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John Sanford, News Service (650) 736-2151; e-mail:

13th-century texts alter view of medieval scholasticism, Stanford professor says

The first challenge of researching works by Richard Rufus is finding them.

From a medievalist's perspective, the 13th-century scholastic philosopher was modest to a fault. In 1238, Rufus joined the Franciscan Order and took the ideal of humility seriously; he cites himself only in the third person if at all in most of his writing. As a result, his works were lost for close to six centuries.

Stanford Research Professor Rega Wood, who specializes in the history of philosophy, deserves credit for discovering many of them. She is heading the Richard Rufus of Cornwall Project, which recently won a grant of $110,000 from the National Endowment for the Humanities (NEH). It was one of only 35 collaborative projects the NEH decided to fund this year.

The project aims to produce an estimated 20 annotated volumes of Rufus' writings a definitive compilation of his surviving works. The project already is making waves in the field of intellectual history and is bound to have a sweeping effect on how scholars understand the medieval intellectual world.

"Wood and her recommenders are not exaggerating when they claim that her work on Richard Rufus of Cornwall will force a revision of the standard account of 13th-century intellectual history," wrote one NEH project reviewer. "Wood's discovery will make necessary not only a new chronology, but a new characterization of the Latin response to Aristotle's natural philosophy work. It will call for new textbooks, new syntheses and new course lectures."

The scholar

Wood's office is tucked away on the third floor of Green Library, where she labors daily over digitized and microfiched versions of 13th-century texts by Rufus. A New Yorker cartoon that hangs on the office door shows a giant dog sitting on a couch between a man and a woman. The caption reads: "Rufus here is the center of our life."

Wood came to Stanford last year after joining the faculty in 1999. The university offered her seminar and reading rooms to share with medievalists and classicists amenities for which she said she is very grateful.

From 1996 to 2000, Wood was an adjunct professor and senior research scholar at Yale. For 20 years prior to her stint at Yale, she served as a professor at the Franciscan Institute of St. Bonaventure University. She holds master's and doctoral degrees from Cornell University.

Wood has served as an associate editor for several projects involving the edition and annotation of works by medieval thinkers. For example, between 1976 and 1983 she helped to work on an enormous project of editing and annotating the writings of William of Ockham (of "Ockham's razor" fame). That series of volumes was completed in 1988.

Rufus, who was born around the beginning of the 13th century, taught at the University of Paris and at Oxford between 1235 and 1255. He gave the earliest known lectures on Aristotelian psychology, physics and metaphysics in the Western world. When he began teaching in Paris, lecturing on Aristotle's libri naturales, which include these subjects, was forbidden. But by the time he left, all students were tested on these works. A major change took place in the university's curriculum between 1231 and 1255, and Wood bets that Rufus had a lot to do with it.

For the most part, the conventional wisdom among intellectual historians has been that, before 1250, scholars were capable only of dully paraphrasing Aristotle's ideas without critical insight.

"But even the little we have already learned about Rufus' early teaching of Aristotelian natural philosophy at the University of Paris shows that the standard account is mistaken," Wood said. "Rufus applied rigorous Aristotelian reasoning to topics as diverse as physics and natural theology, often modifying or rejecting Aristotle's own solutions."

In addition, Rufus was probably a great teacher.

"Only dynamic teaching could have made Aristotle's libri naturales required reading 20 years after lecturing on them was banned," Wood said.

But by 1400, most of his works were lost. Still, the greatest minds of early-modern Europe, such as Galileo, owe something to Rufus, Wood said. For example, Rufus rejected Aristotle's account of projectile motion. Antonius Menu, a 16th-century Aristotelian who influenced Galileo, challenged the Aristotelian account of projectile motion in much the same terms Rufus did.

Around 1945, a Vatican scriptor discovered some of Rufus' lectures on Aristotle's metaphysics. Working with the esteemed medievalist and Vatican Library Prefect Leonard Boyle, who died in 1999, Professor Timothy Noone of Catholic University authenticated the lectures in 1987.

Wood discovered and authenticated most of Rufus' other philosophical works now known to exist. Finding and identifying the manuscripts, however, required a great deal of detective work.

Discovery in East Germany

It all began when Wood was transcribing and annotating Ockham's lectures on physics. One of her projects for the edition was to find out more about Ockham's intellectual connection with one of his enemies, a philosopher-theologian named Walter Burley. There were collections of Burley's writings in Erfurt, a city that was then within the East German Communist bloc.

At first, Wood had difficulty convincing the East German government to allow her behind the Wall. Eventually, she was granted a tourist visa. And as soon as she saw the manuscripts, stored in the Amplonianum in Erfurt, she knew they hadn't been written by Burley. The manuscripts had writing on the top line of their ink "frames." The practice of writing on the top line stopped around 1250, and Burley hadn't written anything until the 1290s.

"That took me five minutes to discover. And then it took me 10 years to figure out who the author was," Wood said.

Wood is working on the Rufus project with collaborators from Canada, France and New Zealand. Her principal collaborator is philosophy Professor Neil Lewis of Georgetown University.

There is still a lot of work to be done before the project is completed, but Wood said she is in for the long haul. In the meantime, Rufus will, in all likelihood, continue to be the center of her life.


By John Sanford

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