My Scholar: Avicenna.

Avicenna or Ibn Sīnā (c. 980 – 1037) was a Persian polymath who was a physician, astronomer and writer.

Medieval quiz time. :D This time, it’s which Medieval Scholar would you study under?  So, Avicenna would be my scholar, and what a thrill and honour that would have been.

The Quiz.


  1. says

    Peter Abelard (1079 – 1142) has been called “the keenest thinker and boldest theologian of the 12th Century”. He also had a very eventful life, and is well known for his connection to Heloise.

    I must confess I never heard of him. I was always lousy at history.

  2. says

    Charly, I thought most everyone knew the story of Abelard and Heloise. Famous, that.

    Rob, yes, Copernicus is about right for you.

  3. says

    Roger Bacon. Fair enough. But the questions this sort of thing raises in me are:

    How many of these results would consider women worth teaching at all?

    And how many of them would shun or kill me just for existing?


  4. brucegee1962 says

    I got the Venerable Bede.

    My recollection is that “1066 and All That” called him the Venomous Bede. That would have been cooler…

  5. says

    Voltaire used to have soirees where he and his paramour, mme De Chatelet (who did the first French translation of Newton’s Principia) would lecture at random about the latest science, or Voltaire would read teasers from unpublished plays. Apparently his kitchen was excellent, his wine-cellar superb, and the other guests included (at one time or another) a “who’s who?” of the enlightenment. Everyone but Liebniz. Anyway… that’s my fantasy learning scenario. Just to sit and listen.

  6. says

    I suspect that their rules-table pushes anyone who shows interest in medicine toward Avicenna. I went that direction because a depressing amount of the options were theological, which would be as exciting as watching mud dry. Of course, being able to take classes with someone like Avicenna would be an amazing time.

    I used to daydream about helping out in Epicurus’ garden (maybe I could cook a bit…) but what if it turned out these great teachers were real assholes? That’s why I enjoy Voltaire so much -- there was no way he was going to surprise anyone by unexpectedly being an asshole!

  7. vucodlak says

    I, too, got Peter Abelard. I must admit that I know next-to-nothing about medieval scholars, but he seems fascinating.

    Certainly not as bad as I was expecting, given that I chose “monk” as my career aspiration.

  8. cartomancer says

    abbeycadabra, #6

    Abelard is really your man there. He was actually retained by Fulbert, a canon of Notre Dame, to teach his niece and ward Heloise logic and theology. Though Heloise was a famously learned scholar of ancient languages herself at the time, and their intellectual encounters were far from one-way. Following his affair with Heloise, castration, and tribulations among the monks of St. Denis, Abelard devoted a good deal of his attention to helping Heloise out with founding a nunnery (the Paraclete) and seeing to the education of the nuns who lived there. His castration also led him, in later life, to reconsider the role of masculinity and gender in the religious life -- finding much to praise in the then-obscure works of the ancient world’s leading religious castrato theologian Origen.

    There is an important point to be made here about the nature of learning and institutional academia in the Middle Ages. Abelard was working at a very productive and unusual time in Medieval intellectual history. The Twelfth Century was a great period of transition, when secular (i.e. non-monastic) schools of higher education were springing up across western Europe (in response to population growth, urbanisation, church wealth and establishment creating the need for more learned clerks etc). But it was before the great universities became firmly established in the 13th century, with fixed curricula, endowed professorial chairs and all the trappings of power and prestige. The cathedral schools and proto-universities of the Twelfth century were far more varied and ad-hoc places. They generally taught what the masters were interested in, rather than following set curricula, and were largely unbound by the kinds of procedural protocols that defined higher learning in later centuries. Much pioneering work in textual criticism, logic and even natural science emerged from places like Chartres, Laon, Paris and Oxford in this period. And women were not excluded from the world of secular higher learning to anything like the extent they were in the formal university setting. True, they rarely bothered with it -- they were excluded from the church benefices and clerical jobs that the education was training people for -- but some urbane and independently wealthy noble women did attend lectures with the masters of the secular schools of the Twelfth Century (their money was just as welcome as anyone else’s for most of the struggling teaching masters).

  9. cartomancer says

    I must say that for sheer heterodoxy, originality and breadth of interest, I’d have to go for Abelard. Anyone who can abandon the life of a nobleman for academia, get condemned at two church councils (Soissons and Sens) for heresy, get castrated for illicit affairs, get chucked out of a prestigious monastery for arguing that their patron wasn’t actually a famous church father and call his son Astrolabe has got to be all right in some way. His work on textual source criticism and theory of intent-based ethics were also centuries ahead of their time. And he argued that demons don’t have any magical powers at all, they just use drugs and optical tricks to convince people they do!

    Well, I’d go with Abelard out of these six anyway. There are plenty of less well-known medieval scholars who would also be interesting to meet. For purely personal reasons it would have to be Adelard of Bath, John of Salisbury, Alexander Nequam, John Blund, Alfred of Shareshill, Daniel of Morley, Roger of Hereford and Robert Grosseteste. Mainly so I can check how badly I went wrong in my assessment of them in my doctoral thesis.

  10. cartomancer says

    Roger Bacon was a bit of a weirdo though. He became obsessed with the idea of cosmic rays controlling everything in nature, and wrote a book (De speculis comburentibus) about all the exciting new wonder-weapons that knowledge of ray geometry would allow Christians to build and fire at the Saracens. There were the usual horseless carriages and flying machines and giant burning mirrors, but there were also great reflector arrays to convince the Saracens that the armies of Christendom were without number, or project terrifying images across hundreds of leagues. If the armaments industry doesn’t already have a patron saint, Roger Bacon is their guy (he’s not a saint, of course, but I’m sure Lockheed-Martin could see to that with a few well-placed bribes at the Vatican).

    He did write one of the most comprehensive and popular grammars of Greek in the later Middle Ages though, so he wasn’t all bad!

  11. StevoR says

    @12. Marcus Ranum : “I suspect that their rules-table pushes anyone who shows interest in medicine toward Avicenna.”

    I got Avicenna without showing any interest in medicine at all -- emphasised astronomy & also philosophy as minor -- FWIW.

  12. Ogvorbis: Swimming without a parachute. says

    According to the quiz, the Venerable Bede would be my best bet for a medieval professor under which to study. No real surprise there.

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