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Science and Rhetoric in the Middle Ages: The Natural Philosophy of William of Conches

Author(s): Joan Cadden

Source: Journal of the History of Ideas, Vol. 56, No. 1 (Jan., 1995), pp. 1-24
Published by: University of Pennsylvania Press
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Science and Rhetoric in
the Middle Ages:
The Natural Philosophy of
William of Conches

Joan Cadden

By the end of the thirteenth century the prominence of universities and

the influence of Aristotelian thought provided the institutional support and
philosophical justification of scientific inquiry. These legitimizing forces
were neither univocal nor static, but they were strong and lasting.1 In the
twelfth century, however, the institutional framework of the universities was
absent, and the preaching orders which were to have a critical influence upon
the form and content of higher education had not yet been founded. Monastic
and cathedral schools did not designate a regular place for natural philosophy
in their various courses of study (although astronomy, as one of the seven
liberal arts, was acknowledged), nor were they committed to an ample body
of authoritative texts about the natural world.
In the early years of the century physica, the investigation of "the causes
of things in their effects and the effects from their causes,"2 was sometimes

For invaluable criticisms and suggestions I am indebted to an anonymous referee for

JHI and to members of the Mark M. Horblit Symposium at Harvard, particularly Peter
Buck; of the Shelby Cullom Davis Center Seminar at Princeton, particularly Anthony
Grafton and Natalie Davis; and of the Faculty Symposium at Kenyon, particularly Clift
Crais. Kenyon Faculty Development Funds supported the research.
I See James A. Weisheipl, "Classification of the Sciences in Medieval Thought,"
Mediaeval Studies, 27 (1965), 54-90; Richard McKeon, "The Organization of Sciences and
the Relations of Cultures in the Twelfth and Thirteenth Centuries," in John Emery
Murdoch and Edith Dudley Sylla (eds.), The Cultural Context of Medieval Learning:
Proceedings of the First International Colloquium on Philosophy, Science, and Theology
in the Middle Ages-September, 1973 (Boston, 1975), 151-84; Richard William Hunt,
"Introductions to the 'Artes' in the Twelfth Century," in Studia mediaevalia in honorem
admodum reverendi patris Raymundi Josephi Martin (Bruges, 1948), 85-112.
2 Hugh of Saint Victor, Didascalicon de studio legendi, ed. Charles Henry Buttimer
(Washington, 1939), bk. II, ch. xvi, 34: "Physica causas rerum in effectibus suis et effectus

Copyright 1995 by Journal of the History of Ideas, Inc.

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2 Joan Cadden

named among the recognized branches of knowledge, yet was the subject of
very little academic attention. Aristotle's works were just being translated
into Latin and were only beginning to be read and assimilated in the latter
part of the century. Although scholars knew they could find information
about the natural world in Virgil's Georgics, Isidore of Seville's Etymolo-
gies, and Genesis, the sources capable of lending substance and legitimacy to
the study of nature were meager. The most cherished and prestigious resource
came to be Plato's Timaeus, which includes a mythic representation of the
birth of the cosmos and which existed in truncated form in Latin.
Before the twelfth century, then, natural philosophy had no stable consti-
tution, no particular social or institutional support system, and no significant
corpus of authoritative and authorizing texts; and by the middle of the
thirteenth century natural philosophy was a clearly defined domain of learn-
ing supported by a well articulated set of institutions and an established
group of recognized texts. The standard accounts of the process by which
medieval science took shape and gained prominence tend to emphasize those
twelfth-century developments which shed light on the subsequent emergence
of scholastic science in a university setting: the rationalistic frame of mind
and the prominence of logic; the shift of scholarship from a monastic setting
to the urban schools; and the translation of the Aristotelian corpus into Latin.3
This mildly teleological approach tends to minimize the extent to which
the definition and direction of natural philosophy, as well as its social and
institutional niche, was still undetermined during the century which preceded
Thomas Aquinas and Roger Bacon. An inquiry into the modes of presenta-
tion and social environment of science can begin to yield a picture not only of
the unsettled dimensions of natural philosophy's constitution and place but
also of the process by which scholars engaged in it sought to clarify both. It
also suggests that, if we are to explain how science became authoritative, we
must look at how those who created or used knowledge about the natural
world placed that knowledge in a position to be an embodiment and vehicle
of power. Received wisdom, for good if sometimes divergent reasons (from
positivist to Foucauldian), locates the inception of the modern apotheosis of
science in the seventeenth or eighteenth century, but a medievalist may

a causis suis investigando considerat." Hugh also characterizes physica in terms of the
elemental composition of things and simply as the study of things (bk. II, ch, xvii, 36). The
sense of physica spirals between natural philosophy and medicine, accumulating meaning
in the course of the Middle Ages. See Paul Oskar Kristeller, "The School of Salemo: Its
Development and Its Contribution to the History of Leaming," Bulletin of the History of
Medicine, 17 (1945), 138-94, and Jerome J. Bylebyl, "The Medical Meaning of Physica,"
in Renaissance Medical Learning: Evolution of a Tradition, ed. Michael R. McVaugh and
Nancy G. Siraisi (Osiris, 2nd ser., 6 [1990]), 16-41.
3 E.g., Charles Homer Haskins, Studies in the History of Mediaeval Science (New
York, 1960 [c. 1927]); A. C. Crombie, Augustine to Galileo: The History of Science A.D.
400-1650 (Cambridge, 1953); Lynn Thomdike, A History of Magic and Experimental
Science (New York, 1923-58).

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William of Conches 3

sensibly ask how science became a candidate for this status. Posed in this
way, the problem calls for an exploration of the audiences and support
systems of science and of the deployment of language and genre which
affected the placement of science within the accepted body of knowledge.
No case study will illuminate the role of all of these variables or produce
a definitive account of any of them, but the work of William of Conches, a
Norman scholar of the first half of the twelfth century, yields sufficient
evidence to suggest the fruitfulness of this line of inquiry. The contents,
tones, and settings of William's writings about nature throw light on the
place of the twelfth century in the emergence and articulation of Western
science by illustrating how the rhetoric of its practitioners and advocates
staked out claims for the systematic study of the natural world both in terms
of contemporary boundaries and hierarchies of learning and in terms of the
available social and institutional resources.
The character and history of William's work reveals not a smooth and
inevitable trajectory toward university-based Aristotelian science but a ma-
trix of diverse and competing possibilities. In particular, although his ratio-
nalistic approach to nature and his participation in scholarly communities
outside of the monasteries associate him to some degree with a new way of
thinking and a new sector of society, William positioned himself more
ambiguously in relation to the transformation of the course of learning and
dissociated himself both rhetorically and geographically from the new cen-
ters of intellectual and administrative power.4
William of Conches was born in Normandy in the late eleventh century
and received at least the more advanced part of his education somewhere
among the schools of the Ile-de-France, where remarkable changes were
occurring in the institutions and content of learning. Natural philosophy he
a modest place in this world, represented especially by the interpretation and
elaboration of Plato's Timaeus, a text which commanded the attention of
William and a number of his most gifted contemporaries, including Thierry
of Chartres and Bernard Silvestris.
William probably spent most of his career as a teacher and scholar at
Chartres or Paris or both, beginning sometime around 1120, when he was in
his thirties and becoming one of the best known and most respected masters
of his time.5 Most of his written work, like that of his contemporaries, was in
the form of expositions of authoritative texts. In addition to glosses on the
Timaeus and Macrobius (whose work provided additional opportunity for
natural philosophical exploration), William wrote glosses on the grammati-
cal theory of Priscian, on the poetry of Juvenal, and on Boethius's Consola-

4 Cf. Alexander Murray, Reason and Society in the Middle Ages (Oxford, 1978).
5 On William's life and works see Tullio Gregory, Anima Mundi: la filosofia di
Guilielmo di Conches e la scuola di Chartres (Florence, 1955), 1-40; William of Conches,
Glosae super Platonem, ed. Edouard Jeauneau (Paris, 1965), intro., 9-31.

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4 Joan Cadden

tion of Philosophy. One of William's earlier works, written perhaps about

1125 or a little later, was a broad treatise on natural philosophy called
Philosophia.6 Sometime around 1140, one of the watchdogs of orthodoxy of
the period denounced as contrary to faith some of the views in that work,
including those about the Trinity and about the creation of Eve.7 In the late
1140s, after leaving the schools to become tutor to the sons of Geoffrey
Plantagenet, Count of Anjou and Duke of Normandy, William significantly
reworked the treatise, not only retracting some of the theological errors which
had been identified but also adding new material and filling out some
arguments, expanding it from four books to six and reshaping it into the for
of a dialogue between the Duke of Normandy and a Philosopher.

