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University of Basel

From notes to text

Florian Wöller, Ueli Zahnd

All that now survives of most medieval academic debates is their end product, either as a book or in the stylized form of a socalled disputation. However, thanks to a case recorded at Basel University Library, we can now track in detail what happened at one such disputation and how the participants prepared for it. From this, it is clear that medieval text production was not all that different from what it is today.

Drafts and notes on the thesis of Heynlin’s magna ordinaria (image: Universitätsbibliothek Basel, Sign. A VII 13, fol. 183v–184r).
Drafts and notes on the thesis of Heynlin’s magna ordinaria (image: Universitätsbibliothek Basel, Sign. A VII 13, fol. 183v–184r). © Universitätsbibliothek Basel

When we study the history of late medieval thought at a 21stcentury university, in a way we are studying ourselves. In the period from the 13th to the 16th century, the main activities at educational institutions were thinking, teaching, and writing, as is the case today, so some medieval inventions and practices live on in our own institutions and ways of working. One very obvious survival of this kind is the university itself, of course. It is a medieval invention – in Basel’s case, the university was actually founded during the Middle Ages. Then as now, universities were centers of teaching and discussion, and then as now this teaching activity led to the writing of books.

Unknown production processes

In contemporary academia, we see on a daily basis how essays and books come to be written. We discuss initial ideas, watch projects grow and eventually note that they have resulted in a book. Often we just check the preface quickly to see whether our colleagues have included us in the acknowledgements. We know what the book is about; we were there to witness its genesis, after all. In the case of texts written during the late Middle Ages, the situation is reversed. We read the finished product with care and attention, but we are cut off from the process that led to it. Initially, we can get a handle only on the work itself, not on the process that gave rise to it.

This is also true of a particular medieval form of debate – the disputation. Disputations were held on a regular basis – on major church feast days, for example – and formed part of the assessment process. The candidate proposed a set of propositions for debate, while a colleague of around the same age formulated opposing propositions. Both then argued against each other and tried to prove the respective opponent wrong. In the late Middle Ages, candidates often adopted the stance of an earlier great thinker, whom they sought to defend against their colleague’s objections. At the end, the outcome of the disputation was determined by a “magister”, who also judged whether the candidate had acquitted himself well enough to pass the exam. These disputations were often the result of long periods of preparation. In many cases it would be helpful to know what those involved, as it would improve our understanding of university life and the genesis of academic works. Fortunately, there is one peculiar case whose records have survived at Basel University Library (UB). From this, we can reconstruct precisely not just what happened at a disputation but how the candidate prepared for it. The documents thus give us a vivid sense of how universities operated at the time, allowing us to peer over the shoulder of a late medieval academic.

A disciple of Thomas Aquinas

The documents in question are part of the estate of Johannes Heynlin, who was born around 1430 in Stein, near Pforzheim, and died in 1496 in Basel. Heynlin led a fascinatingly varied life. Although firmly rooted in the practices of medieval scholasticism – he was particularly devoted to the thought of Thomas Aquinas – from 1470 he ran France’s first humanist printing house, based in Paris. He held senior administrative positions at several universities but was also a monk, withdrawing to the seclusion of Kleinbasel’s Carthusian monastery towards the end of his life.

Heynlin owes his place in the history of Basel to the leading role he played during the early years of the university (1464–1466), when he insisted on the introduction of a curriculum indebted to his great role model Thomas Aquinas. He also left his mark on the city through his position as preacher at the cathedral. Above all, however, he was a collector and lover of books; not only did he build up a personal library comprising numerous manuscripts and printed books (the contents of which would eventually pass to the university library, via Basel’s Carthusian monastery), but he was a meticulous collector of his own works and notes.

Heynlin assembled most of the records from the time of his academic activity in two volumes held at the university library: a small-format volume (A VII 13), which includes a wide range of different documents, and a volume in somewhat larger format (A VI 12) containing mainly disputations. Since pages are arranged by format rather than chronologically or by content, pages dealing with the same event appear in both volumes.

On the confession of sin

Both volumes, therefore, contain texts dealing with the question of whether the confession of sin is necessary for salvation, if a sin has already been wiped away by previous repentance. Although today we may find this question disconcerting, dealing as it does with things necessary and, indeed, the obligation to take part in a religious ritual, it was one that went to the heart of late medieval piety. For believers at the time, the issue of precisely how individuals could achieve salvation was an urgent concern – just a few decades later, Martin Luther would trigger the Reformation by asking how we can conceive of a merciful God. The stance taken on the importance of confession also had very concrete implications for everyday religious practice: If repentance was enough, was there any need to go to confession at all? However, scholars were in disagreement on the issue. Unlike Thomas Aquinas, who readily conceded that repentance could take away the burden of sin, there were those such as Duns Scotus, another great scholastic theologian, who denied this was possible through repentance alone.

