William of Auxerre Biography


(History of the World: The Middle Ages)

Article abstract: As one of the first European medieval scholars to use the methods of philosophy to answer theological questions, William ranks as a pioneer in the growth of Scholasticism and the centuries-long attempt to harmonize Aristotelian philosophy with the theology of Saint Augustine.

Early Life

As is true of most medieval intellectuals, virtually nothing is known of William of Auxerre’s origins or early career. Since it was customary in the twelfth century for young men planning for an academic life to enter the university at age thirteen or fourteen, he had probably already begun his studies by that age. The University of Paris, where William was to spend nearly all of his life, was Europe’s most renowned center of learning, especially in the areas of theology and philosophy. A new student typically spent six years studying the “seven liberal arts”—grammar, rhetoric, logic (the trivium); and arithmetic, geometry, astronomy, and music (the quadrivium)—which had been inherited from the ancient world. The arts as a whole were often referred to as “philosophy.” Following this generalized preparation, the scholar could become a teacher of the arts himself or begin specialized studies in theology, law, or medicine.

The greatest minds of the time chose theology, which was by far the most rigorous and respected discipline. That was natural, since the university itself was an outgrowth of the cathedral school of Notre-Dame de Paris and was still under the jurisdiction of the Church. Though many were never ordained as priests, students of the university were regarded as “clerics” and were subject to the discipline of the chancellor, an official of the cathedral.

After six years of attending lectures on the Bible and selected works of theology, the student received the baccalaureate and was then himself required to lecture for two years on two books of the Bible. After several more years of study, the apprentice teacher engaged in several “disputations,” theological debates judged by a member of the faculty. If he successfully completed these tasks, the student was awarded the doctorate and, at age thirty-four, was allowed to teach theology. It is known that William made it through this arduous course for by 1189 he was already famous as a “master” (professor) of theology.

Life’s Work

The thirteenth century was an age of intellectual ferment, particularly at the University of Paris. The university itself owed its existence to the revival of learning that had begun after about the year 1000. The gradual rediscovery of the literature of the pre-Christian world had increasingly challenged the relatively simple and dogmatic faith of the earlier Middle Ages, and scholars had begun to use the tools of logic to justify and explain their Christian beliefs and doctrine. By the end of the twelfth century, a flood of translations of the works of the Greek philosopher Aristotle as well as commentaries on him by Islamic philosophers such as Avicenna had begun to arrive in Paris from Moorish Spain. Aristotle’s wide-ranging intellect had applied itself to virtually every area of human knowledge, from the creation of the universe and the nature of the soul to the proper structure of a logical argument. It was obvious that Aristotle was a genius, yet, as a pagan, he had arrived at conclusions and insights that often conflicted with the accepted doctrine of the Church.

From throughout Europe, scholars came to Paris to study the “new” learning; thus the cathedral school had expanded to become practically a separate institution, the university. By the time of William, famous medieval scholars such as Peter Abelard and Peter the Lombard had been developing for more than a century the techniques of intellectual inquiry that would later be called Scholasticism. The Scholastic approach involved the solution of an intellectual problem by posing it as a question, such as “Is the universe eternal?” The medieval scholar would respond to the question by juxtaposing answers derived from the Bible, or works of the church fathers, those offered by philosophy or reason, often as supplied by Aristotle. By constructing such a back-and-forth argument, called the “dialectic,” the scholar hoped to reconcile the two positions, thus allowing reason to support faith. While Scholasticism clearly fostered a considerable amount of intellectual ingenuity, it later got a bad reputation because its practitioners always deferred to established authority, whether that of the Church or of the philosophers, rather than venturing to observe the real world or setting up empirical experiments. The reasoning of the Scholastics became increasingly abstract, and they often dealt with issues that were fantastically irrelevant. (The most famous of these is the old question, “How many angels can dance on the head of a pin?”)

While it may seem strange, in the twentieth century, that the great intellectuals of the Middle Ages spent so much time trying to “marry” what today are considered the distinctly separate fields of philosophy and theology, the attempt itself represented a tremendous advance over the thinking of the early Christian period and the early Middle Ages, when many church authorities had disparaged the use of reason, insisting that, should philosophy and faith disagree, philosophy must always give way. Many of the church fathers had actually regarded study of the ancient authors as pernicious and sinful—one of the reasons that Aristotle’s works had largely disappeared until the period of the Crusades. The efforts of the Scholastics to make philosophy and theology work together demonstrated that the processes of reason and logic had once again become respectable.

By the time of William, those works of Aristotle which had become available had themselves already gained the status of authority and threatened to dethrone church doctrine, at least as far as many of the students at the university were concerned, as the basis of theology. In the eyes of the church authorities, this threat was so dangerous that, in 1215, when the basic statutes of the university were drawn up, the papal legate (representative) at Paris prohibited the teaching of those works of Aristotle that dealt with “natural philosophy,” meaning science. This decree apparently had little effect, for in 1231 Pope Gregory IX felt compelled to create a commission of three scholars to study and “correct” the works of Aristotle, so that they could be used at the university without contradicting church doctrine.

The head of the commission was William, who had by this time become famous both as a theologian and as a churchman. During the reign of Pope Honorius III (1216-1227), William had become archdeacon of Beauvais, a powerful and influential office, as well as a proctor of the University of Paris. In the latter capacity, he presented the interests of the university to the papal court at Rome; he had been sent there by King Louis IX in the spring of 1230 to advise the new pope, Gregory IX, on how to resolve a strike of teachers and students which had...

(The entire section is 2927 words.)