The Medieval Survey Class pt. II: Textbooks

An obvious question about running a medieval survey class is whether or not to use a textbook. Of the 29 syllabi that we received, a bit more than half used some sort of published collection of readings. (I suspect the percentage would be higher if I could obtain a random collection of medieval syllabi from across all universities. Since here I’m talking mostly to experts in the field, it seems to me likely that my sample includes more folk with the expertise and enthusiasm to assemble their own set of readings.)

So what are people using? Here are the numbers:

  • Philosophy in the Middle Ages: The Christian, Islamic, and Jewish Traditions (3rd ed.) (Hyman, Walsh, and Williams): 10
  • Medieval Philosophy: Essential Readings with Commentary (Klima et al.): 3
  • Five Texts on the Mediaeval Problem of Universals (Spade):
  • Classical Arabic Philosophy (McGinnis and Reisman): 1
  • Basic Issues in Medieval Philosophy (2nd ed.) (Bosley and Tweedale): 1
  • Readings in Medieval Philosophy (Schoedinger): 1
  • The Longman Standard History of Medieval Philosophy (Kolak and Thomson): 1
  • Medieval Philosophy: An Introduction (Maurer): 1

(I should, at this point, thank Mark Boespflug for compiling these numbers. Mark is, in case you were wondering, writing a beautiful dissertation here in Boulder on the history of doxastic voluntarism.)

Obviously, the venerable Hyman and Walsh volume, from Hackett, has a dominant market share. That might be surprising if you’re thinking of the first or second edition, which always struck me as a rather dense and difficult set of texts. But if you look at the 3rd edition, you’ll find that Thomas Williams has done an amazing job of improving on the volume, adding material (often newly translated) that is both accessible and important. Williams is building, moreover, on the very solid foundation of non-Latin material that was the most striking feature of the original Hyman and Walsh volume. Twenty-five years ago, that heavy non-Latin influence struck me as idiosyncratic and mostly unhelpful. But I think it’s pretty obvious today that they were simply ahead of their time. (More on that theme in a later post.)

The only other general anthology to attract significant marketshare is the 2007 Blackwell volume edited by Gyula Klima, Fritz Allhoff, and Anand Jayprakash Vaidya. Again it’s not hard to see why this is a reasonable choice, if you look at the table of contents. As you would expect given the editors, this is a thoughtful attempt to pull together a wide range of important and accessible material. The most striking difference from the Hackett volume is that Islamic material has only a token presence here, and Jewish material no presence at all. Both the Blackwell and the Hackett volume, I might add, are priced very reasonably at around $50 in paperback.

Skipping over the two specialized anthologies on the list, we come to three less popular textbooks. Neither Kolak nor Thomson is an expert in the field, and their choice of readings is fairly amateurish. But when it comes to both the Bosley-Tweedale (Broadview) and the Schoedinger (OUP) volumes, the situation is quite different. These are both extremely erudite and creative collections of material, compiled by scholars with serious knowledge of the field. (I am sorry to see that Prof. Schoedinger has died in the 22 years since that volume was published.) If neither volume has managed to gain much traction in the field, this is perhaps because they are more admirable from a scholarly point of view than from a pedagogical point of view. So, for instance, though we may applaud Schoedinger’s inclusion of William of Sherwood in his anthology, how many of us would actually teach that material? And I cannot believe that anyone can successfully lead a group of undergraduates through the unrelentingly difficult readings on distinctions and universals that lie at the heart of the Bosley-Tweedale volume.

Returning to the theme of my previous post, it is not at all easy to come up with an anthology of medieval readings. (In contrast, an anthology in ancient or early modern is the easiest thing in the world.) It is not clear what topics deserve pride of place, and it is hard to find a path through this material that is genuinely accessible to students.

That brings me, finally, to the last item on the list, Maurer’s Introduction to medieval philosophy, first published back in 1962. This is of course not an anthology but a single-author narrative of the period. I mention it, though, because it is striking how few such attempts at synthesis there are, especially in recent years. John Marenbon attempted this, in two Routledge volumes, back in the 1980s, and a couple of years ago tried again in a “Very Short Introduction” for OUP. Anthony Kenny’s New History of Western Philosophy, also with OUP, contains an entire volume on the medieval period. Joseph Koterski has published an impressive Introduction to Medieval Philosophy (Blackwell). No doubt there are other things I don’t know or am not thinking of. But I think it’s safe to say there are far fewer attempts at this sort of thing than there are edited, multi-author anthologies/guides/companions to the field. Perhaps most of us don’t feel as if we can produce a coherent narrative.

Next time, detailed data on which texts we are actually assigning to our students.

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2 comments on “The Medieval Survey Class pt. II: Textbooks

  1. Stephen Lahey says:

    I’d add Julius Weinberg’s and David Luscombe’s surveys to the short list, as well as the one that is widely consulted outside the field, namely Copleston’s History.

  2. Matt Kostelecky says:

    Perhaps this speaks to the larger issue you are confronting (i.e., lack of agree-upon cannon) but I thought the following might be germane to point out: I responded to the survey and the syllabus I sent on to you lists the Tweedale and Bosley text (so I guess I’m the ‘1’ above regarding that text). The syllabus from the previous iteration of my course (which I didn’t send) lists the Hyman, Walsh, and Williams text. Before that, it was the Spade text with other primary sources cobbled together into a coursepack. So, while it’s true that I used the Tweedale and Bosely text most recently (and it has its virtues), I find myself with a good bit of disquiet with, really, any of the ones on offer. Tweedale and Bosely is thematically organized, which is neat, but the Hyman text has so much more stuff chronologically ordered – but neither has any women thinkers (and it’s not really that hard to include a Theresa of Avila or Hildegard of Bingen – and the students, in my experience, respond overwhelmingly positively to their inclusion).

    I’m not sure that there is a tidy solution here, because medieval philosophy is itself such a large and amorphous thing. Not only could, say, 8 different historians/instructors of medieval philosophy give 8 different answers in terms of who and what is important, any given individual instructor could reasonably change her/his mind from year to year as to what is important. Certainly there is a basic ‘thing’ that needs to be communicated to the students, but that can be done in myriad ways. A modest suggestion would be for those of us who study medieval philosophy to come to terms with what that basic thing is, for one’s students, for one’s colleagues, for the wider academe, such that we can more effectively communicate why medieval philosophy is worth studying and worthy of institutional support. I have my own ideas in that direction, but this is already too long. Thanks for the thought-provoking posts and data.

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