IV.1 Lectures

IV.1 Lectures

This image from shortly before 1400 depicts a lecture on ethics in the world’s oldest university: the University of Bologna.  The lecturer sits on a raised platform, where he can be seen and heard by the rows of auditors on benches before and beside him.  A splendid series of low-relief carvings in professorial funerary monuments in Bologna depict precisely the same arrangement, which is also evident in Paris (the oldest French university) at the same time (Image 2), and in Salamanca (the oldest of the Spanish universities) over two centuries later.  In fact, in many respects, this scene remains familiar in any university today – including the student in the bottom right, who appears to have fallen asleep.
But in a medieval university, this activity was a ‘lecture’ in a rather more specific sense than is used today.  The English noun ‘lecture’ derives, via the French, from the Latin ‘lectura’, from ‘legere’ (‘to read’).  At the very outset of our period (the OED’s first usage is 1398) it emerges in English to mean the act of reading itself; and in the early sixteenth century it rapidly evolved to mean especially the act of reading aloud, before an audience, and particularly in a university on a particular subject. This is even more explicit in the German term, 'Vorlesung', which refers precisely to the process of reading aloud in front of listeners. The key difference from a modern lecture is the presence of the open book on the professor’s 'lectern' (an even older word in English, which by the early 14th century already referred to the reading-desk in a church from which scriptural lessons were read).
In a medieval university, a ‘lecture’ was typically the literal ‘reading’ of a prescribed text. The text in question was typically the principle authority ('auctorias') prescribed by the university syllabus for each discipline. For the trivium, for instance, the standard authorities were Priscian and Donatus for grammar, Cicero for rhetoric, and Aristotle for logic. Aristotle's authority became so complete for the 'three philosophies' that he was referred often refered to simple as 'The Philosopher'.  For the three higher faculties, Galen was the paramount authority for medicine, standard collections were assembled for civil and canon law, and in theology the ultimate authority was of course the Bible. 

However, a 'lecture' meant more than a mere 'reading' the text of the authority itself. Instead, the 'lecturer' provided a running commentary or ‘gloss’ on specific points of interest or difficulty, which the students noted down in books supported by the rails or desks provided for this purpose.  Some of these remarks might be grammatical (simply eliciting what the words meant). Some might be logical (commenting on how the argument might be rendered in rigorous formal language). The bulk of the comments might be more substantive (explaining how the specific doctrines expounded fit within the broader topic or discipline as a whole). Other comments might be polemical (considering objectives or alternatives to the doctrines expounded in this passage).

Particularly with the advent of Renaissance humanism, other comments might be rhetorical (commenting on the devices used to persuade the reader) or historical (contextualising the passage with the work as a whole, the authors other writings, and the culture and historical circumstances of the time). More emphasis as also placed by the humanists on the finer points of grammatical and stylistic usage. But while the Renaissance may have altered the mode of commentary on texts, and enlarged the range of texts commented on in this manner, the centrepiece of the lecture typically remained the ancient text itself and the process of commenting on it. The purpose of a humanist 'lecture' was to engage the student with the direct encounter with ancient texts. Textbooks and other modern authorities, also sometimes acceptable for private study, were typically unwelcome in the humanist lecture theatre. 

Commentary. Howard Hotson (February 2018, October 2021)