Codifying the Cosmos: Cosmography and Orthodoxy in Twelfth-Century Europe

Moore, David R.
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The twelfth century marked a period of simultaneous political expansion and theological consolidation in Europe. While secular lords, ecclesiastical prelates, and religious abbots sought to extend their spheres of influence, the legal, academic, and political traditions necessary to resolve the resultant disputes and conflicts likewise evolved. In the process of broadening their influence, individuals often encountered resistance locally, due to varied and unsympathetic definitions of orthodoxy. The lack of a universal system for defining orthodoxy hindered the establishment of an accepted ideological paradigm necessary to sustain broad authority on a local level. These social struggles likewise permeated the famed academic contests of the twelfth century, in which the charismatic masters of diverse schools of thought battled over core tenets of theology. During the course of the many councils where self-proclaimed defenders of orthodoxy achieved the censure of their intellectual rivals, an institutionalized system for defining orthodoxy and condemning heretics simultaneously developed. Consequently, the theological and philosophical disputes of the twelfth century cannot be separated from the political motivations of the individuals who guided them, and the increasingly systematic attempts to define orthodoxy correlated with a seemingly greater desire to incorporate disparate localities into a homogeneous sphere of influence. The solidification of a definition of orthodoxy provided leaders with a sanctioned means of silencing politically dissident voices under the pretext of theological conflict. Accordingly, the focus of theological debate shifted to the process by which orthodoxy ought to be defined rather than the content itself. In this struggle, opposing schools of thought competed to assert the philosophical model that would characterize orthodox thought. Amidst this conflict, Bernard Silvestris’ dynamic work, the Cosmographia, presented the interaction of many of the politically and theologically volatile issues of his day within the context of a Creation account. Aside from exploring pertinent theological issues, the Cosmographia asserted that the conflicts inherent to the formation of orthodoxy had direct precedent in the model of the cosmos itself. Silvestris not only constructed a model of the physical universe, but also examined how this cosmological structure immediately influenced contemporary paradigms of authority and philosophy. Thus he transformed cosmography from a genre primarily concerned with the intricacies of natural science into a vehicle of ideological didactics. Following the Cosmographia, the many individuals and institutions seeking to solidify their political influence through orthodoxy, the papacy in particular, likewise adopted cosmological appeals as a means of legitimizing their claims to ideological authority.

Medieval Papacy