The Creation and Legitimation of Natural Philosophy in the Philosophia

In the Philosophia William of Conches employs anti-rhetorical polemic

to claim for natural philosophy its own status, its own character, and its own
authorities; but even as he sets himself in opposition to those devoted to
linguistic analysis and elegant expression, he displays his own rhetorical
plumage, proposes a rhetorical style appropriate to philosophy, applies stan-
dard methods of textual interpretation, and portrays the natural world as itself
elegantly adorned. William contributed significantly to twelfth-century
trends towards the naturalization and secularization of the physical world, but
he did not simply dissociate the world from the word.8
From the first sentence of the Prologue William sets the tone of this
double agenda of appropriating the verbal arts to distinguish his subject from
them: he uses conventional rhetoric to dismiss mere rhetoric. Citing Cicero,
the undisputed authority on that art, William declares that "eloquence with-
out wisdom is harmful, but wisdom without eloquence, though it does little

6 More than one version of this work has come down to us. William of Conches,
Philosophia, ed. Gregor Maurach (Pretoria, 1980), intro., 2-11 (references here are to this
edition); A. Vernet, "Une remaniement de la Philosophia de Guillaume de Conches,"
Scriptorium, 1 (1946-47), 243-59; and Martin Grabmann, Handschriftliche Forschungen
und Mitteilungen zum Schrifttum des Wilhelm von Conches in Sitzungsberichte der
bayerischen Akademie des Wissenschaften, Philosophisch-historische Abteilung (Munich,
1935), fasc. 10, 7-10.
7 Jean Leclerq, "Les lettres de Guillaume de Saint-Thierry a Saint Bemard," Revue
Benedictine, 79 (1969), 375-91. William of Saint-Thierry probably wrote the letter on
William of Conches's errors to Bemard of Clairvaux and Geoffroy of Levres, Bishop of
Chartres, after his similar letter condemning Abelard (1138) and before his tracts Speculum
fidei and Enigmafidei (composed between 1140 and 1144). See J.-M. Dechanet, Guillaume
de Saint-Thierry: L'homme et son oeuvre (Bruges, 1942), 65-69, 82-90; and Andre Adam,
Guillaume de Saint-Thierry: Sa vie et ses oeuvres (Bourg, 1923), 69-70.
8 Cf. Tullio Gregory, "La nouvelle idee de nature et de savoir scientifique au XIIe
siecle," in Murdoch and Sylla (eds.), Cultural Context of Medieval.Learning, 193-218.

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William of Conches 5

good, at least does some."9 He characterizes his opponents as those who

value eloquence without wisdom. The problem, according to William, is a
preoccupation with expression at the expense of substance.10
The objects of William's scorn may in part be fictional, themselves
rhetorical constructs, but they also reflect very real changes and conflicts in
the academic scene of northern France. The study of the verbal arts-gram-
mar, rhetoric, and logic-enjoyed great prestige, constituting one important
manifestation of the humanism for which the period is known. For example,
William of Champeaux, a teacher of Peter Abelard and one of the early
participants in the centuries-long debate about the problem of universals,
taught rhetoric in Paris during William of Conches's student years, empha-
sizing ornamentation.11 In the Philosophia William hints that the locus of the
problem is the schools,12 in which masters like Bernard of Chartres were
famous both for their own eloquence and for their teachings on the verbal
arts. But in this work, written at a time when he was establishing his career in
those schools and among those masters, William's direct complaints about
them are few and general, compared to those in the Dragmaticon.
The prominence of the verbal sciences generated some strong and visible
resistance. We know too little about the men John of Salisbury later named
"Cornificians" (after a detractor of Virgil) to say whether William was
aligned with them. John specifically condemns their attacks on the sciences
of speech, and he warns that although such a detractor of the arts "may seem
to go after eloquence alone, he overthrows all liberal studies, attacks all the
work of the whole of philosophy, [and] tears apart the bond of human
community."13 If William's polemics in the Philosophia might expose him

9 Philosophia, I, Prologue, ? 1, 17: "... eloquentia sine sapientia nocet, sapientia vero
sine eloquentia etsi parum, tamen aliquid ... prodest...." Cf. Cicero, Rhetorici libri qui
vocantur De inventione, ed. E. Stroebel (1915, repr. Stuttgart, 1977), I, i, ?1, 2b. See also
Jerome Taylor, "Introduction" to Hugh of St. Victor, Didascalicon: A Medieval Guide to
the Arts (New York, 1961), 16.
10 Philosophia, I, Prologue, ? 1, 17: "Mercurii et Philologiae coniungium ... solvere."
Cf. Martianus Capella, De nuptiis Philologiae et Mercurii libri viiii, ed. Adolf Dick
(Leipzig, 1925), I-II with Peter Dronke, Fabula: Explorations into the Use of Myth in
Medieval Platonism (Leiden, 1974), app. B, 167-83. See also Philosophia, I, Prologue, ?1,
11 Peter Abelard, Historia calamitatum, ed. J. Monfrin (Paris, 1959), 65; Karin
Margareta Fredborg, "Twxelfth-Century Ciceronian Rhetoric: Its Doctrinal Development
and Influences" in Brian Vickers (ed.), Rhetoric Revalued: Papers from the International
Society for the History of Rhetoric (Binghamton, N.Y., 1982), 87-97 on 91.
12 E.g., Philosophia, IV, Prologue, ?1, 88.
13 John of Salisbury, Metalogicon, ed. J. B. Hall with K. S. B. Keats-Rohan (Turnhout,
1991), bk. I, ch. 1, 13: "Et quamuis solam uideatur eloquantiam persequi, omnia liberalia
studia conuellit, omnem totius philosophiae impugnat operam, societatis humanae feodum
distrahit...." Cf. J. 0. Ward, "The Date of the Commentary on Cicero's De inventione by
Thierry of Chartres (ca. 1095-1160?) and the Cornifician Attack on the Liberal Arts,"
Viator, 3 (1972), 219-73 on 222.

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6 Joan Cadden

to such criticism, his verbal virtuosity assured he could not be accused, like
some, of being ignorant of that which he rejected.14
The prologues to Books II and III reiterate the condemnation of superfici-
ality and of preoccupation with ornament: "We know many who seek the
ornament [ornatus] of words, few the truth of knowledge."15 These many are
"men [who,] tearing off the clothes of Philosophy and believing that, with
the grabbed rags, she has surrendered her whole self to them, depart."16 This
last metaphor, which William uses often, is not only rhetorically striking in
its own right and suggestive of a significant gender dimension in the program
of twelfth-century learning, but would have recalled to William's readers the
figure of Philosophy depicted by Boethius, her elegant raiment torn by false
philosophers. 17
There is more than a negative message in these accusations. William is
building a case for the pursuit of true wisdom, true knowledge, true philoso-

Knowing nothing about philosophy, ashamed to confess they do not

know something, and seeking the comfort of their ignorance, they
proclaim that those things which they do not know are of no use. But
... we have proposed to say something about philosophy, so that we
may help those who delight in it, and truly may excite to delight
those who do not.18

What William means here by "philosophy," the subject of his treatise, is, as
he says in the first chapter of the work, "the true understanding of what exists
and is not seen and of what exists and is seen,"19 that is (as the organization
and content of his treatise makes clear), natural philosophy. William thus
delineates his domain, which, tied as it was to the Platonic cosmology of the
age, included entities, such as spirits, the human soul and the world soul not

14 Compare the upstart chastised by Gilbert of Poitiers (Ward, "Thierry of Chartres,"

15 Philosophia, II, Prologue, ?1, 41: "Sed quamvis multos ornatum verborum
quaerere, paucos veritatem scientiae cognoscamus...."
16 Philosophia, III, Prologue, ?1, 73: "... multos vestes philosophiae abscindent
cum panniculis arreptis totam sibi eam cessisse credentes abisse cognoscimus...."
17 Boethius, De consolatione philosophiae, ed. H. F. Stewart, (Cambridge, 1968),
prose i, 22-24 and prose iii.
18 Philosophia, I, Prologue, ?2, 17: "Nihil quippe de philosophia scientes, aliqui
nescire confiteri erubescentes, suae imperitiae solacium quaerentes ea quae nesciunt
nullius utilitatis esse minus cautis praedicant. Sed ... de philosophia aliquid dicere
proposuimus, ut diligentibus ipsam pro posse nostro proficiamus, non diligentes vero ad
diligentiam excitemus."
19 Philosophia, I, i, ?4, 18: "Philosophia est eorum quae sunt et non videntur, et eorum
quae sunt et videntur vera comprehensio." See Helen Rodnite Lemay, "Guillaume de
Conches' Division of Philosophy in the Accessus ad Macrobium," Mediaevalia, 1 (1977),

