Something I Wish I Had Made Explicit in My Dissertation

I’m never particularly satisfied with anything I’ve written.  The end result never tallies with the original vision in my mind.  When I go back and read again, I find so many lapses, so much unexplained and implicit.  What was entirely clear to me as I wrote is now muddled and slow on the page.  Does the reader get any of it?  Have I failed?1

In particular, my dissertation suffered from a lack of an adequate conclusion.  Frankly, I was tired and scattered and up against a deadline, and I didn’t take the time to properly sum up the whole of my research.  Thus, there are a number of points that I wish had been made more emphatically throughout, and I want to emphasize one here.

First, a bit of background because apparently not everyone has read my dissertation (ridiculous, you should be ashamed).  The subject of that noble work was Honorius Augustodunensis, an extremely popular author of the early twelfth century.  Honorius is notable for all sorts of reasons–you often find him cited as an exemplar of this or that aspect of medieval thought or one of the first to utilize some soon-to-be-widespread literary technique–but there is little comprehensive study of his works.  In a large part this is because Honorius has been classified as a “popularizer,” someone writing for wide audiences whose work is essentially unsophisticated summaries of more important intellectual figures.  Except in one aspect, this is not necessarily an unfair categorization.  Indeed, it’s one he himself readily admits to.  He tells us he is writing for the unlearned, that his style is crude, and that nothing in his works is original, save the effort he expended putting everything together.2

But it’s that bit about being unsophisticated that rings false upon even a cursory examination of his work. It turns out that the effort spent assembling everything was actually quite considerable, and the more we look, the more sophisticated Honorius’s thought appears. His background theology is quite advanced, based on a complex synthesis of John Scottus Eriugena, a maddeningly difficult thinker of whom Honorius is perhaps the most devoted medieval student, Augustine, and Anselm. It’s hard to summarize huge swathes of Christian thought in concise, clear, and easily memorized package. Moreover, there’s a profound unity to both what Honorius writes and how he writes it. The very style of the work, all his unique literary techniques, are in line with his theological outlook. Therefore, the writing itself works to convey the same ideas as the words and to practically enact the ideal of salvific contemplative pedagogy that animates his whole authorial mission. Pretty neat stuff.

Now, the big take-away of all this that I wish I had emphasized more is that this exploring all this demonstrates something very important about medieval thought and about a mistake we often make when studying it. Namely, the dismissal of Honorius by modern scholars rests on a false dichotomy between popular and learned works, between simplicity of style and sophistication of thought. “Simple” is not opposed to “theological” (much less, as it’s sometimes cast to “orthodox”). In fact, if Honorius is any indication, medieval authors expend tremendous effort and marshal considerable literary sophistication to impart correct theology in a simple package, often in the style itself. The simplicity of popular works3 is itself an expression of the theology–the Bible, after all, is written in a simple style–as important as the content which it contains.

Also, since these works are the means by which the vast majority of people seem to have gotten their basic instruction and are read by essentially everyone who is able, it’s foolish to oppose them to the teachings of the Church, some abstract orthodoxy. These popular works were orthodoxy, they were how the Church taught, and we must not allow our biases against “the popular”4 to cause us to forget that.

1. I’ve thought about this issue a lot recently, both because of frustrations with my work and because in Augustine’s On the Catechism of the Unlearned I found that he had the same struggle.  Indeed, that short work was written precisely in response to this problem.  He notes that he struggles with it in every sermon he gives, in all that he writes, yet his conclusion is that we should not be so hard on ourselves.  Yes, our words, bound by time and our own deficiencies, can never truly match the understanding we hold of a subject.  Nevertheless, we also must recognize that the effect of these words, limited as they might be, on others still has the potential to cue in them something more, for understanding ultimately doesn’t derive from the words of other men but from above.   Good advice that should be taken to heart.  

2. The fact that these are all common rhetorical tropes that virtually every author of the Middle Ages makes use of should probably give us some pause here.

3. Which are very often written and read enthusiastically by the most well-educated and theologically astute men of their age, something we ignore all too often.

4. Or, as sometimes seem to be the case, against medieval beliefs/practices that have become unfashionable, gauche, to our modern “sophisticated” eyes.

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