200. Jill Kraye and John Marenbon on Medieval Philosophy

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We celebrate reaching episode 200 with a special double interview on the problem of defining medieval philosophy.



Further Reading

• J. Kraye (ed.), The Cambridge companion to Renaissance Humanism (Cambridge:  1996).
• J. Kraye, Classical Traditions in Renaissance Philosophy (Aldershot: 2002).
• J. Marenbon (ed.), The Routledge History of Philosophy: The Middle Ages (London: 1998).
• J. Marenbon, Medieval Philosophy: an Historical and Philosophical Introduction (London: 2007).



roman prychidko on 30 November 2014

200th birthday

Congratulations Peter on your double century
Giving substance to form
Within divinities sanctuary
Consistently rigorous from a philosophical dawn

John Leake on 1 December 2014


I was intrigued by John's comment that Boetheus was not read before the tenth century. Does he mean Boetheus absolutely, as a philosopher or as a translator of Aristotle? (BTW hope you do Byzantine philosophy before Ficino).

In reply to by John Leake

Peter Adamson on 2 December 2014


I think he means both. My understanding is that for logic they are mostly reading things like the Ps-Augustinian "On the Ten Categories" and the dialectical sections of works by authors such as Martianus Capella. Boethius' translations and commentaries start to take off in the 11th century especially and become totally central by the 12th.

And yes, I'm doing Byzantine following this series on Latin medieval (the full plan is explained in episode 196).

Artem Kaznatcheev on 17 January 2015

Oxford Calculators and mathematical medicine

I wanted to focus in on a passing comment that Jill Kraye made in passing during this episode. She said (around 26:00 mark): "[T]he Merton school, which was a very technical mathematical school of natural philosophy in 14th century England; they applied mechanical ideas to medicine". I was not familiar with the Merton school -- Oxford Calculators seems to be their more common name, now -- and so I did some searching. It does seem that they did make some fascinating mathematizations of thought-experiments typical of that time in physics, but I was not able to find a discussion of their application mechanical ideas to medicine. Could you point me to a -- hopefully secondary -- source on this? Also, will you discuss the Oxford Calculators (and especially they connection to medicine) in later episodes? I would be very interested to learn more about this. Thank you!

In reply to by Artem Kaznatcheev

Peter Adamson on 17 January 2015

Oxford Calculators

Yes, I do have an episode planned on them, though of course not for a while since I'm still in the 12th century. I don't know anything helpful on this topic but I'll see if I can get Prof Kraye to add a comment.

In reply to by Peter Adamson

Peter Adamson on 17 January 2015


Here's some helpful info from Jill Kraye herself: Roger French does *briefly* explain why the intension and remission of forms was of interest to physicians, in a passage from his *Medicine before Science* which is available on Google Books: http://tinyurl.com/menynyz

And Katharine Park, in her *Doctors and Medicine in Early Renaissance Florence*, says that Florentine medical students were immersed in the work of northern European logicians, including Richard Swineshead (the 'Calculator'): http://tinyurl.com/nn6lmng

