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The Disputatio

[The following description of the medieval disputatio is that of Père Mandonnet (Revue Thomiste, 1928) and is quoted in Jacques Le Goff's phenomenal study, Intellectuals in the Middle Ages (Cambridge: Blackwell, 1993), pp.90-91.]

When a master was disputing all the classes given in the morning by the other masters and the bachelors of the faculty ceased; only the master who was disputing gave a short lecture to enable those in attendance to arrive, then the dispute began. It took up a more or less considerable part of the morning. All the bachelors of the faculty and the students of the master who was disputing had to attend the exercise. It seems the other masters and students were free, but there is no doubt that they came in more or less greater numbers depending on the reputation of the master and the object of the dispute. The Parisian clergy as well as prelates and other ecclesiastical figures passing through the capital willingly attended those jousts which thrilled the mind. The diputatio was the tournament of clerks.

The question to be disputed was set in advance by the master who was to hold the dispute. It was announced, as was the established day, in the other schools of the faculty. . . .

The dispute was held under the direction of the master, but it was not, strictly speaking, he who debated. It was his bachelor who assumed the role of respondent and thus began his training in these exercises. Objections were usually presented in various ways, first by the masters present, then by the bachelor, and finally, if there was an opportunity, by the students. The bachelor responded to the arguments raised, and when necessary, the master lent him assistance. Such was, in short, the make-up of an ordinary dispute; but that was only the first part of it, although it was the principal one and the most lively.

The objections raised and resolved in the course of the dispute, without a pre-established order, ultimately presented rather disorganized doctrinal material, less similar, however, to the debris on a battlefield than to the half-completed work of a construction site. This is why following that preliminary session there was a second one which bore the name of "magisterial determination."

The first "readable" day, as it was called at that time, that is, the first day that the master who had disputed could give his lecture, for a Sunday, a holiday, or some other obstacle might have prevented it from being the day right after the dispute, the master resumed in his school the subject debated the day before, or a few days earlier. First, he coordinated as much as the subject would allow in an order or a logical succession, the objections raised against his thesis and gave them their definitive formula. He followed those objections with a few arguments in favor of the doctrine he was going to propose. He then went on to a more or less extensive doctrinal exposé of the debated question, which provided the central and essential part of the determination. He concluded by responding to each of the objections raised against the doctrine of his thesis. . . .

The acts of determination, conferred in writing by the master or listener, form those writings which we call the Disputed Questions, which were the conclusions of the disputation.

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[Le Goff tells us that within the above framework was the quodlibetica disputation. Twice per year the masters could hold a session where they made themselves available to deal with a question "raised by anyone on any topic." Le Goff (pp.91-92) quotes Glorieux (La littérature quodlibétique, 1936) on the quodlibetica disputation.]

The session began around the hour of terce perhaps, or of sext; rather early, in any event, for it risked going on for a long time. What characterized it, in fact, was its capricious, and impromptu aspect, and the uncertainty which hovered over it. A session of dispute, of argumentation like so many others, but which offered this special trait: the initiative was relinquished by the master and was passed on to those in attendance. In ordinary disputes the master announced in advance the subjects that would be covered, he reflected on them and prepared them. In the quodlibetica dispute anyone could raise any question. And that was the great danger for the master who was responding. The questions of objections could come from all sides, either hostile or shrewd -- anything was possible. He could be questioned in good faith to learn his opinion; but someone might have tried to force him to contradict himself, or to force him to speak on controversial subjects which he would have preferred never to broach. Sometimes it was a curious foreigner, or a worried soul; sometimes a jealous rival or curious master who would try to put him in an awkward position. Sometimes the questions would be clear and interesting, other times they would be ambiguous and the master would have great difficulty in grasping their exact significance and true meaning. Some would be candidly confined to the purely intellectual realm; others above all had implications of politics or of disparagement. . . . It was thus essential that whoever wanted to hold a quodlibetica dispute have an uncommon presence of mind and an almost universal competency.

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