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The Neglect of the Ancient Classics at the Early Medieval Universities

The Neglect of the Ancient Classics at the Early Medieval Universities

By Louis J. Paetow

Transactions of the Wisconsin Academy of Sciences, Arts and Letters, Volume XVI, Part I, No. 4 (1908)

Introduction: Not a single one of the ancient classics is prescribed in the statutes of the various universities of Europe of the thirteenth and fourteenth centuries. The history of universities, especially the internal history, can not be read solely from the statutes, and hence it would be rash to conclude from such evidene that during this time no university student or master ever opened Virgil or Horace. Nevertheless, the silence of the statutes forcibly emphasizes the well established truth that the ancient authors were seriously neglected at the early medieval universities.

This striking phenomenon has attracted much attention ever since the time of the first Italian humanists. In accounting for it many serious writers have entirely misinterpreted medieval culture and education. Until recently it was customary to dismiss the subject by dwelling upon the utter barrenness of classical, as well as of all other lay learning in the Middle Ages, and thus intimate that nothing better could have been expected from the work at the universities. Today no competent scholar would pronounce such a verdict. The term “Twelfth Century Renaissance” is becoming a familiar phrase, and is finding its way into hand-books and text-books. An important phase of this earlier Renaissance was a revival of the ancient classics.

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