The Salernitan Questions: An Introduction to the History of Medieval and Renaissance Problem Literature


It has long been known that Salerno was the birthplace and nursery of what has been called the scientific renaissance; that the masters there were the first, in the Latin West, to make use of the newly translated Aristotelian books, the libri naturales, in scientific and medical writings; and that, particularly during the twelfth century, the civitas Hippocratica became a centre for the diffusion of philosophical and scientific doctrines, as well as a school renowned far and wide for its medical teaching. Yet little attention has been paid to this other, more scientific, side of the school's activities. It is true that several of the writings of Urso of Calabria, perhaps the most influential master who flourished during the golden age of Salernitan learning, have been edited at one time or another. But his most voluminous and, in some respects, most important work, the De commixtionibus elementorum, still remains unedited and there exists no adequate critical study of his work as a whole, or of its subsequent influence on the scientific heritage of the West.

The Salernitan questions constitute a hitherto entirely unknown and unsuspected source for both the scientific and medical teaching at Salerno. Gradually increasing over the years and probably representing the work of several masters, by about 1200 they received additions, either by Urso himself or by a pupil, which distil the very essence of the master's thought; and the group, as a whole, gives the clearest picture that has yet emerged of exactly what was taught in the school at that time. The literary form used was the entirely didactic one of simple question and answer; concise, clear, easily memorized, this was the form used by both masters and pupils, and the one through which these particular doctrines were diffused throughout the length and breadth of Europe, as time went on.

Earlier constituents of the group, which had evidently existed long before the time of Urso, had influenced Adelard of Bath and, to an even greater extent, the Chartrian, William of Conches. About 1200 they were much utilized by Alexander Neckam, and it is probably these questions which supplied him with the greater part of his knowledge of natural philosophy, as displayed in his De natura rerum and the later De laudibus divinae sapientiae. The influence of the questions in England, in fact, seems to have been particularly strong.

The oldest and most voluminous text of the questions (Bodl. Auct. F. 3. 10) seems to have been copied, in an English hand, c. 1200, by a scholar who was in close touch with Hugh de Mapenore, later to become bishop of Hereford, and other members of the Hereford circle: also more than half of the manuscripts of this early group or family of questions, namely five out of nine, are of English provenance.

Additional information

Includes content by:
  • B. L.
Publisher: Place of publication:
  • Oxford
Publication year:
  • 1963


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