Scholars at Chartres Revive Interest in the Classics Summary

  • Last updated on November 11, 2022

Scholars at Chartres revived interest in classical learning, providing the foundation for the twelfth century Renaissance through the use of the seven liberal arts, a program of learning reflected in sculpture and stained glass windows at Chartres Cathedral.

Summary of Event

By the eleventh century, the cathedral at Chartres was already known as an important pilgrimage center. The Carolingian cathedral held the Sancta Camisia, the garment that allegedly had been worn by Mary at the time of the Annunciation. As the cult of Mary grew during the High Middle Ages, so did the importance of Chartres Cathedral. [kw]Scholars at Chartres Revive Interest in the Classics (c. 1025) [kw]Chartres Revive Interest in the Classics, Scholars at (c. 1025) Chartres Cathedral, school at Education;classics France;c. 1025: Scholars at Chartres Revive Interest in the Classics[1550] Cultural and intellectual history;c. 1025: Scholars at Chartres Revive Interest in the Classics[1550] Education;c. 1025: Scholars at Chartres Revive Interest in the Classics[1550] Religion;c. 1025: Scholars at Chartres Revive Interest in the Classics[1550] Fulbert of Chartres, Saint Gerbert of Aurillac

The year 1020 proved to be an ominous one for the cathedral. On September 7, 1020, it was consumed by fire. Fulbert of Chartres Fulbert of Chartres, Saint , the local bishop, rallied financial support from King Robert of France, King Canute the Great of England, and other sovereigns in a successful effort to rebuild the cathedral. Monetary magnanimity allowed Fulbert to commission the architect Beregar to construct the apse, the ambulatory, and the chapels for the eastern portion of the cathedral. Another fire in 1030 delayed consecration of the rebuilt cathedral until 1037. Fulbert’s new cathedral was built in the Romanesque style and was the predecessor of the twelfth century Gothic structure now found at Chartres. Architecture;Chartres Cathedral

While Fulbert was the decided inspiration for the reconstruction of the cathedral and its restoration as a major pilgrimage site, he is equally important for his revitalization of the classics studied at the Chartres Cathedral school. The eleventh century witnessed the shift of learning from the sometimes remote monastic centers to the urban cathedral schools. Because of the general prosperity resulting from commercial trade in cities and towns, the urban cathedral schools were able to attract the best scholars and the most promising young students. Fulbert laid the cornerstone for the new learning and was the academic coordinator for the curriculum at Chartres. Education;France Educated at the cathedral school at Reims under the tutelage of Gerbert of Aurillac, the future Pope Sylvester II Sylvester II (pope)[Sylvester 02 (pope) , Fulbert came to Chartres in the 980’s and established the cathedral school there. Chartres was considered the foremost school in France until the University of Paris and other similar institutions forced the cathedral schools into oblivion during the thirteenth century.

The cathedral school at Chartres fostered the classical tradition through its curriculum. Martianus Capella’ Capella, Martianus fifth century treatise, the De nuptis philologie et mercurii (Marriage of Philology and Mercury, 1977), Marriage of Philology and Mercury (Capella) provided the pedagogical foundation for learning. Boethius (c. 480-524) later fine-tuned Capella’s work and formally activated the trivium and quadrivium into divisional entities and outlined their specific functions within the ideal curriculum. The trivium consisted of grammar, rhetoric, and dialectic (or logic), while the quadrivium included arithmetic, geometry, music, and astronomy. The trivium allowed the educated person to speak, to communicate, and to persuade clearly and compellingly. The quadrivium, on the other hand, provided a theoretical background necessary to understand the workings of the universe. According to the traditions of Plato and Pythagoras, much in evidence at Chartres, mathematics held the key to understanding order in the universe.

Grammar was the foundation for the trivium. The texts of Donatus and Priscian were available from the cathedral’s vast library. The method of teaching grammar was incessant drilling conducted by underlings and probably not by the major scholars at Chartres. If the later sculpture of Grammar holding a switch, located on the portal of the Gothic cathedral at Chartres, is any indication, flogging assumed a part of the pedagogical methodology through which the student suffered (in addition to the drilling) as he proceeded along the path toward mastering the trivium.

Rhetoric and logic emerged triumphant in the eleventh century in response to the growing need to persuade an audience of readers or listeners toward goodness. This persuasion was part of a religious mission for the monks at Chartres. The work of Quintillian served as the basis of oratorical study, but rhetoric was subordinate to logic at this time. Having studied logic with Gerbert at Reims, Fulbert strongly advocated the pursuit of logic. Porphyrys’s third century b.c.e. commentary on Aristotle’s Topica (335-323 b.c.e.; Topics, 1812) and Boethius’s treatise “Introductio ad syllogismos categoricos” (early 500’; introduction to categoric syllogisms) were starting points for the fledgling subject of logic at Chartres; Aristotle and his rationalism were not to appear in France until the twelfth century. Yet the importance of syllogisms here points directly toward the advent of Scholasticism in the twelfth and thirteenth centuries.

Although the trivium was more in evidence than the quadrivium at Chartres, the cathedral school still managed to earn an outstanding reputation for mathematics Mathematics;education . A rare book on geometry written by Albinus circulated throughout the cathedral school. Fulbert’s talents in mathematics attracted Ragimbold of Cologne to come to Chartres and study with Fulbert. Ragimbold’s experience, however, was not an entirely happy one. Ragimbold claimed that on one occasion Fulbert was able to demonstrate one geometric problem but not a second one. Ragimbold left Chartres in frustration. Because Ragimbold was to become a major mathematician of the eleventh century, perhaps Fulbert was overmatched by a brilliant student who not only was much better that the other students at Chartres but also may have surpassed Fulbert himself in the study of mathematics. Aside from this one criticism, most students had nothing but praise for the mathematical instruction they received at Chartres.

