Anselm, Dialogue, and the Rise of Scholastic Disputation

Alex J. Novikoffa1

a1 Rhodes College, Memphis, TN 38112. E-mail: [email protected]

The Italian-born Lanfranc of Pavia (c. 1005–89) and his more illustrious pupil and compatriot Anselm of Bec (c. 1033–1109) have long been considered pivotal figures in the theological and especially philosophical developments of the late eleventh century. Long ago dubbed the “father of Scholasticism” on account of his attempts to harmonize reason and faith, Anselm has occasioned increasing scrutiny in recent years as scholars have begun to target the cultural and pedagogical (as opposed to strictly philosophical) role of Anselm and his milieu in the early stages of the twelfth-century renaissance. In a particularly stimulating interdisciplinary exploration of the cognitive relation between builders and their craft and masters and theirs, Charles M. Radding and William W. Clark have advanced an intriguing model suggesting that theologians and Romanesque builders of the eleventh and twelfth centuries were part of a larger transformative development in which thinkers and artisans developed new methods for solving new problems; these new methods, in turn, transformed practitioners of a craft into members of new and distinct disciplines. The verdict is still out on the precise nature of those important developments, but especially vexing is the question of the abbey of Bec's importance and influence under Lanfranc and Anselm during these changing times. As a leading scholar of Anselm has recently put it, “The character of the school of Bec emerges as a riddle to be solved. What was its focus, what did its teachers teach, and how long did it last?” Recent studies have modified Richard Southern's portrayal of the curriculum of Anselm's school at Bec as largely devoted to monastic ideals and demonstrated that history and law were also studied, that a good number of students went on to become able administrators, and that Anselm may have unwittingly contributed to the rise of courtly love. Much of the fog surrounding the authorial publication and dissemination of Anselm's writings has recently been cleared by Richard Sharpe's meticulous analysis in “Anselm as Author,” revealing a careful and more deliberate editorial planning on Anselm's part than previously recognized. However, even amidst the gathering attention directed toward these figures and their cultural context, it is the most basic and obvious feature of Lanfranc's and Anselm's written record that has been the most undeservedly neglected: their use of dialogue and its correlation to the early development of Scholastic disputation. To be sure, the revival of dialectic in the eleventh century and especially in the twelfth has long been known and rather well charted, particularly with regard to the growth of theology as an academic discipline. What follows is a somewhat more focused line of inquiry. Looking beyond the well-trodden ground of Anselm's philosophy and theology and instead examining his pedagogical innovations, this essay explores Anselm's contribution to the development of literary dialogue and to the origins of the Scholastic disputatio, both valuable tools indeed in his philosophical and theological endeavors. Anselm's influence as a prolific author of dialogues can especially be observed in a younger generation of writers and thinkers who studied with him or directly sought to imitate his style and whose oeuvres need also to be considered. By examining the circle of Lanfranc and Anselm, the methods embodied by their teachings, and the writings they produced, this essay aims to show that the Scholastic dialectical methods, later so prominent in medieval universities, have their origins within the general milieu of monastic learning. More specifically, these methods will be shown to have their origins in Lanfranc's and Anselm's engagement with dialogue and disputation at the school of Bec.

(Online publication April 12 2011)


This article was written in the summer of 2009, on the basis of earlier work, during my term as a Lindsay Young Visiting Research Fellow at the Marco Institute for Medieval and Renaissance Studies at the University of Tennessee, Knoxville. I wish to thank the Marco Institute for electing me to that fellowship and the medievalists there for their hospitality. A very preliminary version of my ideas was shared at the Fourth Medieval History Seminar hosted by the German Historical Institute in Venice in October 2005, and I am grateful to the conveners and the participants of that wonderful seminar for their feedback and encouragement. For their comments and helpful suggestions on earlier drafts of this article I would especially like to acknowledge Edward Peters, the editors of Speculum, and the anonymous reviewers for the journal, and in particular the heroic efforts of “Reader B.”