Medieval Foundations of the Western Intellectual Tradition

Marcia L. Colish

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December 22, 1997
448 pages, 6 1/8 x 9 1/4
24 b/w illus.
ISBN: 9780300071429
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This magisterial book is an analysis of the course of Western intellectual history between A.D. 400 and 1400. The book is arranged in two parts: the first surveys the comparative modes of thought and varying success of Byzantine, Latin-Christian, and Muslim cultures, and the second takes the reader from the eleventh-century revival of learning to the high Middle Ages and beyond, the period in which the vibrancy of Western intellectual culture enabled it to stamp its imprint well beyond the frontiers of Christendom.

Marcia Colish argues that the foundations of the Western intellectual tradition were laid in the Middle Ages and not, as is commonly held, in the Judeo-Christian or classical periods. She contends that Western medieval thinkers produced a set of tolerances, tastes, concerns, and sensibilities that made the Middle Ages unlike other chapters of the Western intellectual experience. She provides astute descriptions of the vernacular and oral culture of each country of Europe; explores the nature of medieval culture and its transmission; profiles seminal thinkers (Augustine, Anselm, Gregory the Great, Aquinas, Ockham); studies heresy from Manichaeism to Huss and Wycliffe; and investigates the influence of Arab and Jewish writing on scholasticism and the resurrection of Greek studies. Colish concludes with an assessment of the modes of medieval thought that ended with the period and those that remained as bases for later ages of European intellectual history.

Marcia L. Colish is Frederick B. Artz Professor of History at Oberlin College, Ohio.

A selection of the History Book Club

"This elegant window to the medieval world…argues that the foundations of the Western intellectual traditions were laid in the Middle Ages and not in the classical or Judeo-Christian periods as commonly supposed."—Virginia Quarterly Review

"[The book] should instantly become the standard introduction to its subject. . . . Between the covers of this . . . volume is a whole lost world of culture and wisdom."—Michael Dirda, Washington Post Book World

"Colish presents a thematically unified, yet admirably broad and inclusive account. . . . [A] superb survey. . . . Colish roots the foundation of Western intellectual history in the Middle Ages, rather than classical antiquity. . . . Strongly recommended."—C.F. Briggs, Choice

"Colish brings a consistency and balance which few multi-authored volumes achieve. She writes with sober fluency, cramming each page with information. . . . More surprisingly for a single author, Colish scores highly for breadth and comprehensiveness."—Ecclesiastical History

"Medieval Foundations of the Western Intellectual Tradition is . . . useful on two related levels: as an updated and more concise version of the traditional survey and as an original and thoughtful exegesis. Students new to medieval intellectual history will find it an invaluable reference. Specialists will be prompted to recall the expository importance of broad, comprehensive treatments and will be presented with a persuasively argued, well-supported thesis. Both as an introductory survey of medieval thought and as an inaugural work in a series devoted to the exposition of Western intellectual development, Colish's book is an essential work."—History: Review of New Books

"All in all, this work is an impressive synthesis, which will be of value not only to scholars and advanced students but also to serious general readers."—Giles Constable, Journal of Interdisciplinary History

"The Yale Intellectual History of the West [series] seems designed not only to herald the return of intellectual history but to provide a benchmark of the field. . . . [Colish] forces teachers, and . . . the well-informed general reader as well, to see the entire medieval world of thought as a mosaic. We should be grateful no only for that exciting challenge but also for Colish's reminder of the comprehensive character of medieval society which got many of us into the Middle Ages in the first place."—Christopher M. Bellitto, Sixteenth Century Journal

"Medieval Foundations is a valuable resource for teachers and students of intellectual history, and its brisk, energetic style mitigates the inherent difficulty of the material. . . . Colish provides a six-page bibliographical note and a superb analytical index, from Abacus to Zero, that makes reference blissfully easy."—Barbara Newman, Church History

"This [book] is a thorough and careful survey of the main features of the intellectual life of medieval Europe, occupying a kind of middle ground between histories of philosophy and theology, and histories of social theory. . . . A competent and wide-ranging survey of medieval thought and literature, at a largely introductory level."—Toby Burrows, Parergon

"Medieval Foundations is a well-written survey of the main aspects of intellectual culture in the Latin West from the last days of the Western Roman Empire to the beginning of the Italian Renaissance. . . . It would ably serve as a textbook for a college course in medieval social and intellectual history. . . . The reader of this masterful book is left with renewed admiration for the richness, diversity, and innovativeness of medieval intellectual culture."—Jole Shackelford, Journal of the History of the Behavioral Sciences

"Whether Colish is dealing with the seminal thinkers or with the many secondary figures over this period of a thousand years, she weaves a rich tapestry in which the original, derivative, and bizarre features of Latin, Byzantine and Muslim intellectual life are elucidated with informed ease. . . . A notable achievement."—Alan B. Cobban, English Historical Review

"Colish is exemplary in her attention to detail. The book will be valuable to those needing a solid introduction to medieval intellectual culture as a whole."—Constant J. Mews, Journal of Religious History

"It is fitting, therefore, that Yale’s important new series in western intellectual history is inaugurated by this magisterial account of the intellectual life of the one thousand years between 400 and 1400. The author, an accomplished historian of this period, provides much evidence supporting a sympathetic view of the medieval intellectual achievement."—Michael W. Tkacz, Review of Metaphysics