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Medieval Philosophy: A history of philosophy without any gaps, by Peter Adamson

26 February 2021

G. R. Evans assesses an introductory guide to medieval thinking

THE author wrote this book as a companion to a podcast, and that presents him with challenges in moving between the engaging and popular and the exactness needed to summarise and expound in modern and often rather conversational English a philosophical discourse that was conducted in Latin. On the whole, this comes off, but there is often an uneasy sense that a camera is watching a performance.

Peter Adamson has given himself a formidable task in trying to fill a “gap” of more than 1000 years in the history of philosophy in a single volume, even one as weighty in the hand as this. He adds to the difficulty of engaging his readers by beginning apologetically, endeavouring to win them over with assurances that these centuries did not really include “Dark Ages” at all — as indeed they did not. He offers some lively proofs.

He has cast his net wide in the interests of including some modern concerns. For example, there are women “thinkers” as well as the famous names of male “philosophers”. Spiritual and social themes have space beside the longstanding problems of philosophy, especially where it overlaps with theology. Nevertheless, the great questions about the existence of God and his omnipotence, the beginning of the world and its ending, and human life and how it should be led are all covered.

The book is divided into three big sections, on early medieval philosophy, the 13th century, and the 14th century, each containing chapters with catchy titles, such as “Virgin territory — Peter Damian on changing the past” (and the question whether lost virginity can be restored), and “Get thee to a nunnery — Heloise and Abelard”, followed by a section on “Abelard’s Ethics”.

A reader with some knowledge of these centuries and their philosophical writings is, perhaps, bound to find the balance of the treatment unsatisfactory in parts. It seems a pity not to have given the 11th-12th centuries their own main section. As it is, mention of the 12th-century “renaissance” has to be hunted for here and there, and the brief treatment at the end of the first section of the way in which universities invented themselves leaves much untouched. The battle of Church and State is tackled chiefly in the 14th-century section.

Does this book get away with its use of the language of broadcasting on the printed page? Documentary and Open University broadcasting styles necessarily involve gesture, facial expression, and tone of voice, as aids to capturing and keeping interest. In written form, these devices lose much of their force and can seem patronising. It is not easy to see how better to frame a book as a companion to a podcast, but the reader must judge whether this one has got it right for the non-specialist. Time will tell whether it fulfils its aim of awakening a new enthusiasm for the millennium of intellectual endeavour between the end of the ancient world and the beginning of the modern.

Dr G. R. Evans is Emeritus Professor of Medieval Theology and Intellectual History in the University of Cambridge.


Medieval Philosophy: A history of philosophy without any gaps
Peter Adamson
OUP £25
Church Times Bookshop £22.50

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