Intellectual Life

Learning Objective

  • Describe intellectual life in the Middle Ages

Key Points

  • Increased contact with Byzantium and with the Islamic world in Muslim-dominated Spain and Sicily, the Crusades, and the Reconquista allowed Europeans to seek and translate the works of Hellenic and Islamic philosophers and scientists, especially Aristotle.
  • The groundwork for the rebirth of learning was also laid by the process of political consolidation and centralization of the monarchies of Europe, especially of Charlemagne and Otto I.
  • Cathedral schools and universities started to develop, with young men proceeding to university to study the trivium and quadrivium.
  • Scholasticism was a fusing of philosophy and theology by 12th- and 13th-century scholars that tried to employ a systematic approach to truth and reason.
  • Royal and noble courts saw the development of poems and songs spread by traveling minstrels.
  • Legal studies advanced in Western Europe.
  • Algebra was invented, allowing more developed mathematics, and astronomy and medicine advanced.


Thomas Aquinas

Italian Dominican friar and priest (c. 1225 CE–1274 CE) and an immensely influential philosopher and theologian in the tradition of scholasticism.


In medieval universities, the trivium comprised the three subjects that were taught first: grammar, logic, and rhetoric.

Corpus Juris Civilis

The modern name for a collection of fundamental works in jurisprudence, issued from 529–534 CE by order of Eastern Roman Emperor Justinian I.


The four subjects, or arts, taught after the trivium. It consisted of arithmetic, geometry, music, and astronomy and was considered preparatory work for the serious study of philosophy and theology.


Greco-Roman writer of Alexandria (c. CE 90–c. 168 CE) known as a mathematician, astronomer, geographer, astrologer, and poet. Ptolemy was the author of several scientific treatises, three of which were of continuing importance to later Islamic and European science.


Greek philosopher and scientist born in Stagirus, northern Greece, in 384 BCE. His writings covered many subjects and constitute the first comprehensive system of Western philosophy.


Method of critical thought that dominated teaching by the academics (scholastics, or schoolmen) of medieval universities in Europe from about 1100–1700 CE.

During the 11th century, developments in philosophy and theology led to increased intellectual activity, sometimes called the renaissance of 12th century. The intellectual problems discussed throughout this period were the relation of faith to reason, the existence and simplicity of God, the purpose of theology and metaphysics, and the issues of knowledge, of universals, and of individuation. Philosophical discourse was stimulated by the rediscovery of Aristotle—more than 3,000 pages of his works would eventually be translated—and his emphasis on empiricism and rationalism. Scholars such as Peter Abelard (d. 1142) and Peter Lombard (d. 1164) introduced Aristotelian logic into theology.

Historical Conditions

The groundwork for the rebirth of learning was also laid by the process of political consolidation and centralization of the monarchies of Europe. This process of centralization began with Charlemagne, King of the Franks (768–814) and later Holy Roman Emperor (800–814). Charlemagne’s inclination towards education, which led to the creation of many new churches and schools where students were required to learn Latin and Greek, has been called the “Carolingian Renaissance.” A second “renaissance” occurred during the reign of Otto I, King of the Saxons from 936–973 and Holy Roman Emperor from 952. Otto was successful in unifying his kingdom and asserting his right to appoint bishops and archbishops throughout the kingdom. Otto’s assumption of this ecclesiastical power brought him into close contact with the best-educated and ablest class of men in his kingdom. From this close contact, many new reforms were introduced in the Saxon kingdom and in the Holy Roman Empire. Thus, Otto’s reign has also been called a “renaissance.” The renaissance of the twelfth century has been identified as the third and final of the medieval renaissances. Yet the renaissance of the 12th century was far more thoroughgoing than those renaissances that preceded in the Carolingian and Ottonian periods.

Conquest of and contact with the Muslim world through the Crusades and the reconquest of Spain also yielded new texts and knowledge. Most notably, contact with Muslims led to the the European rediscovery and translation of Aristotle, whose wide-ranging works influenced medieval philosophy, theology, science, and medicine.

Schools and Universities

The late-11th and early-12th centuries also saw the rise of cathedral schools throughout Western Europe, signaling the shift of learning from monasteries to cathedrals and towns. Cathedral schools were in turn replaced by the universities established in major European cities.

The first universities in Europe included the University of Bologna (1088), the University of Paris (c. 1150, later associated with the Sorbonne), and the University of Oxford (1167). In Europe, young men proceeded to university when they had completed their study of the trivium—the preparatory arts of grammar, rhetoric, and dialectic or logic—and the quadrivium—arithmetic, geometry, music, and astronomy.


Mob Quad at Merton College, University of Oxford. Aerial view of Merton College’s Mob Quad, the oldest quadrangle of the university, constructed from 1288-1378.

Philosophy and theology fused in scholasticism, an attempt by 12th- and 13th-century scholars to reconcile authoritative texts, most notably Aristotle and the Bible. This movement tried to employ a systemic approach to truth and reason and culminated in the thought of Thomas Aquinas (d. 1274), who wrote the Summa Theologica, or Summary of Theology.

The development of medieval universities allowed them to aid materially in the translation and propagation of these texts and started a new infrastructure, which was needed for scientific communities. In fact, the European university put many of these texts at the center of its curriculum, with the result that the “medieval university laid far greater emphasis on science than does its modern counterpart and descendent.”

Poems and Stories

Royal and noble courts saw the development of chivalry and the ethos of courtly love. This culture was expressed in the vernacular languages rather than Latin, and comprised poems, stories, legends, and popular songs spread by troubadours, or wandering minstrels. Often the stories were written down in the chansons de geste, or “songs of great deeds,” such as “The Song of Roland” or “The Song of Hildebrand.” Secular and religious histories were also produced. Geoffrey of Monmouth (d. c. 1155) composed his Historia Regum Britanniae, a collection of stories and legends about Arthur. Other works were more clearly pure history, such as Otto von Freising’s (d. 1158) Gesta Friderici Imperatoris, detailing the deeds of Emperor Frederick Barbarossa, or William of Malmesbury’s (d. c. 1143) Gesta Regum, on the kings of England.

Legal Studies

Legal studies advanced during the 12th century. Both secular law and canon law, or ecclesiastical law, were studied in the High Middle Ages. Secular law, or Roman law, was advanced greatly by the discovery of the Corpus Juris Civilis in the 11th century, and by 1100 Roman law was being taught at Bologna. This led to the recording and standardization of legal codes throughout Western Europe. Canon law was also studied, and around 1140 a monk named Gratian, a teacher at Bologna, wrote what became the standard text of canon law—the Decretum.

Algebra and Astronomy

Among the results of the Greek and Islamic influence on this period in European history were the replacement of Roman numerals with the decimal positional number system and the invention of algebra, which allowed more advanced mathematics. Astronomy advanced following the translation of Ptolemy’s Almagest from Greek into Latin in the late 12th century. Medicine was also studied, especially in southern Italy, where Islamic medicine influenced the school at Salerno.

The Weird Truth about Arabic Numerals. How the world came to use so-called Arabic numerals—from the scholarship of ancient Hindu mathematicians, to Muslim scientist Al-Khwarizmi, to the merchants of medieval Italy.