Charlie Barnett on 23 January 2015

The Darkness of Medieval Philosophy

Dear Peter,
As a layman with a limited background in philosophy, I have thoroughly enjoyed your brilliant podcast, especially the classical and later antiquity period. I confess I took a break during the Islamic section but am back and eager to get into the Middle Ages.
My issue is that I just don't buy the revisionist view that the medieval period was not the "Dark Ages". Perhaps Dark Ages is too strong a term, but certainly "Darker Ages", when compared with Classical and Enlightment philosophy, would apply.
Here's the way I see it. Let's define light as knowledge by reason and observation (hence the "Enlightenment") and darkness as knowledge based on belief and revelation. In this way, medieval philosophy is darker because so much of it derives from the former and not the latter. It is clouded by the bias of religion and theology.
Let's start with the first great medieval philosopher, Augustine. It seems to me that Augustine's religious beliefs darkened his philosophy. He had to believe before he could understand anything. Rather than develop rational thought as a way to arrive at a philosophical conclusion, he starts with a conclusion (i.e. the Trinity) derived from faith and revelation, and then uses reason as a tool to justify his belief. He puts his religious cart before the philosphical horse!
Some examples: Augustine points out the absurdities of paganism, yet his writings are chock-full of absurd religious assumptions that have no basis in reason. He assumes the Trinity is something real rather that an arbitrary construct developed by a bunch of arguing theologians. He asserts that good sheepish Christians die and relocate to the City of God. He sees Constantine as the paradigm of virtue merely because he was a Christian and ignores the fact that the first emperor of the Faith murdered nearly his entire family and was as monstrous and prideful as Nero and Commodus.
Of course, the philosophers we're about to hear from lived long after Augustine left town for the City of God. So he may not be all that representive of their approach.
And I do take heart in your mention of the "epistemological showdown" of the 13th century, with Aristotle arriving on the medieval scene to shed some empirical light into the darkness of faith-based knowledge.
Finally, I look forward to having my particularly biased view of medieval thought challenged, and maybe even revised, in future episodes.
Thanks again for such an "enlightening" podcast!

In reply to by Charlie Barnett

Peter Adamson on 24 January 2015

Medieval rationality

Yes, I think a lot of people feel the way you do about medieval philosophy, and as you anticipate that is something I am going to try to challenge in the coming episodes. In fact though what I'll be trying to show is not that the medievals were all super-rationalist; but that we find a range of attitudes to reason in the medieval period. You have people like, say, Abelard or the Latin Averroists who think that everything can be done with reason - Abelard thinks you can use reason to demonstrate the Trinity, for instance, and even that the pagan philosophers basically figured it out without help from revelation. But then you have people like Abelard's opponent Bernard of Clairvaux, who wanted to clamp down on scholastics who were arrogantly using reason beyond its proper scope. On the other hand even Bernard was not exactly opposed to reason, he supported study of the liberal arts. Probably the mainstream view is Augustine's, which you mention: you start from faith but then you use reason to explore what you believe. Anselm is a good early example, this is something I discuss with Eileen Sweeney in the interview with her.

Overall, I would say that although there was a range of views on this, mostly what you have is a continuum from fervent rationalism (Abelard etc) to moderate rationalism - you hardly ever see outright anti-rationalism in the medieval period. (Maybe only some mystical thinkers believed that reason needs to be abandoned completely.) There is a good reason for this, which is that medieval intellectuals assumed that reason is a gift from God and our primary means of coming to understand God and His creation. So actually, I think they would be totally bewildered by the notion that there is a tension between religion and reason - rather, the two go hand in hand and are mutually supporting.

In reply to by Charlie Barnett

George Henry Watson on 25 November 2022

Augustine and the Medieval Period

Mr. Barnett,

You have terribly misconstrued Augustine and most of the Medieval Thinkers.

Augustine's writings on the Trinity is one of the greatest achievements in Philosophy.

The Intellectual fires continued to burn after Rome fell.

Augustine noted that most Kings/Emperors were just the leaders of organised gangs that took political control.

You would profit by updating your limited knowledge of Augustine and the Medieval period, I hope Peter's pod-casts help you do so.

Alex on 7 February 2015

Gratitude and Some Thoughts

Dear Peter (and John and Jill and others),

Thank you so much for all your hard work on this podcast -- certainly my favorite and my most listened to podcast in philosophy, and in general. I eagerly anticipate all the printed volumes of your history of philosophy and currently use your podcasts in my teaching (students have reported they really like them).

I was listening to this double podcast and interview with Jill and John. I was struck by three things:

1. The amount of time spent on defining what counts as "the medieval period", when I'm sure everyone in the discussion would admit there mustn't be just one thing, but different strokes for different folks.
2. The somewhat inadequate specification or identification of important outstanding features and discussions, generally let alone specifically, of what most nowadays consider to be medieval philosophy.
3. The lack of explicit mention or discussion the blurry distinction between, *and overlap of*, philosophy and history.