Medicine Medicine;education was taught and practiced at Chartres under the watchful eye of Heribrand. Richer, the monk of Saint Remy and a former student of Gerbert of Aurillac, described the process of a long and complicated journey to Chartres in 991. It seemed that the trip was beset by difficulties at every turn. With his perilous travels behind him, Richer recounted that he studied the Harmony of Hippocrates, Galen and Suranus, along with the Aphorisms of Hippocrates. From his studies with Heribrand and from his readings of the classical texts, Richer recounted that he was prepared to write theoretical analyses of medical problems and surgical procedures. Richer praised the generosity of his teacher and claimed that pharmacy, botany, and surgery were well within Heribrand’s range of expertise. Although Richer and Heribrand were thoroughly acquainted with the ancients and the medical manuscripts in the Chartres library, other capable scholars, such as Fulbert, understood the rudiments of home remedies and their application toward healing even though they failed to grasp the more advanced theoretical treatises on medicine. It appears that divisional study and expertise were in evidence at the cathedral school.

From the quadrivium, astronomy Astronomy;education was another popular subject at Chartres. Fulbert was responsible for introducing the astrolabe, a device long used by the Muslims to gauge celestial altitudes and to tell time. The Muslims were chiefly responsible for the transmission of ancient Greek astronomical texts. Tenth century contact with the Muslims introduced the astrolabe and astronomy to Christian Europe. Gerbert of Aurillac had traveled to Muslim Spain, where he studied the ancient texts as seen through Muslim eyes. Gerbert himself used the astrolabe and wrote a book about the device. It is likely that Fulbert’s knowledge of the astrolabe and astronomy came from his association with Gerbert. Fulbert’s interest in astronomy is demonstrated by his writings, which are sprinkled with reference to zodiacal signs and the tabulations of constellations.

An eleventh century Vatican inventory of books at Chartres reveals the breadth and the depth of classical sources in the cathedral school library. Martianus Capella accompanies Fortunatus, Juvenal, Ovid, Porphyry, Vergil, and Cicero. An eleventh century monk brought a list of books that he had read to Saint Emneram’s monastery in Regensburg. It is not exactly clear whether he had studied either at Chartres or Reims, but the surviving list is instructive about the availability of books at both Reims and Chartres. The student monk mentions works by Cicero, Quintillian, Pliny, and Livy, among others. If this student knew these sources, it is clear that Fulbert and his scholarly circle were thoroughly conversant with the same texts. These books would have formed the backbone of the most important classical Roman literature. It is true that Fulbert, his colleagues, and his students admired the classical tradition and all that it had to offer them.


The scholars of Chartres gave proper tribute to the value of the classical tradition for the clergy and their receptive flock. The primary goal of the cathedral school was not to train students in the liberal arts for their use in the secular world, but rather to train educated orthodox and moral clergymen who would temper the vicissitudes of daily life faced by their parishioners who lived in the secular world. The classics, an appropriate background for the study of theology, were used to support Christian principles and ideals.

In the twelfth century, Bernard of Chartres understood the blending of the Christian and classical worlds. He saw no conflict between them when he said, unabashedly, that scholars of his own time were dwarfs standing on the shoulders of the giants from a more glorious past.

Further Reading
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Bolgar, R. R. The Classical Heritage and Its Beneficiaries. New York: Cambridge University Press, 1958. This scholarly work, accessible to general readers, serves as an important text on classical learning in the Western world.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Burckhardt, Titus. Chartres and the Birth of the Cathedral. Translated by William Stoddart. Ipswich, England: Golgonooza, 1995. A look into the architectural history of the Gothic cathedral of Chartres.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Courtenay, William J., and Jürgen Miethke, eds. Universities and Schooling in Medieval Society. Boston: Brill, 2000. A history of universities and schooling during the European Middle Ages. Essays originally presented as conference papers.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">MacKinney, Loren C. Bishop Fulbert and Education at the School of Chartres. Vol. 6. Notre Dame, Ind.: Mediaeval Institute, 1957. An attempt at balance and comprehensiveness in portraying Fulbert and his role as teacher and mentor at the cathedral school. Recommended for advanced readers familiar with medieval history.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Mann, Nicholas, and Birger Munk Olsen, eds. Medieval and Renaissance Scholarship: Proceedings of the Second European Science Foundation Workshop on the Classical Tradition in the Middle Ages and the Renaissance. New York: E. J. Brill, 1997. Essays surveying the history and significance of classical literature, scholarship, and learning during the Middle Ages through the Renaissance.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Sandys, John E. A History of Classical Scholarship. 3 vols. Harper and Row, 1964. A standard, comprehensive work on the classics. Essential reading for those who want to understand the evolution of classical scholarship throughout the ages.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Southern, R. W. Medieval Humanism and Other Studies. New York: Harper and Row, 1971. This survey of medieval Humanism covers many topics on intellectual history and provides an original presentation of the material.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Wagner, David L. The Seven Liberal Arts in the Middle Ages. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1986. This collection of superb essays written by key scholars provides an excellent, in-depth guide to the study of the seven liberal arts throughout the Middle Ages.

Categories: History