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William of Conches 7

covered by modem science. At the same time the use of the terms "visible
things" and "invisible things" resonates both with the Creed, thereby
associating his science with knowledge of the creator,20 and with usage tied to
the practices of biblical exegesis according to which words were visibilia and
their spiritual meaning were invisibilia.21
Thus the prologues of William's Philosophia, which attack those de-
voted to the mere trappings of learning, employ, even as they claim to
transcend, stylistic elegance, rhetorical authorities and exegetical methods.
Ambiguously grounded and equipped, they function as platforms from which
to proclaim the importance of the subject and form of his work-the direct
study of the natural world in a free-standing treatise with an orderly sequence
of topics. Neither tied to a text, as were commentaries on the early chapters of
Genesis, nor committed primarily to the discovery of moral and spiritual
meaning in natural objects, as was the bestiary or Physiologus, the Phil-
osophia and it was one of the earliest Northern European works of this kind,
which became increasingly common in the course of the century.
The effects of William's strategy in the prologues carry over into the
body of the work as well. In his discussion of the four elements, for example,
he holds that we encounter the elements only in compounds, like letters in a
syllable, never alone. Defending this position, he refers to the pride and
arrogance of those who "have never read the writings of Constantine or of
[any] other physicus" (that is, anyone "treating the nature of bodies").22 He
is referring to Constantine the African, a converted Moslem, who, toward the
end of the eleventh century, rendered into Latin a large body of Arabic
medicine and with it a considerable amount of natural philosophy. William
was one of the first Northern Europeans we know of to cite Constantine,
whose works were certainly not regarded as authoritative at this time. By
naming Constantine as his main source rather than the well established
experts Plato and Macrobius (whose opinions he cites merely to support
Constantine's) William is contributing to the creation of a new canon for
natural philosophy. He also draws on other authors whose works, like
Constantine's, were circulating at the time in the lively community of
medical intellectuals at Salerno in Southern Italy.23

20 "Credo in unum deum ... factorem ... visibilium omnium et invisibilium." See also
Philosophia, IV, xxxiii, ?58, 116.
21 See Nancy F. Partner, "The New Cornificius: Medieval History and the Artifice of
Words" in Ernst Breisach (ed.), Classical and Medieval Historiography (Kalamazoo,
1985), 5-59 on 26.
22 Philosophia, I, vii, ?23, 28: "... qui neque Constantini scripta neque alterius physici
umquam legerunt...."; and ?24, 29: "Constantinus igitur ut physicus de naturis corporum
tractans...." On physicus, see note 2.
23 He mentions Johannitius at I, vii, ?23, 28 and IV, xviii, ?31, 104. See Heinrich
Schipperges, "Die Schulen von Chartres unter dem Einfluss des Arabismus," Sudhoffs
Archiv fur Geschichte der Medizin und der Naturwissenschaften, 40 (1956), 193-210 on

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8 Joan Cadden

Similarly, in a provocative discussion of the creation of Eve in which he

says God made her of clay similar to Adam's, his incorporation of the biblical
story and his unusual interpretation of the natural history behind it only serve
to underscore his deviation from standard scriptural readings which empha-
sized the moral and spiritual meanings of Adam's rib. William took pains to
emphasize his heterodox use of the text and of exegetical practice, and he
anticipated the public theological attack later launched against him (perhaps
he had already heard objections from his students or colleagues), when he
dismissed those who did not want to know about the forces of nature and who
label as heretics those who did.24 The Philosophia contains numerous biblical
quotations, but few serve to provide information about nature. When, as in
this case, William does acknowledge scriptural authority in relation to the
substance of his argument, he usually gives it an unorthodox naturalistic
spin. His treatment here of subjects such as the theory of the four elements
highlights his commitment to the study of natural processes and thus places
him on the threshold of a new way of looking at the world.25 Yet, while
William's analysis is naturalistic and rationalistic, it is still fimdamentally
tied to assumptions and methods of the exegetical tradition: the invisibilia of
insight are embedded in the visibilia of words.
In other ways, too, William was using his literary skills to create and
advance natural philosophy. He called attention to his use of an unorna-
mented prose style, which is indeed a model of clarity. Unlike Moliere's
bourgeois gentilhomme who did not know he had been speaking prose all his
life, William took pains to point out that a simple style is not no style. For
example, making a transition from one part of philosophy to another, he
deliberately used rhetorical terminology: "Up to now our oratio has been
about those things which exist and are not seen; now [our] stilus is turned to
those things which exist and are seen."26 He contrasted his style with that o
the eloquence-mongers, once again claiming that the difference was not
merely one of form: "For we prefer to put forward naked truth than costumed
falsity."27 He represented his work as a response to the violation of Philoso
phy, "Lest she remain naked, we have sewn together the torn pieces with the
style of our insignificance."28 With a rhetorical flourish, he explained why a
man in his position could not be expected to engage in rhetorical flourishes:

24 Philosophia, bk. I, ch. xii, ?43-44, 38-39. See above, note 7 and Taylor, "Introduc-
tion" to Hugh, Didascalicon, 12-13 and 18; and 166, n. 69.
25 Dorothy Elford, "William of Conches," in Peter Dronke (ed.), A History of Twelf
Century Philosophy (Cambridge, 1988), 308-27.
26 Philosophia, I, vii, ? 19, 26: "Hactenus de illis quae sunt et non videntur nostr
disseruit oratio; nunc ad ea quae sunt et videntur stilus convertatur." "Stilus" is also
"pen. "
27 Philosophia, Prologue, ? 1, 41: "Maluimus enim praetendere nudam veritatem quam
palliatam falsitatem."
28 Philosophia, III, Prologue, ?1, 73: "... ne nuda remaneat, particulas abscisas stilo
nostrae parvitatis consuimus...." "Stilus" also evokes a pen wielded as a needle.

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William of Conches 9

If, however, there is someone whom the dryness of our speech should
displease, if he knew the occupations of our mind, not only would he
not ask for the ornament [ornatus] of speech, but he would be
astounded by what we are dealing with. For what place at all can be
left for ornament, when it is necessary to think what and how we
read, and then to explicate by reading; to declaim against falsehoods,
to judge the findings of others, [and] to sharpen the tongue against
the detractions of the envious, so that now in us is fulfilled [the
scriptural passage] about the children of Israel, who, rebuilding the
temple, had a sword in one hand and a stone in the other?29

William confines such melodrama mainly to the prefaces of the work's four
books; his style is, for the most part, simple, making the material accessible
to students and masters who had not yet fully accepted natural philosophy as
a legitimate or interesting enterprise.
Not all of William's conscious employment of rhetoric or style runs
counter to or even diverges from conventional understandings and practices.
His explication of the creation of Eve illustrates that he knew perfectly we
how to use the standard tools of verbal analysis which his contemporaries
used to explain the meanings of texts from Solomon to Ovid-indeed they
were the basis of much of his writing and teaching.30 Medieval readers were
no fundamentalists. They presumed, in fact, that any authoritative utterance
could and often should be read at more than one level, and that even the basic,
literal meaning might not be immediately clear.31 Addressing the saying
"The heavens cover everything," William is following a familiar pattern,
when he explains, "Authority speaks of heavenly bodies in three ways,
mythologically, astrologically and astronomically,"32 and detennines that
this instance the meaning is astrological. Controversial subjects sometimes
seemed to demand creative readings of Scripture, although some interpreta-
tions were privileged over others by their pedigrees or their theological
implications. William took on the problem of explaining what it could mean
that, in a world in which each of the four elements had its proper place, God

29 Philosophia, II, Prologue, ?2, 41: "Si quis tamen est, cui ariditas nostri sermonis
displiceat, si nostri animi occupationes cognoverit, non tantum ornatum sermonis non
quaesierit, sed de illo quod agimus stupebit. Quis enim ullus reliquus locus potest esse
ornatui, cum oporteat, quid et qualiter legamus cogitare, deinde legendo exponere, in
disputationibus contra falsa declamare, de aliorum inventis iudicare, contra invidorum
detractiones linguam acuere, ut iam in nobis impletum sit illud de filiis Israelis, qui
reaedificantes templum in una manu gladium, in alia lapidem habebant?"
30 E.g., Philosophia, II, vii, ?18, 48.
31 Philosophia, I, xii, ?45, 39. On the Eve passage, see, e.g., John Chrysostom, Homilia
XV, ?2 (PG, 53, cols. 120-21).
32 Philosophia, II, iii, ?, 44: "Tribus igitur modis auctoritas loquitur de superioribus:
fabulose, astrologice, astronomice."

