Pure love of learning, of course, was a less compelling motive
for those who became educated for careers other than teaching. Students of law in particular had a reputation for being materialistic careerists in an age when law was becoming known as “the lucrative science” and its successful practice the best means for rapid advancement in the government of both church and state. Medicine too had its profit-making attraction. Those who did not go on to law or medicine could, if they had been well trained in the arts, gain positions at royal courts or rise in the clergy. Eloquent testimony to the profit motive behind much of twelfth-century education was the lament of a student of Abelard around 1150 that “Christians educate their sons … for gain, in order that the one brother, if he be a clerk, may help his father and mother and his other brothers, saying that a clerk will have no heir and whatever he has will be ours and the other brothers.” With the opening of positions in law, government, and the church, education became a means for advancement not only in income but also in status. Most who were educated were wealthy, but in the twelfth century, more often than before, many were not and were able to rise through the ranks by means of their education. The most familiar examples are Thomas Becket, who rose from a humble background to become chancellor of England and then archbishop of Canterbury, and John of Salisbury, who was born a “plebeian” but because of his reputation for learning died as bishop of Chartres.
The instances of Becket and John of Salisbury bring us to the most difficult question concerning twelfth-century education: To what degree was it still a clerical preserve?
Despite the fact that throughout the twelfth century the clergy had a monopoly of instruction, one of the outstanding medievalists of our day, R. W. Southern, refers with good reason to the institutions staffed by the clergy as “secular schools.” How can we make sense out of the paradox that twelfth-century schools were clerical and yet “secular”?
Let us look at the clerical side first. Not only were all twelfth-century teachers except professional and craftsmen in church orders, but in northern Europe students in school had clerical status and looked like priests. Not that all really were priests, but by virtue of being students all were awarded the legal privileges accorded to the clergy. Furthermore, the large majority of twelfth-century students, outside of the possible exception of Italy, if not already priests became so after their studies were finished. For these reasons, the term “cleric” was often used to denote a man who was literate and the term “layman” one who was illiterate. The English word for cleric, clerk, continued for a long time to be a synonym for student or for a man who could write, while the French word clerc even today has the connotation of intellectual.
Despite all this, twelfth-century education was taking on many secular qualities in its environment, goals, and curriculum. Student life obviously became more secular when it moved out from the monasteries into the bustling towns. Most students wandered from town to town in search not only of good masters but also of worldly excitement, and as the twelfth century progressed they found the best of each in Paris. More important than environment was the fact that most students, even though they entered the clergy, had
secular goals. Theology was recognized as the “queen of the sciences,” but very few went on to it. Instead they used their study of the liberal arts as a preparation for law, medicine, government service, or advancement in the ecclesiastical hierarchy.
This being so, the curriculum of the liberal arts became more sophisticated and more divorced from religion. Teaching was still almost exclusively in Latin, and the first book most often read was the Psalter, but further education was no longer similar to that of a choir school. In particular, the discipline of rhetoric was transformed from a linguistic study into instruction in how to compose letters and documents; there was a new stress on logic; and in all the liberal arts and philosophy texts more advanced than those known in the early Middle Ages were introduced.
Along with the rise of logic came the translation of Greek and Arabic philosophical and scientific works. Most important was the translation of almost all the writings of Aristotle, as well as his sophisticated Arabic commentators, which helped to bring about an intellectual revolution based on Greek rationalism. On a more prosaic level, contact with Arabs resulted in the introduction in the twelfth century of the Arabic numeral system and the concept of zero. Though most westerners first resisted this and made crude jokes about the zero as an ambitious number “that counts for nothing and yet wants to be counted,” the system steadily made its inroads first in Italy and then throughout Europe, thereby vastly simplifying the arts of computation and record keeping.
What does the sentence “Christians educate their sons…will be ours and the other brothers” imply?