A climate of debate

A portrait of King Arthur in a copy of Geoffrey of Monmouth’s pseudo-historical chronicle in Paris,  BnF, lat 8501A (late 12th century).

Despite having access to the same sources and resources, and despite living in a climate that fostered conformity and homogeneity, Western medieval scholars developed a written culture of disputation, dissent and polemics. They reached different conclusions after reading the same works, critiqued each other, vied for having the last word on questions of philosophy, ethics and politics. There was agreement on fundamental issues, but much detail was left for authors to differ on.

In the 11th century, authors were debating calendar reform. Should the year begin on 1 January, or on the Annunciation, or even at Christmas? How old was the universe? Was Christ born on year 1 or some 20 years later? From England to Italy, authors picked up the pen to expound their ideas and critique those of others.

The literary legacy of the Greco-Roman world had never been cancelled in the West, despite some voices periodically calling for a clean break from the pagan past. The classics, those whose works survived the precarity of scribal culture and the frailty of literacy and education in post-Roman Europe, found a place in the curriculum of the medieval schools, whether monastic or secular. While the culture of the pre-Christian past was accepted, it wasn’t clear who was to be included in the canon and who wasn’t. Scholars debated that, too.

How far can sensational history go before it’s dismissed as fiction? Writing in the 12th century, the Welsh ‘historian’ Geoffrey of Monmouth presented King Arthur, Merlin and his world of knights and magic as a historical fact. He didn’t have to wait till the age of textual criticism for his ‘History of the Kings of Britain’ to be dismissed as pure fiction. His own contemporaries, such as the English historian William of Newburgh, rose against Geoffrey’s claim that the fantasy world he described was part of British history. William was furious, accusing Geoffrey of ‘inventing ridiculous fictions’, ‘unscrupulously promulgating mendacious prophecies of one Merlin’ as a ‘person ignorant of ancient history’. The frontal attack takes us to the heart of the medieval culture of disputation and polemical debate. To imagine the colourful world of the medieval West as a monochrome frame of plainchant-type thinking and writing is to fictionalise the past and miss out on a lot of exciting stuff.


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