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10 Joan Cadden

"placed the firmament in the midst of the waters."33 "Since this is against
reason," he says with his characteristic naturalism, "we shall show why it
cannot be thus and how Scripture should be understood."34 William explains
that the gravity-defying waters above the firmament may have allegorical
significance but do not reflect the actual arrangement of the ordered cos-
This cultural habit of reading beyond the appearances of texts, along with
a neoplatonic outlook which encouraged reading beyond the appearances of
things figuratively, contributed to William's most complicated and signifi-
cant engagement with rhetorical elegance. Why, if he is so committed to the
naked truth, has William busied himself mending philosophy's clothes? The
question may seem unfair: the two sets of imagery occur in separate contexts.
William had, however, deliberately constructed this paradox, and he ex-
ploited it to show, among other things, how the philosophy of nature involves
and embodies a transcendent form of rhetoric. We may begin to see this if we
examine the garments of Philosophy. As grabbed at by those ignorant of her
essence, they are superficial, mere coverings; but to the initiated the cover-
ings themselves are windows to deeper knowledge-the words and signs
which clothe the world also express it.
Considerable scholarship has been devoted to William's use of the word
integumentum or "covering."36 Suffice it to say here that he treats the veil
through which we see darkly, the surfaces of texts and things, as opportuni-
ties for, rather than impediments to, knowledge. In Boethius's Consolation of
Philosophy, William's source, her garment is encoded with a text-not mere
decoration but the imaging of her very essence.37 For William the truths of
the Creation and the Creator were similarly written into the cosmos for those
who knew how to read it. Students of early modem science are familiar with
the view that the Book of Nature is written in the language of mathematics.
For William, however, the Book of Nature was written in the language of
language. And in the same way that early modems meant not simply that

33 Philosophia, II, i, ?3, 42: "'Posuit firmamentum in medio aquarum' et iterum:

'divisit aquas, quae sunt sub firmamento ab his, quae erant super firmamentum' [Genesis
1:6-7]." See Helen Rodnite Lemay, "Science and Theology at Chartres: The Case of the
Supracelestial Waters," British Journalfor the History of Science, 10 (1977), 226-36.
34 Philosophia, II, i, ?3, 42: "Sed quoniam illud contra rationem est, quare sic esse non
possit ostendamus et qualiter divina pagina in praedictis intelligenda sit."
35 Philosophia, II, ii, ?6, 43: "... quamvis hoc plus allegorice quam ad litteram dictum
36 See Edouard Jeauneau, "L'usage de la notion d'integumentum a travers les gloses de
Guillaume de Conches," Archives d'Histoire Doctrinale et Litte'raire du Moyen Age, 24
(1957), 35-100; and Dronke, Fabula; also Brian Stock, Myth and Science in the Twelfth
Century: A Study of Bernard Silvester (Princeton, 1972).
37 Boethius, De consolatione philosophiae, I, prose i, 11. 18-19: "Harum in extrema
margine . I . [= practica] Graecum, in supremo uero . 0 . [= theorica], legebatur intex-

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William of Conches 11

mathematics described the world but that number, figure, and ratio consti-
tuted or at the very least deeply ordered the world, William and some of his
contemporaries understood that word, figurative structure, and linguistic
meaning constituted or at least ordered nature.38 The naked truth of philoso-
phy can be attained-indeed, can only be attained-by an understanding that
works through and beyond the signs shown on her garment of figures and
appearances. The superficial emphasis upon the rhetorical trappings leads
both to mistaking the appearance for the essence and to a failure to appreciate
and respect the body of truth beneath.
In the Philosophia William suggests this vision of the natural order by
his use of the term "ornatus." The word has a number of meanings, includ-
ing "preparation," "furnishing," "adornment," and "splendid attire."
Translating it in the context of William's attacks on mere eloquence, I have
used "ornament"; its resonance with the figure of clothing requires no
elaboration. In the very prologue of the second book he complains about
those who seek the ornatus of words rather than the truth of science, says he
has no time for ornatus because he has a sword in one hand and a building
block in the other, and announces that he will now speak about each of the
elements and its ornatus.39 He says of aether, for example, that "its ornatus is
something seen above the moon, namely the stars, the fixed ones as well as
the wandering ones."40 Thus, even as he dismisses a preoccupation with
decoration, he insists on attention to the way in which nature is arrayed. The
ambiguity of clothing heralds the distinction between simple ornatus and
ornatus of a more profound and truth-bearing sort.41 This higher, philosophi
cal sense which William is employing when he speaks of the ornatus of the
elements has to do with the arrangement, the plan of the world. It retains the
rhetorical aura and extends it to the rational order of the created universe.42
The rhetorical character of this order is illustrated by William's attribu-
tion of a soul to the world and by his comparison of the elements in their
places to the layers in an egg.43 In some respects William's plain prose

38 This view was encouraged by the associations of the Logos or Verbum with Christ,
the Incarnation of God but was more explicitly connected with the parallel and related
neoplatonic tradition in which logos was both order and its expression and with William's
reading of the Timaeus. See Jeauneau, "La notion de l'integumentum," esp. 58-84.
39 Philosophia, II, Prologue, ?1-2, 41. On the ornatus elementorum in Bernard
Silvester see Stock, Myth and Science, 119-37.
40 Philosophia, II, i, ?3, 42: "Ornatus vero illius est quidquid super lunam videtur,
scilicet stellae tam infixae quam erraticae."
41 The English word "array" may help to illuminate the double meaning, for an array
may be a dress or garment, as in the phrase "a rich array," or it may be an order or
arrangement, as in the phrase "battle array."
42 William uses the term thus in his Glosae super Platonem, written in the same period
as the Philosophia, ed. Jeauneau, ?LXXI (on Timaeus 34B), 144; ?CIV (on Timaeus 39D),
191; ?CLIV (on Timaeus 47E), 258; and especially ?CLXXVI (on Timaeus 53A), 289.
43 Philosophia, I, iv, ? 13, 22-23; IV, Prologue and i, ?3-4, 88-89. See Gregory, Anima
Mundi and Dronke, Fabula, 79-99.

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12 Joan Cadden

exposition of the n
porary Bernard Silvestris, whose verse cosmogony features speeches by a
cast of abstract Platonic characters, but William shared with Bernard certain
fundamental views not only about nature but also about language.44 Fis
suspicion of elegant speech did not include a suspicion of rhetorical figures
per se. On the contrary, William, who was a sympathetic reader of the
sometimes extravagantly interpreted myth of nature contained in Plato's
Timaeus, was inclined to view figures and images as basic features of nature
itself and therefore of the description and interpretation of nature.45
The rhetorical currency of the Philosophia purchased for William a
double advantage. On the one hand he established himself as a master of the
verbal arts as they were taught and practiced in the most advanced intellectual
environments of Northern Europe, the urban schools. He demonstrated his
eloquence, his familiarity with the classical authorities, and his skills at
glossing and exegesis. On the other hand he distanced himself from these in
order to highlight the distinctiveness of natural philosophy, to accord it its
own status, its own authorities, its own style, and its own relationship with
figurative speech. This duality mirrors William's position at the beginning of
his career, when he wrote the Philosophia. He was a participant in a set of
dynamic institutions devoted to advanced learning outside the walls of the
monastery and in intellectual traditions remarkable for their sophisticated
applications of the verbal sciences to classical poetry and Christian scripture.
These were perhaps not much older than William himself, but they had
already acquired a formidable momentum, which William harnessed in his
attempt to extend them to the study of nature and which he resisted to the
extent that he perceived their very success to be limiting and stultifying.
Twenty years later much had changed in William's general and immediate
environment, so that when he came to rework this product of his early career,
its rhetorical strategies lacked immediacy and force. In the meantime, how-
ever, new circumstances presented William with new opportunities to use his
rhetorical skills and imagination in the service of natural philosophy, this
time less to legitimize its subject and methods than to explore its possible
audiences and sources of support.

