Debate in Education
on all topics gained popularity during the twelfth century due to
three factors: the rising literacy rates that enabled the traditionally
oral disputes to be recorded, the focus on debate in the practice
of law, and the development of stronger class and group consciousnesses.(1)
The rediscovery of four of Aristotle's works by Jacob of Venice in 1128 also contributed to the burgeoning focus on disputation as an educational foundation during (and after) the twelfth century. Aristotle's logical argumentative style influenced the debate practiced in the grammar school and university classrooms which tended to be a "formal discussion" between two people, each of whom took an opposing side of an issue. One side would not concede to the other, but instead a third party would provide a determinatio at the debate's end, either pulling together the two argued sides into a resolved answer to the issue or declaring a winner.(2)
Medieval debate poems reflect this educational practice, containing two characters who argue opposing viewpoints on a certain issue. These debate poems, however, do not always concern themselves with identifying the winner of the verbal battle and, not uncommonly, can lack a determinatio.
Debate poems, therefore, were written amidst a shift in educational practices that contributed to the twelfth century's interest in the relationship between opposites. Opposites could be seen not only in the exterior world (winter and summer, water and wine, heaven and hell) but also within the individual (body and soul, heart and eye). Many of the debate poems written during the twelfth and thirteenth centuries explore these dualities of experience with vigor.
The contemplation of opposites demands that one question how the two sides relate to each other. The "Debate between the Body and the Soul" experiments with dualities, exploring what happens during the time between death and Judgment Day between two characters who were once unified but now exist somewhere between unity and separation. Presenting a scene in divided time between two divided beings, this debate explores the conflicting nature of humanity and thereby confronts the epistemological questions at play in scholastic and popular culture of Middle Ages.
1. See Michel-André Bossy, ed. and trans. Medieval Debate Poetry: Vernacular Works. New York: Garland Publishing Inc., 1987. xii-xiv.
2. For further discussion of the medieval debate, see James J. Murphy, ed. Medieval Eloquence: Studies in the Theory and Practice of Medieval Rhetoric. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1978. 20-7.