First Lecture, Last Year

Please indulge me for a little while, and just close your eyes, and imagine for about ten minutes the things that I will be telling you.

It is August 29, not 2011, but 1346. You are a student at the University of Bologna, in the north of what will become Italy, and it is the oldest university in the western world. The fact that you are here means that you are a white male, perhaps 16, whose father is either aristocracy, landed gentry, or a reasonably wealthy merchant.

The classroom is a little dark, the walls are made of stone, and there are several smells. Perhaps the most pungent is that of the large candles around the room, giving off their familiar smells of wax and smoke. There is also the smell of body odor from all around, but you are used to it and you barely even notice it. In fact, you can even smell yourself. Your last bath was four days ago, about the normal interim. There is a slight odor of chamber pots from an adjoining room. You can smell a tincture of the dye of the linen of your clothes, which are a shift shirt and pants with buttons. You are probably not wearing any kind of underwear. Your new leather shoes, which were made to fit on either foot, are not long removed from the malodorous smells of the tannery, and, in order to impress, you have shined them with a little pig’s grease.

You are seated with other students on a smooth, well-worn wooden pew with no back rest, as Bologna students have been doing for almost three centuries. The great poet-scholar Petrarch may himself have sat on this very pew a mere twenty-six years ago, as might Dante before him. If you are fortunate, you have a quill pen, and of course a pen-knife for sharpening it, and there is an ink well on the long table in front of you and your fellow scholars for dipping the quill so that you may jot down some of the salient points of the professor. The fellow beside you is squinting at the professor, who appears a little blurry to him. Spectacles have just been invented but have not become widespread, and perhaps his eyes will not get too much worse for the 50 or so years he and you are likely to live. Of course that is only an average; the fact that you have survived the first two years of life, unlike three of your siblings, probably ups your chances to make it into your sixties. That is, of course, unless you succumb to any variety of diseases that the local doctor, known as a leech, cannot save you from by cutting your arm to allow the diseased blood to flow out, or by attaching several leeches to your skin to suck the blood out, or by applying several aromatic poultices to your head or abdomen. The leech also pulls teeth and cuts hair. He acquired his trade by being an apprentice, and like about 98% of Europe, he can neither read nor write, even his name, and he feels none the worse for it.

A little light comes into the room from windows, some of which even have glass. The tapping of mallet hitting chisel against stone and a little cursing from various workers are the main sounds wafting in through the window. Your professor is standing at his podium dressed in his full academic regalia. He is missing a few teeth—of course he has never actually brushed them in his life—and his breath is a little pungent, but his Latin is impeccable. He reads his lecture (naturally, since the word “lecture” is derived from Latin, “legere,” meaning “to read”). Your Latin, which you have acquired in schools called studia, is fairly good, and getting better. Still, in a moment of weakness, you wish he would just speak in some familiar dialect, but then you shake your head and realize that if he did so, the Polish, English, French, and German students scattered throughout the class probably could not understand him at all. Besides, anything of a scholarly nature would be written in Latin. The professor, like others at the university, teaches the entire curriculum; subject specialists will not come for centuries. He reads from a handwritten manuscript, since the printing press and printed material are still one hundred years in the future. He is discussing one of the great debates of the day, transubstantiation, brilliantly explicating the fine points of whether the wine and bread of the Eucharist have been literally transformed into the body of Christ, or, instead, are symbolic of the body of Christ. You are particularly looking forward to his lectures later in the term concerning the question “if God is omniscient, knowing all the past, present and future, then isn’t man’s life and, most importantly, his salvation or damnation in the next life, pre-determined?” Or, on the other hand, if man’s will is free, how then can God be omniscient? There are other students in the room who have come all the way from England to the University of Bologna (a two month trip over questionable roads) just to hear him on this very question. His reputation is international. Using all three aspects of the trivium—grammar, rhetoric, and logic—which is the first part of your curriculum, he will attempt to resolve that question in a way that amazingly preserves your free choice and simultaneously preserves God’s omniscience. Now that lecture will truly be worth hearing and understanding. Even more importantly, you hope to master the trivium and hone your Latin grammar and vocabulary, your rhetorical and persuasion skill, and your knowledge of logical reasoning that supports your persuasion skill, so that you also may enter these disputes and possibly even become one day a bishop in the church, or perhaps a professor and author yourself, exploring these vital metaphysical questions examining the fate of our souls in the next world. As the professor leaves—the only clock in town is on the church tower, and it’s not accurate, but who would know—his assistant takes questions.

Afterward you go to the modest home of a local town resident where you board, and have your usual evening meal of pork, bread, and soup, downed with wine or ale, either of which is more dependable than the water. A brown rat stares at you from a shelf in the kitchen before scurrying away at the approach of the house cat. Just at that moment, you bend over to scratch at the bite a flea just gave you on your ankle, not giving it a second thought. You have heard of plague before, but no one knows much of how it is transmitted, other than God’s will. It would not even occur to you that a flea bite is one means of transmission. But if that flea has bitten that rat, and if that rat was carrying plague transmitted by the flea, you could be one of the 25% of the population of Europe—one out of four—who will die a grim death from bubonic plague between 1346 and about 1360. Are you one of the lucky ones? After that flea bite, will you be dead in a week, or will you continue your studies, learn profound and esoteric things, graduate with your doctorate, and begin your rise in that tiny world of theological scholars and masters of the liberal arts?

Now you may open your eyes. Welcome to  Higher Education 711.

John Rachal
August 20, 2011


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