A Window Into the Medieval Academy

by Jude Russo ’16

Some things have changed a great deal in form since the twelfth century. The university is not one of them. This summer, I’ve had the pleasure of working for the Dumbarton Oaks Medieval Library editing two texts: John of Hauville’s Architrenius (translated by Winthrop Wetherbee) and the anonymous Tria sunt (translated by Martin Camargo), which both provide fascinating windows into the academia of what we call the “High Middle Ages.” What is truly surprising about the picture they paint is not its foreignness, but rather how instantly recognizable it is as our own academic world.

The Architrenius is a late twelfth-century cosmological epic about a young academic named Architrenius—“the Archweeper”—who, having come to terms with his own flawed person, seeks out Nature personified to complain to her for giving birth to such an imperfect son. His journey is a series of tableaux presenting a grim picture of twelfth-century society: students starve and are despised for their learning while the wealthy buy influence at court. Images are disconnected and the narrative jumps from scene to scene without much explanation or transition.

This quality is often cited as a weakness in John’s work, but I think that it furnishes the Architrenius with a dreaminess that characterizes so much of human experience. Architrenius is a man without narrative. He is moved from place to place without much real agency. He is a man whose sensitivity fails to goad him from passivity to action. He suffers, but does not become a sympathetic figure through his suffering. In short, the Architrenius makes the perfect gift for any young Harvardian in your life (copies available in the COOP pending publication).


Architrenius? Is that you?


The other text with which I’m working, the Tria sunt, is a late fourteenth-century rhetorical manual composed of clippings from earlier treatises and elaborations on those clippings by the anonymous Oxonian monk who compiled them. Drawing on diverse sources, ancient and contemporary to himself, the compiler produced a quick-and-dirty guide to the elaborate, philologically intense literary style of the time. The Tria sunt gives the lie to the popular conception of the Middle Ages as an aesthetically barren period characterized by nebbish tonsured men bickering about minor points of angelology. Instead, your average medieval cleric-student was expected to be able to produce heavily ornamented prose and poetic works more or less on demand. The Tria sunt was his helpful crib sheet of techniques to use. Much of its particular attraction lies in the fact that it gives insight into the texts that were available to and favored by the English academics of the time, much as a Harvard class’s course pack would give insight to some future scholars studying the Late American period.

Each text has had varied fortunes. The Architrenius was well-known and well-loved within a generation of its composition—in fact, the Tria sunt singles it out for particularly fulsome praise—and, while perhaps less familiar today than the allegories of Bernard Sylvester or Alan of Lille, has had an interesting afterlife as one of the few medieval works that Gibbon cites positively. The Tria sunt, on the other hand, has remained consistently obscure, failing to become a major textbook outside the sphere of Oxford. These two works—one polished and widely circulated, one ad hoc and provincial—provide together a fascinating and surprisingly full picture of the medieval intellectual landscape and its arresting similarities to our own.

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