A few comments picking up on those three observations. The comments are in the spirit of friendship and gratitude for your tackling the more difficult task of understanding philosophy over a long period of history and thus of touching on the nature of philosophy itself:

Jill said repeatedly she was an historian and used that as a reason to support her philosophical view about the nature of philosophy itself -- obviously a philosophical question. John seemed to rely on the fact of his not being a historian but his being a contemporary philosopher to justify his views about where and why to draw his classificatory boundaries.

I think a consequence, logically, of Jill's view is that history is a branch of philosophy and *ought to be*. I welcome that. Furthermore, I think that would be beneficial to know and it would be, were more historians to embrace it, greatly clarifying and freeing to the historian (of philosophy or of anything else). It would, no doubt, make the historian's work a lot more difficult. It would require more philosophical training than is necessary for the the historian in the stigmatized picture of an academic grubbing up dusty manuscripts and putting a thinker -- whose thoughts are not actually understood as thoughts, i.e., expressing a philosophy -- into his or her proper historical context, as if that were the sole task of doing such history. The point of history cannot be avoided and is contained in the very task of doing it. For the very act of writing it presupposes the general sorts of purposes which animate human beings who do important productive work -- and is therefore ineluctably philosophical. It would be more and more freeing and clarifying the more historians are forthright about this -- transparent as we say these days -- i.e., explicit about their philosophical purposes and presuppositions in doing their sort of philosophy (i.e .history). I'm not taking a swipe at all historians (some surely avoid contributing to the stigma) nor at the philosophers, who should be intent on recognizing the issue. Certainly, however, I am taking a swipe at some general trends in the profession but beyond it, including also the teaching of history in schools, i.e., of the practice of writing and teaching history in general.

There is not an essence or single definition to every noun -- a premise I'm certain you and the others would agree to. Yet that wasn't broached when it came to what 'medieval philosophy' should name.

What most nowadays call medieval philosophy has definite distinctive features. As you rightly alluded to. Those features are expected to center on theological issues particular to the Christian religion (though not limited to Christianity). Christians developed sophisticated accounts of persons and natures, in ways extending beyond the classical tradition. The issue of 'intellect vs will' was rightly mentioned, but each of those separately and without the 'vs.' between are distinctive developments as well as parts of an understanding of persons and natures, of the self and reality. What's more philosophical or closer to home than that? Naturally accounts of the will include treatments of freedom (and related topics, for example, as you mentioned, Scotus on modality) and of law. These treatments, especially the former, seem more far reaching and sophisticated than what we know of the classical philosophers.

Upshot? Well, I haven't listened to all your podcasts yet so this might be moot, but at the very least I would love to hear several podcasts on the philosophy of history/philosophy of history of philosophy/history of philosophy of philosophy of history/YOUR philosophy of the history of philosophy.

My very best and kind regards to you and the other contributors,


In reply to by Alex

Peter Adamson on 8 February 2015


Thanks for this thoughtful response to the interview! I guess that the focus on temporal boundaries was mostly my fault; I wanted to focus on that in part because John has worked a lot on late antiquity and Jill on the Renaissance, and I think the blurry boundaries are interesting (maybe also it was much on my mind at the time since when we did this interview I was just trying to figure out how far to go in the "medieval" episodes). For a sense of the full range of themes and issues that arise in the medieval period, in any case, the rest of the episodes are going to give abundant evidence.

Of course I entirely agree about the intimate relationship between history and philosophy, though I guess for me the main point is that philosophers can also be historians, rather than the other way around (which is what you are talking about). I think the most relevant episode so far on what history might be was the one on Ibn Taymiyya in the series on the Islamic world.

Nathanael on 13 July 2016

Medieval vs. Renaissance

I've often wondered about the division of philosophy into Medieval and Renaissance around the year 1400. On the one hand, you do get new ideas with people like Marsilio Ficino and Giovanni Pico della Mirandola, but on the other hand, if you look at late 15th century philosophers and theologians like John Major and Gabriel Biel, they don't look all that different from say John Buridan and William of Ockham. It seems like the bigger change in philosophy in the university comes in the 16th century when commentaries on Peter Lombard's Sentences were pushed out in favor of commentaries on Thomas Aquinas and freestanding Cursus Philosophiae and Cursus Theologiae. (By the way, there was at least one 16th century Protestant commentary on Lombard's Sentences by a theologian named Lambert Daneau, and there is a Protestant commentary on Aristotle's Nichomachean Ethics from that era by Peter Martyr Vermigli that has been translated into English.)

