-Pedersen has shown, differences in the teaching of the topics between the twelfth and the thirteenth century were evident already in the lectio-commentaries of the first half of the thirteenth century. The disputatio, rather, brought about a different approach, modifying the methods and character of the discipline by separating it from the direct explanation of texts. Grabmann and Van Steenberghen did not touch the heart of the matter when they said that these more independent questions represented a kind of digression which permitted masters to deal with the favorite themes of their time.

To summarize, the disputatio, as shown by the questio-commentary, seems to have given rise to the birth of a systematic discipline. Here teaching is still based on texts, but at the same time surpasses these texts. This must be verified by other examples, drawn from other disciplines. Some historians have underlined the more speculative character of theological questions; to quote Father Chenu:

L’on voit maintenant que la multiplication et l’intensification des quaestiones n’étaient pas que le renforcement et la normalisation scolaire de la dialectique dans la lecture des textes; elles impliquent un déplacement dans l’objet même de la curiosité et du travail du théologien: non plus curiosité textuelle sous la lumière de foi, mais problème extra-scripturaire, spéculatif, dont l’Ecriture n’était que le support, et dont les structures n’avaient rien à voir avec l’exégèse, ses lois grammaticales ou mème dialectiques. Ainsi ce ne sont plus les seules règles de la dialectique qui sont en jeu, mais bien une technique de la démonstration, on va dire bientôt de la science (M.-D. Chenu, La héologie comme science au XIIIe siècle, Paris 1957, p. 25).


Example of a beautiful Aristotle manuscript with the beginning of the Physics



For the arts faculty, questiones treating other parts of dialectic, grammar, and other disciplines must be studied to see whether the teaching method of the medieval university called disputation, was in practice the essential factor in the development of speculative and systematic disciplines.



Pour tourner la page, appuyez sur la flèche droite de votre clavier d’ordinateur ou cliquez sur l’icône suivant situé en haut à gauche.