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The Ten Commandments in the Medieval Schools
By Lesley Smith
Paper given at the Ten Commandments in medieval and early modern culture conference, held at Ghent University in April, 2014
Introduction: There was surprisingly little discussion of the ten commandments in the period between Augustine of Hippo (d. 430) and the schools that grew up in twelfth-century Paris, which specialised in teaching the Bible and theology. It may have been that Augustine was thought to have covered the subject; or perhaps the Decalogue didn’t offer enough interest for commentators who were trained to look for the spiritual senses of the Old Testament text – to find those allegories or typologies which foreshadowed the coming of Christ. But the Paris schools began to read the text in different ways. Hugh (d. 1141), master of the important school at the abbey of St Victor, taught his pupils that understanding the literal sense of the text was the indispensable foundation for all other readings. With that, texts like the Decalogue, solidly grounded in the literal and practical, and which might have seemed too dull for commentators to bother with, became more interesting.
When, in the generation after Hugh, Peter Lombard (d. 1160), master of the cathedral school at Notre Dame, included the commandments in his highly influential Four Books of Sentences, the position of the Decalogue in the schools’ curriculum was virtually guaranteed. It was made certain early in the thirteenth century, when the Sentences was made the textbook for all students studying the Bible in Paris, which had itself become the European centre for biblical and theological research. No graduate student could obtain their degree without lecturing on Peter’s Sentences – which meant commenting on the commandments.
Peter was influential not only in the subjects that he had chosen to include; the way that he dealt with them was also important. The working method the graduates had to employ was that of commenting on the Sentences chapter by chapter. So Peter’s preoccupations became, perforce, their preoccupations, too; his divisions of the text and his emphases were carried on by subsequent generations of students. Crucially, Peter chose to address the Decalogue not only in terms of the individual commandments but as a single entity.