The Dragmaticon and the Social Locus of Science

The Dragmaticon, the new, expanded treatise on natural philosophy

written in the court of Geoffrey Plantagenet, sustains many of the rhetorical
practices of the Philosophia.6 Once again William heads each book with a
polemical preface; cites the standard classical authorities on the verbal

44 Bernardus Silvestris, Cosmographia, ed. Peter Dronke (Leiden, 1978); Stock, Myth
and Science, 237-40, 249-62.
45 See note 36.
46 Vuilelmus, Dialogus de substantiis physicis (Strasburg, 1567; repr. Frankfurt,
1967), referred to here as Dragmaticon, following the modern convention. This title,

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William of Conches 13

sciences;47 employs the familiar techniques of verbal analysis;48 and develops

his application of figurative language. However, William's energies are no
longer aimed at denigrating the verbal sciences in order to promote natural
philosophy, nor does he use devices such as the play on ornatus to legitimate
and deepen the style or substance of his subject. Eloquence is not an issue in
this later work, but it remains a vehicle for William's promotion of natural
philosophy. He employs very different rhetorical strategies from those of the
Philosophia to reposition the study of nature in relation to a changing
academic scene. By choosing new targets for his polemic and shaping the
work as a dialogue between a philosopher and his secular patron, William
distances himself metaphorically as he has physically from the teeming
schools. Like the rhetorical strategy of the Philosophia, that of the
Dragmaticon has more than one layer, so that although William's new work
is in one sense authentically addressed to the Duke of Normandy, in another
sense its audience is a new kind of scholar developing a new natural philoso-
phy in Northern Europe.
What accounts for William's shift away from his earlier agenda? He
mentions with regret the passing of those he regarded as the true servants of
Wisdom. These would have been his own teachers, a generation which
contributed not only to the study and practice of grammar and rhetoric but
also to the appreciation and interpretation of classical Latin poetry. William,
who was always quoting Horace, had learned a lot from them and had himself
taught and written about grammar and poetry.49 If in the Philosophia William
had played upon his differences with them to highlight the distinctness of
natural philosophy, the distance separating him from them must have seemed
far less significant after so many years.
Furthermore, the relative positions of natural philosophy and the verbal
arts had changed. Prodigious and creative work of several sorts had made
natural philosophy more familiar and fashionable. A number of scholars who
had mainly Genesis and Plato to go on had taken on the project of reading the
natural world. Honorius of Autun had written his Imago mundi, and Bernard
Silvester had been teaching about Platonic natural philosophy at Tours. In
addition, Northern Europeans were beginning to know of and benefit from
the translation and appropriation of Greek and Arabic works occurring in
Spain and Southern Italy. When William had cited Constantine the African in
the 1120s, the scientific treasures of the Arabic tradition were largely un-
known in Northern France and England, whereas by the late 1140s they had
made a real impression. Adelard of Bath had completed his Questiones

attested along with Dialogus avoids confusion with the various versions of the earlier work.
(Variations on "Philosophia" predominate in the manuscripts: Vernet, "Une rema-
niement," 255-57.)
47 See Clothilde Picard-Parra, "Une utilisation des Quaestiones naturales de Seneque
au milieu du Xiie siecle," Revue du Moyen Age Latin, 5 (1949), 115-26.
48 He adds glosses-e.g., on "substance" (Dragmaticon, I, 8-9).
49 See John of Salisbury, Metalogicon, I, v, 20.

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14 Joan Cadden

naturales, in which he boasted about what he had learned among the Arabs;50
and Peter Alfonsi, an expert on astrology and the elements, had come from
Spain to serve as physician in the court of Henry I of England.51 The work of
these individuals and others helped to assure the subject a place in the
constellation of learning and establish the practice of incorporating new
authorities into the canon. They did little to settle the proper form or style in
which knowledge about nature ought to be conveyed-indeed they muddied
the waters considerably on that score-but William no longer needed to be
aggressive in the Dragmaticon about asserting the- legitimacy of natural
philosophy itself.
At the same time, the status and the study of rhetorical eloquence had
been considerably undermined.52 One facet of this change was the meteoric
rise of logic among the verbal sciences, represented by Peter Abelard.
William and his contemporaries commented on this development, and mod-
ern scholars have analyzed it.53 Equally relevant to William's concerns, the
traditional teaching of rhetoric based on classical texts had lost ground to
instruction by new practical manuals which offered models more relevant to
mundane, modern tasks-the writing of letters, charters, and the like. Al-
though William had objected to eloquence for its own sake, the proper
applications he had in mind, those he himself exercised, had to do with the
pursuit of higher wisdom, not with the trivialities of everyday life. The
character of this new rhetoric not only suggests why William abandoned his
attacks on the old rhetoric and its practitioners, but it also signals a larger
change in the educational environment.
That environment was very fluid for two reasons. First, it was not
strongly institutionalized. Even in schools which functioned within the walls
of cathedral compounds, curriculum was not standardized, students of vari-
ous ages studied for various periods of time, no degrees were granted, and no
protocol for the certification of masters existed. Outside the cathedral, in
cities like Paris, Laon, and Tours, freelance masters came and went, setting
up one-master schools in rented houses-Peter Abelard did this, for example.
The second reason for the fluidity of Latin learning had to do with the deep
and rapid economic, social, and political changes which marked the period
from the late eleventh to the end of the twelfth century. The consolidation of
the English, French, and "papal" monarchies was accompanied by the
codification and elaboration of civil and canon law, and by the rise of secular

50 Die Quaestiones naturales des Adelardus von Bath, ed. Martin Muller, Beitrdge zur
Geschichte der Philosophie und Theologie des Mittelalters, 31/2 (1934), 5, 11.
51 See Dronke, A History, 453; and Marie-Therese d'Alvemy, "Pseudo-Aristotle, De
elementis" in Pseudo-Aristotle in the Middle Ages, ed. Jill Kraye, W. F. Ryan and C. B.
Schmitt (London, 1986), 63-83.
52 "Thierry of Chartres and the Liberal Arts," 224-32; Fredborg, "Twelfth-Century
Ciceronian Rhetoric."
53 Dragmaticon, Prologue, 5. See, e.g., Lambertus Marie de Rijk, Logica Moder-
norum: A Contribution to the History of Early Terminist Logic (Assen, 1962, 1967).

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William of Conches 15

and ecclesiastical bureaucracies. At the same time the expansion of long-

distance trade, regional fairs, and urban centers was accompanied by the
articulation of mercantile and financial functions and by a growing bourgeois
elite. Professionals with a new self-awareness and new sets of standards,
especially lawyers, but also physicians, had a place in these processes too.
All these trends created new and largely practical demands for literacy and
education, and although many of the needs were probably met within infor-
mal systems of apprenticeship, students with goals other than the attainment
of Wisdom (sometimes dismissively referred to as garciones-mercenaries
or marauders) flooded the towns in search of teachers.54 There was thus a high
demand for masters and for a course of study practical in orientation and
short in duration.
While they were no doubt idealizing the rigorous golden age of their own
educations, William and some of his contemporaries were looking at very
real changes when, around the middle of the century, they began lamenting
the decline in educational values and standards. Thierry of Chartres, perhaps
the only master of William's generation more prominent than William
himself, complained that if he did not flatter the "ignorant multitude and
butting riffraff of the school," he would be left without students.55 John of
Salisbury, a powerful administrator in the English Church, who had studied
with William and other masters in France, spoke about the recent trend as the
cause of William's withdrawal from the schools:

Afterwards, because opinion damaged truth, and people preferred to

seem rather than to be philosophers, and teachers of the arts promised
their listeners they would have philosophy poured into them in less
than two or three years [William of Conches and a certain Richard
called "the Bishop"], defeated by the attack of the ignorant multi-
tude, retreated.56

These diluters and betrayers of learning, both students and masters, become
the new objects of William's polemical prologues. He attacks in particular
the short course of study mentioned by John and the venality of the new
breed. As in the Philosophia, his general prologue gets right to the point:

54 See Philippe Delhaye, "Organisation scolaire au Xiie siecle," Traditio, 5 (1947),

225-29. On garciones see below, note 64.
55 Thierry of Chartres Commentum super Rhetoricam Ciceronis, in Karin Margareta
Fredborg (ed.), The Latin Rhetorical Commentaries of Thierry by Chartres (Toronto,
1988), pt. I, Prologue, 49: "... ut vulgus profanum et farraginem scolae petulcam
56 John of Salisbury, Metalogicon, I, xxiv, 120-24, 54: "Sed postmodum ex quo opinio
ueritati praeiudicium fecit, et homines uideri quam esse philosophi maluerunt, profes-
soresque artium se totam philosophiam breuius quam triennio aut biennio transfusuros
auditoribus pollicebantur, impetu multitudinis imperitae uicti cesserunt." Cf. Ward,
"Thierry of Chartres," 235.