I suppose that really demonstrates one big takeaway from this episode; periodization is difficult and boundaries are fuzzy. Still, you have to make a division somewhere. It's going to be interesting when you get to the 17th century since traditional late-scholastic philosophy overlaps pretty significantly with early Enlightenment philosophy (e.g., the Thomist John Poinsot was a contemporary of Rene Descartes and the Scotist Claude Frassen was a contemporary of John Locke).

In reply to by Nathanael

Peter Adamson on 14 July 2016

Dividing line

Yes, I couldn't agree more with that. One point I am planning to make (repeatedly) when I do both the 14th and 15th centuries is that you already have some apparently "Renaissance" thinkers in the 14th c. (Dante, Petrarch) and some "medieval" or at least scholastic thinkers in the 15th and 16th, including the ones you mention. But, as you also say, I have to draw a line somewhere if only to figure out where one book or drop-down menu ends and another begins.

Zarl on 21 April 2019

Periodisation, the birth of science, and Oresme

It's not a bad idea to dedicate an episode to the definitions and limits of periodisation, as well as the scope of philosophy itself.

This discussion clearly shows that there's something very wrong with the way we usually periodise history. But I'm surprised that nobody took the next step of questioning the validity of the concepts of "Middle Ages" and "Renaissance" themselves. It's interesting to have a look at how those ideas emerged. Both are inherited from the tripartite division of world history, which is quite an old idea, dating back at least to the 12th century theologian Joachim of Fiore, who separated world history into the age of the Father (before Christ), the age of the Son (after Christ), and the age of the Holy Ghost, which he thought was beginning in his own time with the Crusades. That system was adapted by Renaissance humanists who saw two eras of civilisation, the ancients and their own time, separated by a thousand years of darkness, henceforth known as "that time in the middle". A darkness that later Enlightenment and Protestant authors came to associate with the oppression and obscurantism of the Catholic Church. One of those authors was Jules Michelet, who has had and continues to have a huge influence, and who coined the term "Renaissance", claiming it as a rebirth of civilisation which had been lost during a millennium of ignorance, superstition, and fanaticism. He is by the way also responsible for popularising many of the more specific myths and forgeries about the Middle Ages, like the witch hunts organised by the Inquisition, the panic on the year 1000, or the droit du seigneur. I think we can agree that all this is not especially accurate, and thus not a great basis for our understanding of macrohistory. It gets even worse once you start swallowing up other civilisations into an already bad eurocentric model, and talking about the "Middle Ages" in Islam or in India.

Now this is more philosophy of history than history of philosophy, but I wonder if you've ever had a chance to read Spengler. He actually opens his Decline of the West by deconstructing this classical periodisation, and proposes a system that I find far more subtle and accurate, and more respectful of each civilisation's own chronology. In my own opinion, the most useful periodisation is one that follows the history of art. It's perhaps the most striking evidence of the existence of civilisations as fairly self-contained organisms that they all go through their own history of art in periods, each successively dominated by one style all across their reach. For the West, we'd have something like Merovingian - Carolingian - Romanesque - Gothic - Renaissance - Baroque/Enligthenment - Modern (- Postmodern). Sadly there's no escape from Humanist insults such as "Gothic", but at least here it refers to something tangible. To me these periods seem to correspond quite well to eras of Western thought (insofar as such eras can be defined at all), but I'd be curious to know whether or not you agree.

Defining the "Middle Ages" as the time when all fields of knowledge were studied under the label of "philosophy" as one of your guests did is no less absurd than any other definition, even if it leads to the rather surprising conclusion that the Middle Ages lasted into the 18th century. And here I would like to say that you're right and that science, or rather natural philosophy, should absolutely be covered by any proper history of philosophy. In fact I would say that probably the greatest, and certainly the most tangible achievement in the history of philosophy, has been the scientific method. The very fact that modern science came to be and became abstracted from what we today consider to be philosophy, is an achievement of philosophy. Though mostly of the Gothic and Enlightenment, in terms of natural philosophy the Humanism in the Renaissance seems to have been mostly a reactionary movement directed against the Gothic, with few original contributions.

