Households of Knowledge: Reshaping the Scholarly Habitus, 1300-1600

Households of Knowledge: Reshaping the Scholarly Habitus, 1300–1600

By the fifteenth century, prescribed Academic celibacy was eroding in northwestern Europe. Scholars moved out of the communal institutions, monasteries, and colleges, which had hitherto shaped their daily lives and began founding family households. Lawyers and physicians led the process, but they were increasingly joined by philosophers, and—after the Reformation—by protestant theologians as well. For Italian humanists, many of them unattached to universities and not necessarily oriented toward church service, marriage was an obvious aspect of life in the urban elite. Yet they too had to come to terms with an established tradition of scholarly celibacy, misogyny, and contempt for family life, codified in innumerable educational and literary texts.

Scholarly celibacy not only expressed clerical traditions that had fused with ascetic ideals of devotion to learning. It was also embedded in a particular institutional setting. By the later Middle Ages, many university professors were endowed with benefices provided by religious foundations. Assuming a benefice was coupled with embracing an obligatory mode of life, modeled to a varying extent on monastic and clerical prototypes. Celibacy was a major element of these models. Under these circumstances, endorsing a scholarly persona was not only important in terms of maintaining social prestige or diffuse cultural authority, as in certain modern contexts; maintaining a proper self-image was a codified obligation, a tangible by-product of scholars’ incorporation in institutional bodies.

For numerous reasons, late medieval German universities deviated from the benefice system and created ever more salaried positions paid by their secular patrons. With the passage from a system of benefices to salaried posts, the link between modes of making a living and ways of life loosened to a considerable extent. Professors were now free to found families. This, however, brought scholars’ way of life much closer to the model predominant in urban society. It also posed new challenges. With the erosion of the communal institutions that provided for their members’ daily needs and regulated their lives, the place of study within the structures of everyday life had to be articulated anew.

In contrast to their Jewish and Muslim counterparts, medieval Christian priests and professors were required to live a life of chastity; and unlike monks, they were expected to accomplish this within the world, only partly secluded—for example through colleges—from their urban social environment. Scholars were distinguished from other people by their particular way of life, which was subject to special forms of institutionalized control. They set themselves off the "world" by rejecting direct involvement in family life. How would they maintain their cultural authority without these marks of distinction? How were scholars to live in the world while retaining an otherworldly image?

It was not only a problem of self-representation, but of adopting technologies of the self and constructing new systems of relations. Without the protection offered by college walls and communal discipline, how would scholars withstand temptations and distractions and devote themselves to higher things? How would they organize everyday life without the regular rhythms and routines provided by communal institutions? Manipulating the received rhetorical topoi of scholarly solitude and withdrawal from the world would not provide scholars with the required habitus.

Neither could such a habitus be maintained and reproduced without others to sustain it. Self-fashioning required accomplices—not only compliant publics for scholars’ self-image, but a domestic division of labor to sustain scholars, while maintaining their posture of detachment and self-sufficiency. What women would be entrusted with the daily maintenance of scholarly existence and the long-term reproduction of scholars’ novel families, strategically dependent on the transmission of high knowledge and learned dispositions? Scholars’ families would be the first families in west European Christian societies whose social reproduction would depend on combining social reproduction with the transmission of cultural capital. Such families had to be invented. In a famous interchange between Abelard and Heloise, reported Abelard’s twelfth-century Historia Calamitatum, the life of the mind had been proclaimed completely incompatible with family life. Now the impossible had to be organized.

This research project focused on this period of historical transformation—a relatively well-documented process of the making of a new way of life. It hence sought to shed light on three related aspects of the process: rhe refashioning the scholarly habitus (in the sense of a system of durable and transposable social dispositions), the redefinition of their social relations (creating new sorts of families and ways of combining the transmission of knowledge with social reproduction), and the development of the necessary material infrastructure (such as the creation and diffusion of the domestic studiolo).

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