Teaching magic was what the medieval university did: incomprehensible languages, alchemic potions, and reading.
Modern education starts somewhere in the 11th century – so long ago, no one is even sure of the exact year – at the University of Bologna. The universities were an outgrowth of the medieval cathedral schools, which trained young boys to be priests and to fill other clerical duties. That is an important insight: clerk, cleric, and clergy are all related words, and all originated from the same educational traditions.
The great research tool of the medieval university was the book. Buying a book today for a few dollars, or even reading a free book on-line, would have been incomprehensible to the medieval scholar. All books at the time were handwritten and handmade, often gorgeously lettered on vellum, a durable writing surface made from calf skin.1)‘Vellum’ is related to the word ‘veal.’ The preparation of the vellum, the laying out of the book, the tedious but exacting copying of the words and letters, and the adding of painted colors, gilt, and other illuminations, was slow work; it might take a monk two years to make a book. A Bible could easily require decades, even a career.
Now the clergy weren’t rocket scientists by any means, but they were the closest thing available in that day. They were the best-trained intellectuals and the brightest minds the medieval world offered. As monastics, of course, their payment consisted of nothing more than food, a few pieces of clothing, and a tiny chamber with a hard, cold bed. But for the sake of comparison, let us say their time was as valuable as that of an engineer today.
The average annual salary for a modern civil engineer is $90K. So for an idea of the two years of labor to make a book, think $180K. But then remember that, like any well-run business, the monastery had overhead and needed to generate some excess above that price, to cover buildings, fuel, administration, care for sick and elderly members, et al. Looked at in that way, by today’s standards a modest book might be worth a half million dollars. But that was a typical book; a Bible would cost many times that.
You can begin to understand why cathedrals and monasteries carefully guarded and protected books, which might be encased in metal and chained down. It also explains why Bibles were often adorned with silver or gold, and encrusted with precious jewels.
Obviously, lowly cathedral and university students couldn’t be allowed to handle such expensive items. So students sat and listened to someone read books aloud, a priest or other teacher who the authorities trusted to handle such a treasure. The Latin verb for ‘to read/to recite’ is lego, the past participle of which is lectus. Students sat in classrooms and listened to ‘lecturers.’ In England, in fact, the universities still call them ‘readers.’
In the lecture, students wrote down what they heard, and then turned the notes into their own cheap, abbreviated versions of the book. With time, university towns generated entire industries focusing on transcribing lectures, rewriting them, even binding them for the students.
The Lingua Franca
University students came from all over Europe, perhaps even further, and spoke many, many more languages than exist today. Each region had, at the very least, a distinct dialect of the dominant language of the larger country, and some regions had completely different, unrelated languages (we still cannot identify the origins of modern Basque and Finnish). So they needed a universal language was necessary. Hellenized Roman Jews led the early church after Titus destroyed Jerusalem, so the primary Medieval language was Latin, and the secondary language was Greek. Like all medical students, I struggled to master an enormous, vocabulary based on obscure Latin and ancient Greek. The irony is that early anatomists actually gave anatomical features and diseases the most obvious names they could think of.
It’s just that they thought in Latin and Greek.2)I took Latin in high school, and picked up the rudiments of Greek letters and words along the way; with a great reference on scientific roots, I estimate that I was able to memorize medical terms in less than half the time as most of my classmates.
All of this may seem tame, even boring to the modern reader. Nevertheless, it was the rocket science of its day. Or more than that: to the illiterate commoner it was all incomprehensible. The universities were teaching magic.
To look at a piece of paper and know what the king had said, what the outcome of a battle was, what happened long ago – or, most impressive of all, to know what God said and meant – was magic. Consider that our tropes about magicians such as Merlin, Gandalf, and even Harry Potter come from the university lecturer. He was teaching magic.
The academic wore a long-sleeved academic gown and a pointed hat. He carried a wand, for pointing to words in a book or formulas on a slate, or for directing musicians (hence the conductor’s baton). He muttered magical phrases in obscure Latin, Greek, and Hebrew. The incomprehensible Latin prayers and incantations from books gives us the phrase, ‘to cast a spell’. Scholars suspect that both ‘hocus pocus’ and ‘abracadabra’ originated in the scholastic medieval languages. And he used cabalistic symbols. These overlapped between astrology and alchemy, describing the stars that govern our fates, and magical esoteric mixtures.
And medieval scholastics added greatly to the magical aspects of their activities by publishing curses for those who didn’t return books.
These concepts and approaches dominated the medieval university. As we shall see in upcoming posts, they still heavily influence our modern concepts of education.
Continue reading: Rote/Wrote, Memorization vs Education.
Picture of ‘Chi Rho’ from The Book of Kells courtesy of Wikicommons.org.
Picture of the Codex Aureus of St. Emmeram also courtesy of Wikicommons.org.
Footnotes [ + ]
|1.||↑||‘Vellum’ is related to the word ‘veal.’|
|2.||↑||I took Latin in high school, and picked up the rudiments of Greek letters and words along the way; with a great reference on scientific roots, I estimate that I was able to memorize medical terms in less than half the time as most of my classmates.|