Scholastic Lectures and Disputes

Once upon a time, all bishops were responsible for schooling their clergy in their households, and most monks were schooled in their home convents. When things got bigger, you got the Irish monastic schools (able to school many monks from many different abbeys all at once) and cathedral schools (able to school more seminarians and young kids than the bishop could do alone). The medieval universities were founded as an extension of the cathedral schools, and quickly became monastic schools too. Just as with Ireland’s monastic schools, the presence of a large number of learned teachers then attracted teachers and students from other disciplines, like law and medicine. Textbook “factories” employing large numbers of lay scribes (many female) and other support services followed.

The basic format for Scholastic teaching was the lecture and the dispute.

In a lecture (lectio), a teacher would read out a passage from the Bible or an author being studied, and then he would talk about the passage. This might involve reading passages from commentaries by other people, or from other authors. The students were responsible for taking notes on the material and thinking about it; this was meditatio. (As textbook factories made the standard texts cheaper and colleges made sharing easier, students would also read their own copies of the textbook and related materials, like the Bible and the Fathers.) Finally, the students would return to class for a period of quaestio at which they could question the teacher about what they had learned (or not learned). This cycle repeated over and over in classes.

(Students paid lecturers directly, so a bad teacher would find himself with no students and no income. He would still have room and board at his college, which was what colleges were invented for – to house and regulate teachers. Monastic students were housed by area monasteries, and local diocesan students were housed by their bishop. When friars came along, they stayed in friaries. All other students were responsible for their own rooms and used rentals in the area, although some colleges slowly began to provide room and board for students too.)

One of the basic texts used to teach theology was the Sentences (Sententiae) by Peter Lombard. The original meaning of “Sententiae” is something like “words of wisdom” or “maxims.” In this case, Peter Lombard took various sayings from famous authors and discussed them. By following his discussion and that of their teacher, the students learned basic theology. All young theology professors had to write up a commentary on the Sentences, so we have a lot of commentaries in existence by professors who showed their brilliance early (like Aquinas).

In a disputation (disputatio), students or teachers or both argued points against each other. As with debates today, a statement would be proposed, with one debater for it and the other against. Generally the negative guy would argue first, and the positive guy would respond to his arguments. Often the positive guy would form propositions from his argument. Then the negative guy would respond, and so on. You could also have sub-arguments about definition of terms, basic concepts, and anything else that might be related. Disputations could involve formal logic, but they didn’t have to. There was no need to go back to the beginning and prove everything, unless one of the opponents wanted to go there. Since they were usually talking about religious subjects, and since both opponents were supposed to be well-read, there was no problem using passages of the Bible or the Fathers or other authorities as support for arguments. The other side was going to do the same thing. If you were arguing a topic that made the authorities inappropriate witnesses, your opponent would bring that up, too. Medieval students loved this, and so they did practice disputations outside class, too. All the sources agree that they argued over everything (when they weren’t busy studying, drinking, singing, or trying to meet the wrong kind of women).

Some university professors were so fond of debate that they would do a “quodlibet,” a session where they would answer or argue any question proposed (usually by students). In the first session, the students asked, the teacher responded, and the students rebutted what he’d said. The next day, the teacher recapped all the arguments, and responded definitively to the students. An enthusiastic professor like Alexander of Hales is known to have done this often, and the notes taken at these sessions and transcribed into book form take up thousands of pages in his collected works.

The relectio was popular in Spain. It was a sort of merging of both the lectio and the quaestio, as a professor publicly presented arguments for and against his own set of questions, with the whole university listening with interest. A relectio usually covered important or interesting points under dispute in a subject currently being taught. Again, you’re not going to find the prof going back to the beginning and defining everything, because he’s dealing with topics in a restricted way. The groundwork has already been laid in classes.

Which brings us to On Magic (De Magia), a relectio presented by Friar Francisco de Vitoria in 1540 and now available in English for the first time, in a translation by me! Check it out!

You can also read 1917 public domain translations of his two most famous and influential relectiones, “De Indiis” (On the Indians) and “De Jure Bellis” (On the Law of War) as part of a series of legal eagle books here. It’s also available on Wikisource.

All of his legal/political relectiones are available in non-public domain translation in Vitoria: Political Writings by Anthony Pagden and Jeremy Lawrance. Google Books preview here.

Here’s a list of a few other books he published in his lifetime. (Of course I didn’t find this until just now, so I will have to amend the foreword to On Magic. Folks who already bought the book will have it emended automagically by Amazon when I get it out.) These are all pretty minor works, so it’s not surprising that they seem to have slipped under the scholarly radar.

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