The Quaestio

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The medieval quaestio exercise developed when readers like Abelard, Robert of Melun, and others went beyond recitation and glosses and attempted to discover the meaning of the texts they studied. When, for instance, they examined the biblical texts, they found that the understanding of different Patristic authorities varied. When the authorities were in conflict, they had to evaluate the authorities and provide reasons why one gave a better explanation than another. The arguments of the authorities began to become more central to the interpretation of a biblical text than the authoritative weight of their names. This was not a new event; it had gone on in the Patristic period itself. Abelard and Robert of Melun claimed to follow the Fathers in their procedures.

Robert of Melun accentuates the point that these new forms of questions "sometimes arise because of a doubt, sometimes, however, they arise because of the need to teach." Some questions, that is, are real, spontaneous, and natural; others are raised for methodological reasons. The latter type of quaestio is even posed concerning materials where no real doubt exists: "Does God exist?" "Is the soul spiritual?" "Are parents to be honored?" They are asked because the teacher is seeking a deeper understanding on his own part and on the part of the scholars. He does not really doubt that God exists or that the soul is spiritual. He often is asking such questions because he wants to have stronger reasons for affirming God's existence or the soul's spirituality.

A further characteristic of the quaestio or question is that only certain kinds of questions tend to go beyond seeking information to pursue understanding. Gilbert of Poitiers describes the type of question that leads to understanding: "A quaestio arises from an affirmation and its contradictory negation. When one part of a contradiction seems to be true and the other part seems to have no arguments supporting its truth, or when neither one side nor the other seems to have supporting arguments for their truth, . . . then the contradiction is not a quaestio. It is only when both sides of the contradictories seem to have arguments for their side that there is a quaestio."

This type of question forced the lector to try through dialectics to find a ground for reconciling the opposed authoritative statements. The attempt to do so became successful for the person posing the question when he provided the reasons for his preference. In giving reasons for his determination of the matter under question, he himself then became an authority and was thus transformed into a magister or master. The introduction of this form of quaestio as the method of inquiry thereby altered the study of the Bible. It became a rational form of knowledge. The masters at the palace, monastic, and cathedral schools who established themselves as authorities of lasting influence begot schools and began to command in their age a respect that had previously only been accorded to the Fathers of the Church.

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