The Silent Masters: Latin Literature and Its Censors in the High Middle Ages

The Silent Masters: Latin Literature and Its Censors in the High Middle Ages

The Silent Masters: Latin Literature and Its Censors in the High Middle Ages

The Silent Masters: Latin Literature and Its Censors in the High Middle Ages


In the tension between competing ideas of authority and the urge to literary experiment, writers of the High Middle Ages produced some of their most distinctive achievements. This book examines these themes in the high culture of Western Europe during the eleventh and twelfth centuries, showing how the intimate links between the writer and the censor, the inquisitor and the intellectual developed from metaphors, at the beginning of the period, to institutions at its end. All Latin texts--from Peter Abelard to Bernard of Clairvaux, from the Archpoet to John of Salisbury and Alan of Lille--are translated into English, and discussed both in terms of their literary qualities and in relation to the cultural history of the High Middle Ages. Not a proto-Renaissance but part of a continuity that reached into the Reformation, the eleventh and twelfth centuries witnessed a transformation of the writer's role. With a combination of literary, philological, and historical methods, Peter Godman sets the work of major intellectuals during this period in a new light.


CELIO CALCAGNINI, friend of Erasmus and inspiration of Rabelais, was a diplomat and a soldier, a poet and a professor in the course of his active life (1479–1541). His interests ranged from Aristotle's meteorology to the ethnography of the Ukraine and the game of chess. He composed a verse encomium on laughter, a prose invective against heresy, and a lively tract on the theory of imitation, from which the epigraph to this book is taken. Always curious, never complacent, Calcagnini wrote much and published little. Would a study of this singular humanist not be more instructive, more amusing than a monograph on an array of medieval masters, silent or otherwise?

No, no, replies the medievalist. Speaking about the High Middle Ages, we are discussing humanism. Was there not a renaissance in the twelfth century? Do not the rebirth of science, the revival of scholarship, the recovery of the classics point to the emergence, much earlier than Jacob Burckhardt thought, of humanist culture? Each of these metaphors implies a turningback to standards set by antiquity; each of them was used by the humanists of the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries to denigrate their medieval predecessors. Direct alignment between the achievements of the classical past and the aspirations of the Renaissance present naturally entailed imposing a caesura between them—naturally, because before there can be rebirth, there must be death.

From beyond the grave to which their period was consigned by this crude but tenacious ideology of renaissance, the voices of revolting medievalists were lifted in protest. Humanism, by a fatal symmetry, counted among the first of their slogans. Adopted to combat the tyranny of an alien model, it has merely served to strengthen its hold. Nor, despite the strain displayed by such weary rhetoric, is there any indication that it is soon to be laid to rest. Still alive and kicking itself into contortions of paradox, it has recently produced something called, in defiance of oxymoron, “scholastic humanism,” from which it derives the unification of Europe.

Neither Europe's unity nor any other cause is advanced by the muddled humbug of humanism. Why not jettison such ballast? Sinking beneath the weight of its anachronism, unmissed and unmourned, it leaves us free to consider the twelfth century in its own terms. They were different from those of the fifteenth. Take a central issue on which comparisons, favorable and less flattering, have been drawn between them: the imitation of the classics. In the last sentence of his work on that subject quoted in the epigraph, Calcagnini likens himself and his contemporaries to children. Although they might grow and develop, their relationship to the ancients . . .

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