Royal MS. 8 A. XVIII is an early fifteenth-century Cistercian manuscript of Oxford origin. A scholar’s handbook, it contains Scholastic and legal tracts: a florilegium (primarily comprising sententiae from the Corpus Aristotelicum) and a series of short or abridged works on natural philosophy, juxtaposed with brief tracts on canon law procedure and numerous legal forms linking the book to a Cistercian abbey in the diocese of Lincoln. Despite its small size and fairly disheveled appearance, this manuscript is uniquely placed to permit comment, in one sitting, first upon the traditional assumption that in the fifteenth century arts learning in Oxford had developed a distinctive, innovative character (following the work of the ‘Merton School’), clearly setting it apart from that on the Continent, and second upon the nature of English Cistercian intellectual culture following educational reforms introduced one hundred years previously. A close analysis of the content and distribution of the Scholastic tracts demonstrates a strong sense of continuity in basic learning in the arts, both from the late thirteenth century to the fifteenth, and between Oxford and the Continent. As the only identified English Cistercian manuscript containing texts covering the range of the Oxford arts curriculum, our book demonstrates that despite accommodation and funding difficulties faced by Cistercians at this time, and in stark contrast to the antipathy to this kind of learning evident in the Order’s formative years, Cistercians could and did take full advantage of training in the arts. Cistercian educational reform had renewed the traditional prohibition on the study of canon law. Yet our manuscript demonstrates vividly both Cistercian scholarly enthusiasm for canon law, and the exhaustive (and perhaps unsurprising) extent to which Cistercian social life was structured by rules and regulations, in line with the legal formalism dominating procedure in contemporary ecclesiastical and secular government in western Europe.
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