Ecstasy in the Classroom

Trance, Self, and the Academic Profession in Medieval Paris

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Ayelet Even-Ezra
Fordham Series in Medieval Studies
  • New York, NY: 
    Fordham University Press
    , December
     312 pages.
     For other formats: Link to Publisher's Website.


The year 1229 has proven to be one of the most significant for the history of professional theology. In Paris, after some student drinking on Shrove Tuesday turned violent, teachers and students alike went on strike to protest the city guards’ brutal disciplining of the drunken, brawling students. Pope Gregory IX brought the strike to an early end in 1231 with Parens scientiarum, sometimes called the Magna Carta of the University of Paris for its role in securing the university’s independence from local authorities (both secular and ecclesiastical) and granting it autonomy over its own governance. Ayelet Even-Ezra’s Ecstasy in the Classroom: Trance, Self, and the Academic Profession studies the effect of this institutionalization of Paris on the relationship between rational and ecstatic modes of knowing God. Even-Ezra, by her own admission, writes not “a standard account of ‘medieval theories of rapture.’” Instead, she searches out “what troubled and interested these theologians as they approached this phenomenon” (190)—namely, what theologians thought of themselves as knowing subjects and as those whose work it was to know God.

Even-Ezra’s focus, then, is on that generation of theologians who lived through this rapid institutionalization of the University of Paris, those who flourished between 1215 and 1245. While this generation of theologians tends to be passed over in favor of the giants of the next (Thomas Aquinas and Bonaventure of Bagnoregio chief among them), Even-Ezra selects this earlier generation precisely because it was their self-understanding of the work of knowing God—especially in distinction to the theological work of the monasteries and the cathedral schools—that gave shape to what would become the academic profession of the theologian. Moreover, Even-Ezra is less interested in the individual theologians at the University of Paris than she is in the community that these individuals constituted. Citing with approval Jean Lave and Étienne Wenger’s “community of professionals” (12), Even-Ezra traces the complicated intellectual relationship among Paris’ earliest luminaries: William of Auxerre, Alexander of Hales, Philip the Chancellor, and William of Auvergne. Neither does Even-Ezra neglect unedited or anonymous quaestiones pertaining to her subject (the manuscripts she consults are listed at 265–266; a quaestio is a particular genre of scholastic writing, which Even-Ezra explains at 22). In one place Even-Ezra even traces out the implications of self-understanding in courtly French romance (104–110). Thus, Even-Ezra brings scholarly attention to an understudied group of thinkers and texts, including some not yet available in critical editions.

Consistent with her approach to scholastic theology as a communal endeavor, Even-Ezra does not proceed chronologically, nor does she limit each chapter to a single figure. Rather, each chapter pursues a question that emerges from the scholastic disputation on Paul’s rapture to the third heaven (2 Corinthians 12) and cuts across all the relevant figures and texts. In each chapter Even-Ezra studies three aspects of the relation between rational discourse and ecstatic knowledge. First is a study of the doctrinal issues pertaining to rapture and other modes of knowing, with Paul’s rapture serving as the paradigmatic case for the early scholastics. Second, she asks what these discourses reveal about these theologians’ perception of self, especially when it comes to how knowing can transform the self. Third, she considers what these discourses on knowing and the self suggest about the nascent professionalization of theology in a university setting. While this threefold approach serves her aims well, it does make for dense and complicated reading; the reader will want a pen and notebook handy.

Chapter 1 studies how scholastic theologians thought about rapture as a mode of knowing God and how their study of Paul’s rapture afforded an opportunity to develop taxonomies of modes of knowing God. Chapter 2 then turns to memory: how to understand Paul’s recollection of his rapture, and what role does this suggest mediating images have in ecstatic knowledge? Chapter 3 continues this investigation into media for knowing God by asking whether something on the part of the knowing subject herself mediates knowledge of God to the knower. Does a habitus (habit; but on the difficulties of translating habitus, see 20–22), residing in the soul, stand somewhere between the knowing subject and the known object? It’s this chapter that teases out views of the self in courtly French romance. Even-Ezra hopes to find “the cultural meaning of the idea that an inapproachable, fundamental essence underlies one’s behavior, habits, talents, and mental and bodily clothes” (104). Chapter 4 then examines faith, detailing how early scholastics thought of faith as something like first principles in Aristotelian knowledge (scientia). This chapter also raises questions of authority in learning: where 12th-century education was typically grounded in the master’s authority, the 13th-century thinkers preferred to locate authority in those principles and the dialectical method itself. Chapter 5 addresses different modes of knowing and asks whether prior modes of knowing persist when the same object is known according to a higher mode; Even-Ezra’s analysis here of different types of faith, graces, and charisms is especially useful. Finally, chapter 6 looks at the relationship between knowledge and virtue, between intellectus and affectus, in early scholastic theology.

With light and sure feet Even-Ezra dances through complex scholastic debates concerning rapture, prophecy, faith, wisdom, and beatific vision; if those were the only steps she braved the book would be worth its purchase price. But Even-Ezra dares trickier choreography still, as she guides her reader through discussions on how these debates are motivated by questions concerning cognition of God, what they suggest about the role of the theologian in the church and in society, and how knowing God (whether rationally or ecstatically) transforms the knower. What results is a delight to behold, a feat in medieval studies. Readers curious about the foundations of scholastic theology as well as the practice of academic theology today will find Ecstasy in the Classroom worth pursuing.

About the Reviewer(s): 

Andrew Gertner Belfield is a doctoral candidate in theology at Boston College.

Date of Review: 
July 8, 2021
About the Author(s)/Editor(s)/Translator(s): 

Ayelet Even-Ezra is Assistant Professor of History at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem. She studies Europe’s medieval scholastic culture of the twelfth and thirteenth centuries.


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