A Medieval Student

In his work the Didascalicon  (c. 1125), one of the classic theological texts of the twelfth-century renaissance, Hugh of St. Victor lays out an integrated view of human knowledge, insisting upon the need for a scientific pursuit of the traditional arts in order to relieve life’s physical weaknesses and to restore humans’ union with the divine Wisdom. Unusually, as well discussing the traditional pedagogic categories of the trivium and quadrivium, he includes sections on the practical and mechanical arts (such as commerce and agriculture).

In his discussion of the process of study, Hugh also gives us an intriguing peek at his own school days:

I recall that when I was still a schoolboy . . . how many times each day I would make myself pay out the debt of my little bits of wisdom, which, thanks to their shortness, I had noted down in one or two words on a page, so that I might keep a mindful hold on the solutions, and even the number, of practically all the thoughts, questions, and objections which I had learned . . .

I laid out pebbles for numbers, and I marked the pavement with black coals, and, by a model places right before my eyes, I plainly showed what difference there is between an obtuse-angled, a right-angled, and an acute-angled triangle. Whether or not an equilateral parallelogram would yield the same area as a square when two of its sides were multiplied together, I learned by walking both figures and measuring them with my feet. Often I kept watch outdoors through the winter nights like one of the fixed stars by which we measure time. Often I used to bring out my strings, stretched to their number on the wooden frame, both that I might note with my ear the difference among the tones and that I might at the same time delight my soul with the sweetness of the sound.

These were boyish pursuits to be sure, yet not without their utility for me . . .But I do not reveal these things to you in order to parade my knowledge, which is either nothing at all or very little, but in order to show you that the man who moves along step by step is the one who moves along best, not like some who fall head over heels when they wish to make a great leap ahead.

– Hugh of St. Victor, Didascalicon, Book VI, ch. 3
(trans. by Jerome Taylor)

The image of a medieval geometry lesson is from BL Burney 275 f. 293r, a 14th-century copy of a Latin translation of Euclid’s Elementa.


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