Heynlin’s scattered notes on the question appear in two different places in the small-format volume and on 13 pages, bound together, in the large-format one. Still, reading these notes today, we are confronted with a confused picture. The handwriting of at least two theologians, besides Heynlin, appears on the pages in the large-format volume. Eight subsections can be identified in total, but not all of them revolve around the need for confession; some deal with the opposite question, the need for repentance. In the small-format volume, both the two scattered collections of notes on the confession issue and the intervening material are in Heynlin’s hand, but the material is highly diverse in terms of form. Alongside pages full of disorganized notes, we find there two bigger units, divided up into subchapters, on the topic of penance.

Academics today will be familiar with this sort of jumble. Anyone who gathers up the material that went into producing an essay they have just finished will also find themselves with a disparate collection of notes, drafts and copies. One suspects that in Heynlin’s case we are dealing with a similar collection, a suspicion reinforced by three prominent references that appear in the material. One of the sections in the larger volume bears the heading magna ordinaria. Another section in the same volume – one of the sections that are not written by Heynlin – is headed Petrus de Belloponte, while the words ex Thomae are noted down twice in one of the two clearly subdivided units in the small-format volume.

Paris, fall semester of 1469/1470

The first reference, to the magna ordinaria, takes us to the fall semester of 1469/1470 at the Paris faculty of theology. Heynlin was then an advanced doctoral student, a baccalaureus formatus, having already completed a synopsis of theology in the usual form of a “commentary on the Sentences”. During Heynlin’s lifetime, commentaries of this sort by all the great scholastic theologians were available, so it comes as no surprise that in his own synopsis he followed the commentary of his great role model, Thomas Aquinas, almost word for word. However, to complete his doctorate Heynlin still had to prove himself in a few disputations. One of these mandatory disputations was called the magna ordinaria, because it took place in regular term time, during the longer semester in the fall.

Against this backdrop, it is easy to identify the first four sections in the large-format volume as individual parts of this magna ordinaria – in other words, as the end product of what Heynlin was clearly preparing himself for. The first part introduces the subject of the disputation; in the second, Heynlin presents his own theses; in the third, he reproduces his opponent’s arguments; and in the fourth, he refutes these counter-arguments. Thus, we have here the typical elements of a classic disputation in finished form.

But what is contained in the other four sections in the large-format volume that are bound together with this disputation? Here, the second reference provides a further clue, as Petrus de Belloponte was one of Heynlin’s fellow students and a prominent defender of Duns Scotus, Thomas Aquinas’s adversary. The Scotist Belloponte had already taken part in his own magna ordinaria, making him a suitable opponent in Heynlin’s disputation. Sections 6 to 8 in the large-format volume are, in fact, nothing other than Belloponte’s magna ordinaria – they appear under his name and are structured in the same way as Heynlin’s disputation. The counter-arguments in section 7 come from a further person – namely, the opponent in Petrus’s earlier disputation – accounting for why this section is written in a third hand. Conversely, it now becomes clear what section 5 is: the misplaced original of Belloponte’s counter-arguments at Heylin’s disputation, reproduced by Heynlin as part 3 of his fair copy of the disputation.

Papers from the opposition

Clearly, then, as preparation for his disputation, Heynlin had obtained the papers from his opponent’s “magna ordinaria”, to give him a sense of the arguments Petrus would use. We can now also categorize the texts inserted between the two sections of notes on the question of confession in the smallformat volume as preparatory material of this sort. The note ex Thomae suggests that they include excerpts from texts by Thomas Aquinas, and one section is indeed made up of extracts from Aquinas’s most important theological work, the Summa theologiae, supplemented by passages from other works. However, the second well-structured section in the small-format volume, which also presents relevant passages from a source text, is more interesting, as these are not taken from Thomas Aquinas. Rather, they are quotes excerpted by Heynlin, the great Thomist, from texts by Thomas’s adversary Duns Scotus; that is to say, texts whose contents he had to take on board if he wanted to be able to match his opponent Petrus de Belloponte.

From this scattered material, we can reconstruct how Heynlin prepared for his great disputation and what it resulted in. Knowing who his opponent would be, Heynlin not only got hold of Petrus’s magna ordinaria but also took on the thinker who served as his main inspiration. Heynlin was so pleased by the results that he even went to the trouble of making a fair copy of the whole disputation. There is much in his approach that the modern reader will find familiar, from his strategic preparation to his delight at the finished work and disorganized filing of his research material. It would seem that the way in which academics go about producing texts has not changed fundamentally.

Dr. des. Florian Wöller is Senior Assistant in Ecclesiastical History and History of Theology; Professor Ueli Zahnd is Associate Professor of the History of Medieval Philosophy at the University of Basel.

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