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16 Joan Cadden

Having abandoned the form of Pythagorean teaching by which it was

established that a student listened and believed for seven years, and
not until the eighth asked questions ... [now] they ask questions,
rather, what is worse, they make judgements, having studied negli-
gently for the space of one year.57

As for the charge of venality, William is in part playing on a conventional

theme, the admonition of Ecclesiastes about the vanity of the world, the
medieval complaint about corrupt members of the clergy.58 On the other hand
he is applying this trope to a new subject. His specific grievance is that
bishops are using cathedral schools for their own ends and that they appoin
foolish men who fill up endless parchments with useless glosses, leaving the
wise and noble masters without positions.59 The competition for positions in
ecclesiastical and secular courts and the perception that a new group of
ambitious men was competing for them was one point of intersection be-
tween the world of scholarship and the shifting economic and political
scene.60 Even more closely tied to the changes under way is William's view
of the careers of the new breed of students:

And thus, with a wise purse and a foolish mind, they return to their
relatives. 0 how easy is wisdom! Any usurer can be wise. 0 what
kind of wisdom is it which a thief can steal, a mouse can gnaw, a
moth can destroy, rain can wash away, fire can consume?6'

Is William suggesting that these men are destined for the lucrative but
disreputable occupations of the town-finance, commerce, and the like?
John of Salisbury is more specific about them: some become monks
(some sincere, most not); others engage in profane professions, such as usury
(here they apply their numerical learning to round off in their own favor);
others take positions in secular or ecclesiastical courts (as, in fact, both John
himself and William did); and others go into medicine. In addition to
attacking the greed of these last, John complains about their superficial
learning: "Others, contemplating their failure in philosophy, have gone forth

57 Dragmaticon, Prologue, 2: "... relicta Pythagoricae doctrinae forma, qua consti-

tutum erat discipulum septem annis audire et credere, octauo demum anno interrogare ...
interrogant, imo quod deterius est iudicant, unius uero anni spacio negligenter stu-
dentes...." Cf. Hugh of Saint Victor, Didascalicon, bk. II, ch. iii, 53; also Dragmaticon, VI,
58 Likewise, Dragmaticon, Prologue, 3.
59 Dragmaticon, Prologue, 3; and III, 63.
60 See Murray, Reason and Society, 81-109.
61 Dragmaticon, III, 63-64: "Sicque cum sapiente sacculo et insipiente animo ad
parentes suos recurrunt. 0 quam facilis est sapientia, quislibet foenerator sic potest esse
sapiens! 0 qualis est sapientia quam fur subripere, mus rodere, tinea demoliri, pluuia
abluere, ignis consumere potest?"

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William of Conches 17

to Salerno or Montpellier, become physicians' followers, and suddenly burst

forth in no time at all as the same kind of doctors as they had been philo-
The curricular conservatism of the critics of change like John of
Salisbury and William of Conches is thus tied to a social conservatism which
draws upon the disdain of an aristocratic culture for the activities and
identities associated with emergent urban elites.63 Their use of the word
garciones to designate the students they felt had no proper place in the
schools carried with it connotations not only of youth and lack of seriousness
but also of service to or employment by others-hence their haste and their
interest in practical utility.64 Although it is likely that a majority of the
growing ranks of students came from the lesser aristocracy,65 their careers in
the professions and in the new types of civil and ecclesiastical services
conformed neither to the ideal of disinterested devotion to learning within a
religious context nor to the ideal of chivalric service within a courtly context.
The bases of this attitude and of the polemical tones in which it was
expressed are complicated but not contradicted by evidence that these cham-
pions of the older educational values were to some extent drawn into the new
practices themselves.11 Thierry of Chartres, who complained about the new
ways and was celebrated for resisting them, was nevertheless the author of a
work which constituted a short course on the liberal arts.67 John of Salis-
bury's successful career in ecclesiastical politics and administration put him
in regular contact with many who would have profited from briefer and more
practical schooling-indeed, it is difficult to imagine that he would not have
recruited and supervised some of the brightest and most ambitious among
these upstarts.68 John in turn reports that Thierry, William, and others were
not uncontaminated by the trend towards the education of "bakers"- that is,
an easy and lucrative trade "for those who are after bread rather than skill."
Thus (according to John), William and Thierry "became foolish while

62 Metalogicon, I, iv, 21-24, 18: "Alii autem suum in philosophia intuentes defectu
Salernum uel ad Montem Pessulanum profecti, facti sunt clientuli medicorum, et repente
quales fuerant philosophi, tales in momento medici eruperunt." See also I, iv, 25-28, 18.
63 Cf. Hugh of Saint Victor, Didascalicon, Preface, 1.
64 J. F. Niermeyer, Mediae Latinitatits Lexicon Minus (Leiden, 1976), s.v. garcio;
Edouard Jeauneau, "Deux redactions des gloses de Guillaume de Conches sur Pricien,"
Recherches de Theologie Ancienne et Medievale, 27 (1960), 212-47 on 219-22; Ward,
"Thierry of Chartres," 229,-n. 23.
65 For evidence from slightly later, see John W. Baldwin, "Masters at Paris from 1179
to 1215: A Social Perspective" in Robert L. Benson and Giles Constable with Carol D.
Lanham (eds.), Renaissance and Renewal in the Twelfth Century (Cambridge, 1982), 138-
66 Ward, "Thierry of Chartres."
67 See Edouard Jeauneau, "Le Prologus in Eptateuchon de Thierry de Chartres,"
Mediaeval Studies, 16 (1954), 171-75.
68 Baldwin, "Masters at Paris," 154-55.

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18 Joan Cadden

resisting foolishness."69 At the very least these luminaries of the intellectual

scene were participants in the formation of the new type of "cleric"-not
those associated with the religious life as "clergy" but rather those associ-
ated with the exploitation of literacy as "clerks."70 William's early skepti-
cism about the verbal arts and his decades of experience in the urban schools
put him in a good position to recognize and even appreciate the evolution he
witnessed in the institutions, curricula, and constituencies of advanced edu-
cation; but given his age, his long success at more traditional scholarship, and
the social and ideological tone of the debate, he was-not inclined in the early
1140s to become an advocate of the changes.
Thus when he installed himself in the court of one of the most powerful
feudal dynasties in Northern Europe, William took pains to present the case
that the aristocratic household could replace the compromised schools as the
haven for disinterested learning, particularly natural philosophy. The author
of the Dragmaticon addressed himself thus to the Duke of Normandy, taking
the image of a disheveled Philosophy one step further:

If, therefore, [even] in a time in which there were many professors

and defenders of philosophy, there were rash attempts to tear away
her clothes and carry her off screaming-as a share of the booty, so to
speak-what do you think is done in our times, in which a philoso-
pher can scarcely be found?... But if I shall have a patron and a helper
[here], I shall rescue her from the hands of violent men and mend her

Like the case he had made against eloquence in the Philosophia, the case he
made for philosophy's new sanctuary in the Dragmaticon was both a serious
position and at the same time a vehicle for another program-in this instance
a continuing dialogue with the masters and students he had left behind. Once
again William was undertaking a double agenda: on the one hand the way in
which William reshaped his earlier work reflects his desire to explore a new
niche for the practice of natural philosophy in the courts of the aristocracy; on
the other hand the content and fate of the Dragmaticon point not backward to
the purpose and audience of the Philosophia (for those earlier conditions had

69 John of Salisbury, Metalogicon, bk. I, ch. 5, 20: "... apud eos qui panem potius
quam artificium quaerunt.... Insipientes itaque facti sunt dum insipientiae resistebant...."
70 Murray, Reason and Society, 263-65.
71 Dragmaticon, VI, 212: "Si igitur in tempore, quo multi erant professores et
defensores philosophiae, temerarii ausi sunt illius vestes abscindere, eandemque quasi
reclamantem quamuis uelut in partem praedae detrahere, quid in nostris putas fieri
temporibus, in quibus uix inuenientur philosophus? ... At si fautorem haberem et
adiutorem, a manibus uiolentorum illam eriperem, illiusque vestem resarcirem." I have
emended the edition's labeling of the Philosopher's and Duke's parts here: see Andre
Wilmart, Analecta Reginensia: Extraits des manuscrits latins de la reine Christine
conserves au Vatican (Vatican City, 1933), 10, Reg. Lat. 72 (fol. 127-39), 265.