Finally I have to add something about Oresme, who was mentioned in the discussion as having contributed to astronomy. While he did theorise the rotation of the Earth, I think we've become so trained to believe that the Copernican Revolution was the ultimate watershed moment in the history of science that we become a little too excited whenever someone seems to anticipate Copernicus. Oresme is a massive (and massively underrated) figure in the history of science, not so much for his cosmology, or even for his considerable work in thermodynamics, but rather for his physics of motion and mathematics. His proof of the mean speed theorem is probably a more important paradigm shift than even the Copernican Revolution, as it pioneered the formulation of a physical problem of motion in the form of a mathematical function (representing speed), the representation of that function in the form of a graph, and the geometrical solution to the problem by the calculation of the area below the graph (representing the distance traversed), which we now know as integration. All the fundamentals of calculus are there, and I think it's no exaggeration to say that this is when that enormously important field of mathematics was born, even if it was Newton and Leibniz who later formulated it into a complete system.

In reply to by Zarl

Peter Adamson on 21 April 2019


Thanks for this very interesting set of comments. I'm largely in agreement with what you say though perhaps I'm more willing to concede ground to pragmatism in using terms like medieval and renaissance. Actually part of my inspiration for the decision to tackle the "Renaissance" as meaning only Italian Renaissance, with the northern Renaissance to follow as a separate story, comes from art history.

Re. Oresme I hope you saw that I gave him quite a bit of coverage later on, in episode 280?

In reply to by Peter Adamson

Zarl on 22 April 2019


Well, I suppose we're stuck with "Renaissance". I still maintain that using terms such as "Gothic" is more useful than a term that can just as easily refer to the times of Brunhilda and Fredegund as to those of universities and cathedrals. Though that's just a general thought and not a criticism of how your podcasts are structured, I can't find fault in your choices as far as that's concerned.

As for Oresme in episode 280, I haven't gotten that far yet! But when I do I'll decide whether or not I can forgive you for not dedicating an entire episode to him.

Benjamin Krock on 5 April 2023

A Pleasant Surprise

I was revisiting some older episodes of The Partially Examined Life a month or so ago and noticed a gap of 25 or so episodes that I had apparently missed. Gaps are obviously unacceptable, so I started filling them in. Among the episodes I missed was #267 on Avicenna, in which you are the guest. After hearing the description of this project, I could hardly wait to start listening. I have since binged the first 199 episodes of the History of Philosophy podcast. In the best way imaginable, my thoughts have been dominated by giraffes, Buster Keaton, and puns.

For starters, I want to thank you and everyone else ever involved in this project. 

For seconds, here's a little anecdote covering the history of the last 5-7 minutes of my life (without any gaps). I had just finished listening to episode 199 and clicked into the tab to switch to the next episode. As the page loaded and I read the title of episode 200, my mind replayed a vivid memory from around a 10-12 years ago -- I was in the library at Florida State University looking for sources for a (now forgotten) History of Music Theory paper (somehow) involving humanism and Renaissance scholarship. I gathered a number of books from the stacks and started browsing what I thought would be the most general starting point: the Cambridge Companion to Renaissance Humanism. I was so fascinated by it at the time that I went and bought my own copy that same night. So, when I saw the name "Jill Kraye" in the title of episode 200, I went to my bookshelves and grabbed the book to confirm. For such a minor event, it gave me so much joy. 

Anyway, I'm about to start listening to this episode and cease flooding the comments section with my boring stories. Once again, thank you so much for your work on this project. I look forward to catching up on the next 400 or so episodes!

In reply to by Benjamin Krock

Peter Adamson on 5 April 2023


That is a wonderful story! So glad you are enjoying the series. I put out the podcast a lot slower than it sounds like you're listening, so you will catch up with me before long.

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