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Q&A with Clare Monagle on her The Scholastic Project

Why did you decide to write another book on medieval theology?
I have two core reasons for writing The Scholastic Project. The first is that I wanted to provide an accessible introduction to medieval Christian theology, particularly that which we call scholastic theology. This term refers to the elite ‘high’ theology of Thomas Aquinas or Duns Scotus, for example, which emerges from the universities of medieval Europe. In my experience, a number of medievalists are very nervous about teaching or reading scholastic theology, or in sharing it with their students. There is good reason for this, the texts are really technical and very difficult, and require a lot of contextualisation for their meaning to become apparent. When we don’t teach scholastic theology, however, as part of undergraduate courses, I think we ignore a really important source for understanding the history of the Latin west. Scholastic theology is an elite discourse that codifies Christian doctrine, and trains academics and administrators throughout the Middle Ages. They define what forms of Christianity constitute correct Christianity, and the line between orthodoxy and heresy. If we want to understand medieval European history, we need to come to grips with the ideas and impact of its intellectuals, as we would with any other period under consideration.

The second reason I wrote The Scholastic Project, is that I wanted the opportunity to think about scholastic theology, as a whole, as an intellectual system. A number of work in the field focuses upon the work of a particular thinker, or takes a snapshot of a certain University and a certain time. There are very good reasons for this. Bringing this material to light requires a lot of slow investigation and research, and the conveying the complexity of this theology just takes time. So, those of us who have worked in medieval intellectual history, tend to work from inside out. In order to make sense of our difficult sources, we embed ourselves in these texts, reconstructing them painstakingly so that they can make sense, and tell some sort of story in the present. I wanted to use the opportunity of The Scholastic Project to write a different sort of book, to present a type of bird’s eye view of three hundred years or so of theology. I wanted to see how it looked from that optic.

Why a Project?
It’s kind of a cheeky name, and a deliberate provocation. Firstly, in the humanities, when we talk of a project it is usually in relation to the Enlightenment. To speak of a scholastic project, then, might produce a type of cognitive dissonance. How could the medieval period, still understood broadly as an ‘Age of Faith’, be compared to the Enlightenment? How could these medieval thinkers, hell-bent on defending the Trinity or Transubstantiation, be spoken of in the same breath as Voltaire?

My answer is that medieval scholars and Enlightenment thinkers have some fundamental things in common. Both sets of thinkers claim access to reason, and argue that reason generates truth. And both sets of thinkers assume that the western masculine subject has the best access to that reason. My argument in this book is that this commonality, however self-evident it might seem, matters. Rather than just telling another story that has the Middle Ages and Modernity in juxtaposition, I wanted to look at what continuities there might be. And what I found was that both discourses, scholastic and enlightenment, share an appetite for universalising languages of liberation, while naturalising western masculinity as the default subject.

And as a ‘project’ that produces this default subject, I wanted to burrow back into scholastic theology to see how it does this. I wanted to look at some key moments when medieval intellectual talk about those who are other to Christian masculinity. In particular, I focused on scholasticism’s deployment of women, Jews and heretics as figures in theology. My question was, when a theologian discusses Jews, for example, what conceptual work are Jews doing in the theology that is unfolding. It is not just to ask what does Aquinas say about Jews? It is also to ask what his statements about Jews enable him to prove, what work they do within his overall intellectual ambitions?

What do you hope that readers will gain from reading your book?
For those who haven’t studied medieval theology before, I hope it encourages them to dig a bit deeper into the sources, as well as to follow up the very erudite scholarship out there that pertains to the field. The material is hard, but I hope I convince them that it is worth the effort.

I also hope that readers will develop a more nuanced idea of the relationship between intellectuals and authority in the Middle Ages. My students often tend to assume either that the intellectuals were under the thumb of the papacy. Or, having read about Abelard, they assume that they were all radicals engaged in a project of repudiating authority. Both stories are patently wrong. Like intellectuals today, medieval theologians were both complicit in the making of the ideological order, and they were also critics of it. They helped authorities to manufacture consent, but they also produced ideas that deeply challenged those same authorities.

Finally, I want to encourage readers to think about the status of others in the long history of the west. In doing this, I’m only standing on the shoulders of a great number of important scholars in our field, who have revolutionised medieval studies. These are scholars such as R.I. Moore, David Nirenberg, and Dyan Elliott, to name a very important few. This book is intended to supplement their types of projects, which I would characterise as understanding medieval society in its ideological contours.

By Clare Frances Monagle