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William of Conches 19

all but ceased to exist) but onward to the interests and practices of the fast-
changing schools.
What suggests that William was, at least on one level, serious about a
new site for the study of nature rather than that he was simply engaging in pro
forma appeals to his patron? Perhaps the best evidence is the class framework
within which he and others viewed the decline of the schools. In addition,
both the particular patron he served and the rhetorical structure and fabric of
the work he produced strengthen the case that William was interested in the
possibilities of his new setting, the great hall of the traditional warrior elite.
Geoffrey Plantagenet was in many respects a model of the ambitious and
successful twelfth-century lord. At fifteen he married Matilda, daughter of
King Henry I of England; at sixteen, he became Count of Anjou, when his
father went off to become King of the crusader state of Jerusalem. While
Matilda pursued military and political campaigns in England to enforce her
claim to the throne after her father's death, Geoffrey did his part by conquer-
ing Normandy-which belonged to the English crown-and making himself
Duke. Three years after Geoffrey died at the age of thirty-eight, these efforts
paid off when their oldest son received the crown as Henry II. Pro-Angevin
historians of the period attribute to Geoffrey all the conventional knightly
and lordly virtues: he was valiant, just, and charitable. But at a time when
much of the aristocracy was illiterate and there was no habit of connecting
learning with secular virtue or effective leadership, Geoffrey was also called
"highly educated" (optime litteratus).72 A description of his first meeting
with his future father-in-law, Henry I, has him "ornamenting his words with
rhetorical colors";73 and one chronicle describes in extravagant terms how, in
his youth, he loved reading and memorized passages from both sacred and
secular texts.74
Written by authors friendly to Geoffrey's dynasty, these descriptions are
hyperbole and flattery; but intellectual attainments were a new and not yet
common way to flatter secular princes, suggesting that Geoffrey was-or at
the very least wished to be known as-a person with some education. After

72 Chronica de gestis consulum andegavorum, in Chroniques des comtes d'Anjou et

des seigneurs d'Amboise, ed. Louis Halphen and Rene Poupardin (Paris, 1913), 71: "Fuit
Gosfridus probitate admirabilis, justitie insignis, militie actibus deditus, optime litteratus,
inter clericos et laicos facundissimus, fere omnibus bonis moribus repletus...." See also
Historia Gaufredi ducis normanorum et comitis andegavorum, in Halphen and Poupardin,
Chronica, 176-77; William of Malmesbury, Historiae novellae, I, ?452 in De gestis regum
anglorum libri quinque; Historiae novellae libri tres, ed. William Stubbs (London, 1887,
1889), I, 531; and Georges Duby, "The Culture of the Knightly Class: Audience and
Patronage" in Robert L. Benson and Giles Constable with Carol D. Lanham (eds.),
Renaissance and Renewal in the Twelfth Century (Cambridge, 1982), 248-62 on 254.
73 Historia Gaufredi, in Halphen and Poupardin (eds.), Chronica, 178: "Adolescens
vero, ut sapientium moris est, verborum compendio studens, eadem etiam verba rhetoricis
exornans coloribus, paucis innotescere satagebat."
74Historia Gaufredi, in Halphen and Poupardin (eds.), Chronica, 212-13; see also 218.

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20 Joan Cadden

all, he did engage William of Conches, one of the most highly reputed
masters of the age, to be the tutor of his young sons. He may even have had a
particular interest in science, for of the many subjects on which William had
written, natural philosophy was the one about which he chose to dedicate a
work to Geoffrey; and at just about the same time, when young Henry was
between seven and eleven years old, Adelard of Bath dedicated a little tract
on the astrolabe to the boy.75
The most significant rhetorical transfornation William effected in revis-
ing the Philosophia was the thorough rewriting of the work in the form of a
dialogue between the Duke of Normandy and an unnamed Philosopher. He
thus departed from the free-standing treatise divided into chapters which, in
part thanks to his own earlier work, was becoming a more common vehicle
for natural philosophy. The dialogue was by no means a new form, nor was
William the only twelfth-century author to try it out on a philosophical
subject. Like Bernard Silvester's adaptation of epic and mythic forms as a
vehicle for his cosmology, William's experiment with dialogue is one mani-
festation among many of the search (often among classical models) for
vehicles of expression appropriate to the rapidly developing and differentiat-
ing disciplines.76 William was certainly familiar with Seneca's Quaestiones
naturales, whose subject was related to his own, although its form did not
permit the development of an interlocutor's persona. Works like Boethius's
Consolatio philosophiae and Martianus Capella's De nuptiis Philologiae et
Mercurii contained dialogic exchanges among full blown characters, but
those works were not structured as dialogues and the characters were alle-
gorical. The catechistic question-and-answer format which served to incul-
cate basic principles and information into medical novices may have pro-
vided William with a precedent for master-student exchange but not for the
type of broad exploration to which his work was devoted.77
Thus, although variations on the dialogue form were familiar to twelfth-
century audiences, the hybrid form which William devised was not used for
teaching in the schools. Employing it was thus one way in which William
detached his work on natural philosophy from the standard production of
scholarly texts, and attached it to a secular setting. William makes much of
the dialogue form. The work's title, from the word "drama," is probably his;

75 Franz Bliemetzrieder, Adelhard von Bath: Blatter aus dem Leben eines englischen
Naturphilosophen des 12. Jahrhunderts und Bahnbrechers einer Wiedererweckung der
griechischen Antike: eine Kulturgeschichtliche Studie (Munich, 1935), 133-41 and 340-50;
Charles Homer Haskins, Studies in the History of Medieval Science (Cambridge, 1927), 28-
29; and Gregory, Anima Mundi, 7-8, n. 4.
76 See Stock, Myth and Science, 7-8.
77 Peter I. von Moos, "Le Dialogue latin au moyen age: l'example d'Evrard d'Ypres,"
Annales: Economies, Societe, Civilisation, 44 (1989), 993-1028. See also "Patterns in
Middle English Dialogues" in Edward Donald Kennedy, Ronald Waldron and Joseph S.
Wittig (eds.), Medieval English Studies Presented to George Kane (Wolfeboro, N.H.,
1988), 127-45.

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William of Conches 21

and he calls attention a number of times to the format, at one point, for
example, explaining the dialogue by saying, "Since similarity of speech is
the mother of boredom, we shall set off our speech dramatically" (drag-
matice).78 The conversational character of the book is carried through fairly
consistently, and William emphasizes it at many points.79
Although this new structure was not necessary for William to effect
changes in his substantive treatment of certain scientific points, it neverthe-
less provided him with a convenient vehicle. On a number of subjects, such
as the theory of the elements, William's discussion in the Dragmaticon is
considerably more complex, nuanced, and indeed inconclusive than in the
earlier version.80 The voice of the Duke asking for explanations and posing
problems gives some structure to this broader exploration.
The dialogue also emphasizes the position and role of the Duke, thus
highlighting the secular and aristocratic setting. When the Philosopher dis-
agrees with the Venerable Bede on the waters above the firmament, for
example, the Duke insists that when a man disagrees with his superior, he had
better present good reasons.81 The Duke tells the Philosopher that it is
unmanly to cry and promises to mobilize his armies for the battle against the
enemies of Wisdom.82 William does everything he can to make the character
of the Duke worthy of the task-to distinguish him from the superficial and
venal men who prostitute Philosophy. The Duke of the dialogue is smart,
well versed, and well spoken. More important, unlike the tradesmen and
opportunists, he has the right attitude towards Wisdom:

Although public business worries me, I nevertheless set Wisdom

before all business, agreeing with Solomon, who says, "[Wisdom] is
better than trafficking in gold and silver, and all things which are
desired are not worthy of being compared to it."83

The Philosopher praises the Duke for the way he is raising his children: "You
have imbued them not, like others, with the play of games of chance, but with

78 Dragmaticon, Prologue, 7-8: "Sed quia similitudo orationis mater est satietatis,
satietas fastidii, nostram orationem dragmatice distinguemus." See also William's Glosae
super Platonem quoted in Gregory, Anima mundi, 7, n. 4, citing MS Marciano lat. 1870, f.
gr (not recorded in Jeauneau ed.); Thierry of Chartres (Jeauneau, "Prologus in Eptateu-
chon," 175); and Isidore of Seville, Etymologiarum sive originum libri XX, ed. W. M.
Lindsay (Oxford, 1911), VIII, vii, ? 11.
79 E.g., Dragmaticon, Prologue, 1 and the opening of each book.
80 See Elford, "William of Conches"; similarly, on the waters above the firmament,
Dragmaticon, III, 64-69.
81 Dragmaticon, III, 65.
82 Dragmaticon, II, 35-36.
83 Dragmaticon, II, 36: "Quamuis publica negotia me sollicitent, cunctis ta
negotiis sapientiam praepono, Salomoni consentiens, qui ait, 'Melior est acquisitio eius
negotionibus auri et argenti et omnia quae desiderantur, ei non ualent comparari.'" Cf.
Proverbs 16:16.

