For the most part, when I write this blog, I am thinking about physical objects, tangible things such as buildings, or other objects. I don’t really consider the way in which people write about these things, even though it is a vital part of how we use evidence. When a scientist looks through a microscope she sets the magnification strength to a particular level, sees something, makes notes, analyses the material and comes to some conclusion. Through another magnification, or type of microscope, she could come to another entirely different set of conclusions even if looking at exactly the same material or thing. She hasn’t changed, the object of study hasn’t changed, but the bit in between has, and this fact has possibly led to some differences to any conclusions. History and architectural history is the same…although sometimes it seems slightly more difficult to explain why, how, and what we should do to cope with that.
In September I will move to the University of York for a one year post in the History of Art Department. During my DPhil I met many very brilliant people who went to York and I generally knew it to be a place that strongly encouraged interdisciplinary research. Interdisciplinary….it sounds like a buzzword, doesn’t it? As an approach it has been very much encouraged across the spectrum of academic departments, with some success. With its top-down implementation it is quite easy to be cynical about interdisciplinarity and how it might be applied to one’s research (let along to one’s teaching). Indeed, in my experience ‘interdisciplinarity’ has been accused of being nothing more than filler for funding application, a convenient buzzword to be included if one wants to stand a chance of being successful. I don’t believe that, I think it to be the most important way of approaching the past and reflecting on that analysis. It allows our scientist to take a number of different materials and microscopes, a large Hadron collider and some sticky tape to make something new.
So, how do we apply interdisciplinarity to the study of the past? Do we take aspects of religious history, throw a bit of Marxism in to it, and then come to some conclusions about a medieval monastery? Maybe, but probably not. An interdisciplinary approach is not just a varied approach to a particular subject, but is an ideological position rooted in how a person gains knowledge. How we think of the division of knowledge is rooted in how we think the world works, the very tenets of the universe and our place in it. Joe Moran had a nice quote in his work on interdisciplinarity:
‘Since you’re not here to learn anything, but to be taught so you can pass these tests, knowledge has to be organized so it can be taught, and it has to be reduced to information so it can be organized do you follow that? In other words this leads you to assume that organization is an inherent property of the knowledge itself, and that disorder and chaos are simply irrelevant forces that threaten it from the outside. In fact it’s exactly the opposite. Order is simply a thin, perilous condition we try to impose on the basic reality of chaos.’
What I find interesting about this quote is the beginning (which Moran doesn’t include), that the division of the disciplines is a means to ‘pass these tests’, they are inflicted (by pedagogues) upon reality so we can communicate and definethat reality within specific boundaries. Now, this is a blog about medieval architecture, but there is a connection, I swear.
Hugh of Saint Victor (d. 1141) was one of the leading lights of twelfth-century education, and its expansion from a particular elite to a wider group of people, centered at the Augustinian abbey of Saint Victor on the left bank of Paris. I always think of Hugh as a big jolly headmaster, gregarious and welcoming to those who want to learn, but patient with those who struggle (basically the opposite of the Trunchbull). He wrote a text called the Didascalicon which sets out a sort of medieval curriculum, dividing the subjects into their discrete fields: grammar, mathematics, physics, and the like. To help explain the nature of this division, Hugh offers a metaphor to understand the connections between the different subjects:
‘First of all, the student of Sacred Scripture ought to look among history, allegory, and tropology for that order sought in the disciplines; that is, he should ask which of these three precedes the others in the order of study. In this question it is not without value to call to mind what we see happen in the construction of buildings, where first the foundation is laid, then the structure is raised upon it, and finally, when the work is all finished, the house is decorated by the laying on of color’.
So for Hugh, the division of knowledge is a vertical arrangement for the sake of the student, pieces of knowledge that lock together like a large jenga tower, moving up and up with theology at the top. But if we keep with the architectural metaphor, we can see that knowledge is a house, some sort of building encapsulating the man-made division of knowledge. For Hugh, that house could be called philosophy, a vocation that was undisciplined but a better reflection of the actual composition of real knowledge. It was something for man to step towards, using the blocks the disciplines provided. However, it was important to now mistake the blocks for actual knowledge. The house encapsulates knowledge, all these disciplines are just parts of it, some more important than others, but all made to keep the building from falling into ruin.
Having finally finished my DPhil it is nice to be able to think about these wider topics, and look forward to changing my mind.
 Joe Moran, Interdisciplinarity, 2 edn. (London; New York, 2010). A useful book, but the appraisal of education and knowledge before the early modern period is lacking.
 William Gaddis, JR (London, 1976), p. 20.
 The abbey is no longer there. There is, however, a café called the ‘Café de Saint Victor’, which in my opinion, is not the best place to have a coffee in Paris (or even in the immediate area). Go further down the road to the Café des Artes instead….
 Hugh of Saint Victor, The Didascalicon of Hugh of Saint Victor: A Medieval Guide to the Arts, trans. Jerome Taylor (New York, 1991), p. 135. This is one of the few medieval texts I’ve seen with 5-star reviews across the board on Amazon.
 Later in the Middle Ages we get image of the ‘Tower of Wisdom’.