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22 Joan Cadden

the study of letters from a tender age, the fragrance of which they will retain
for a long time."84 He expresses the expectation that the Duke's example,
combined with his status, will win wider approval for such an educational
program. The whole set-up conveys an ordinary amount of flattery, but once
again the unusual medium chosen for the flattery allows it to serve the
additional function of promoting an alliance between the true philosopher
and the true aristocrat.
With the artful shaping of the dialogue and the skillful portrayal of the
Duke, William has made the best case possible for this realignment. In doing
so, he represents a counter example to the association of the new rationalism
with a sector of society ("those with careers to make") and a social outlook
which represented a rising alternative to the social and ideological dominance
of an aristocratic and ascetic sensibility.85 In part because of the very changes
in which he participated and to which he contributed, William sought through
the Dragmaticon to find a secure position for himself and natural philosophy
on the hearth of the old elite. Having stepped out of the shelter of the
monasteries and lacking the kind of institutional alternative which the univer-
sities would provide in the following centuries, the systematic study of nature
had, in the mid-twelfth century, no obvious home. The existing centers of
secular power thus seemed a reasonable, perhaps even obvious, recourse.
Conditions did not, however, favor such a move. The secular courts of
the twelfth century were indeed developing patterns of patronage, not only
for vernacular literature but also for Latin letters-notably for historical
writing. Geoffrey was by no means alone among the aristocracy in providing
Latin education for his children, in supporting the work of a scholar, or even
in representing an audience for a learned work.86 But neither philosophy in
general nor natural philosophy in particular had yet found a niche in the
evolving culture of the French and English aristocracies. Although the solu-
tions to the problems William perceived lay mainly in another direction-in
the institutions of the university-Geoffrey Plantagenet, with his unusual
background and interest, was a harbinger of a patronage relationship which
was to become increasingly significant in the following centuries and must
have inspired some optimism in William. But William was not so radical as
to abandon abruptly the institutions of the schools, corrupt though they might
be; nor was he so naive as to think that the men and boys of a military family
constituted an adequate audience for his most advanced work in natural
philosophy; nor, finally, was he so lacking in rhetorical virtuosity as to
construct a text to do only one job.

84 Dragmaticon, Prologue, 3-4: "... quos non ut alii ludo alearum sed studio litterarum
tenera aetate imbuisti, cuius odorem diu seruabunt." Cf. Horace, Epistles in Satires,
Epistles, Ars poetica, ed. and tr. H. Rushton Fairclough (Cambridge, 1966), I, ii, 67-70,
266, which is also alluded to in the preface of Adelard's work on the astrolabe dedicated to
Geoffrey's son Henry. Haskins, Studies, 28-29.
85 Murray, Reason and Society, 401.
86 See Duby, "The Culture of the Knightly Class."

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William of Conches 23

If the persistent praise

at Geoffrey himself, the persistent complaints about today's masters and
students were the continuation of a conversation which had arisen in the
urban schools, where William had participated before his move to Geoffrey's
household, and which was continuing among scholars. If Geoffrey read or,
more likely, had William read and explain to him, parts of the Dragmaticon,
still none but members of learned communities could fully appreciate its
We do not know if William ever directly reentered the fray,87 but the
subsequent history of the Dragmaticon itself suggests that it quickly found
its main audience in the towns of England and Northern France. Careful
manuscript research will be necessary to map with precision the Drag-
maticon's influence, but two preliminary observations are possible. First, the
dissemination of the Dragmaticon appears to have been similar to that of the
Philosophia, in the sense both that dozens of copies of each have come down
to us and that nothing noted to date about the copies-their appearance or the
other texts with which they are bound-suggests they belonged to a courtly
environment.88 Second, by the end of the century pieces of the Dragmaticon
had been borrowed and attached to Northern European texts about medicine
and physiology. In particular, one section was lifted out as a separate little
treatise,89 and portions of that same section were integrated into a highly
developed cluster of compilations of medical and scientific material often
referred to as "Salernitan Questions," because they were largely derived
from the work of Constantine the African and other elements of the new
medical knowledge of Salerno.90 These compilations, which are associated
with the environment of the urban schools of England, may in some ways
represent what so dismayed William about modern education. From the
fragmentation of natural philosophy into specific and sometimes practical
bits of information to some scurrilous comments about the sexuality of
individual masters, the "Salernitan Questions" seem to attest to the ascen-
dancy of the garciones on the academic scene.91

87 See Alberic des Tres Fontaines, Chronica cited in Gregory Anima Mundi, 4.
88 Lynn Thomdike, History of Magic, II, 64-65, and "More Manuscripts of the
Dragmaticon and Philosophia of William of Conches," Speculum, 20 (1945), 252-59; and
Vemet, "Une remaniement."
89 MSS Cambridge, Trinity 0.2.5, fols. 75r-85vb; Zurich, Zentralbibliothek, Car. C.
172, fols. 3v-6v; Paris, Bibliotheque Nationale lat. 14809, fols. 298v-3 12V and n. a. 693, fols.
183r-86r. Probably also Oxford, Christchurch 99, fols. 134-3 5, which I have not seen:
Thorndike "More Manuscripts of the Dragmaticon and Philosophia," 84. See also
Grabmann, Handschriftliche Forschungen.
90 Brian Lawn (ed.), The Prose Salernitan Questions Edited from a Bodleian Manu-
script (Auct. F.3.10) (London, 1979) and I Quesiti Salernitani: Introduzione alla storia
della letteratura problematica medica e scientifica nel Medio Aevo e nel Rinascimento, tr.
Alessandro Spagnuolo ([Salerno], 1969), add. note G.
91 Duby, "The Culture of the Knightly Class," 255-56.

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24 Joan Cadden

Yet in another sense the appropriation of his text by excerpters and

compilers represents a triumph for at least part of William's original agenda
and part of his revised rhetorical strategy. In this abbreviated form, the work
of William, who was among the first to take advantage of the scientific riches
contained in the medical learning of Southern Italy, now rejoined that
tradition, which had, in part thanks to William himself, become widely
appreciated in Northern Europe. Both natural philosophy in general and the
new canon of medical and philosophical works represented by Constantine
held a prominent place in the world of Latin learning by the end of William's
career. Furthermore, the dialogue form of the Dragmaticon fit nicely with the
compilation's question-and-answer format which had evolved along with the
Salernitan medical material. The sections which the "Salernitan Questions"
borrowed from the Dragmaticon enhanced the development of that material
by introducing dialogic exchange-not merely the catechistic transfer of
information but rather a means to explore scientific subjects.
Given the fluidity and diversity of natural philosophy in the twelfth
century, we cannot claim that the way William negotiated the changes
through which he lived constitutes a model for our understanding of relations
among author, rhetoric, audience, and natural philosophy. But for William, at
least, rhetorical choices were one way to position natural philosophy, to
articulate its relationship to other branches of learning, to explore its content,
and to address particular and even multiple audiences. It was not the only
way to accomplish these ends, nor was it the only method William employed,
but it was one he used with great self-consciousness and skill-and both the
self-consciousness and the skill were products of the intellectual world he
inhabited. Furthermore, the shifts in his rhetorical choices from the
Philosophia to the Dragmaticon represent clear responses to changes in the
constellation of knowledge, the educational milieu, and the constituencies for
Latin learning.
William's approaches to shaping and positioning natural philosophy are
ambiguous not so much because he occupied a middle ground as because he
found himself on shifting ground. A pioneer in the creation of Western
rationalism and naturalism, he was deeply committed to a Neoplatonic and
exegetical respect for the constitutive power of words; a participant in the
dissociation of learning from the old scholarly elite of the monasteries, he
mistrusted many implications of that shift and sought the support of the old
secular elite. The flexibility and exploratory spirit of William's approach to
defining and advancing the interests of natural philosophy illustrate the kinds
of social and rhetorical strategies which eventually placed natural philosophy
in a position to claim the attention and commitment not only of later scholars
but also of those social groups and institutions with the power to secure its

Kenyon College.

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