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Why we should read... `The Gladzor School of Armenian Miniature Painting' - by AN Avedissian, 200pp, 1971, Yerevan `The University of Gladzor' - by A Abrahamian, 88pp, 1983, Yerevan `The University of Gladzor: centre of enlightenment in Medieval Armenia' - by S Arevshadian and A Matevossian, 59pp, 1984, Yerevan `The University of Datev' - by A R Gzoyan, 64pp, 2003, Yerevan Armenian News Network / Groong By Eddie Arnavoudian November 22, 2010 Science versus Religion: the case of the Medieval Armenian University Generously satisfying historical interest, these four texts in addition lend a valuable perspective to modern debates about relations between science and religion. Taking us into the fascinating world of two 14th century Armenian Christian universities, they show how even within these pre-eminently religious institutions, a significant body of scientific and cultural work was preserved, reproduced and even developed. Despite obscurantism and irrationalism characteristic of Christian Churches and despite its often reactionary social and political role, the record of the Universities of Gladzor and Datev compels recognition of an enduring intellectual, cultural and scientific contribution made by churchmen, even within parameters of theological thought. The legacy of medieval Armenian academia presses home the point that individual faith alone is neither inevitably nor always, inimical to science, that Church hostility is more frequently a function of its role as a ruling social institution, its proclamations of `divine law' that stifle reason and freedom being demonstrably constructs of men intent on safeguarding power in the face of rational challenge. As a bonus these volumes are also antidotes to that malarial contempt some Armenians still carry for their national culture, a contempt born by centuries of Ottoman oppression and by subsequent imperial Western ignorance, arrogance and historical falsification. Yet even as we read of how Gladzor and Datev stood on a par with European universities of their time we are alerted against any idolisation of the Armenian Church of which they were integral parts. I. The shining stars of Gladzor and Datev universities Though independent of each other and surviving for only the briefest of periods, Gladzor from c1280-1340 and Datev from c1340-1425, both universities were essentially of a single tradition. Gladzor's founder, Nerses of Mush, hailed as his name indicates from western Armenia as did his more illustrious successor Yessaya Nchettzi (1248-1342) who was born in militant Sassoon. Before settling in Gladzor, Nerses ran a mobile school through foreign occupied Armenia. Hovan Orodnetzi, a Gladzor graduate, after setting up his own school moved to Datev, there to establish its University whose leadership was then passed to the equally eminent Grigor of Datev (1346-1409). Extraordinary as they were Gladzor and Datev also constituted a single ring in a longer chain of a well-entrenched Armenian tradition of high calibre education and were preceded by centres in Ani led by Hovanness Sargavak (1045-1129) and in Nor Getak by Mekhitar Gosh (1130-1213) and followed among others by the monastery founded by a Datev graduate Thomas Medzopetzi. Anyone possessing even marginal familiarity with the legacy of these institutions, their teachers and graduates, with the work of men such as Hovhan Vorodnetzi, Grigor of Datev, Diradour of Cilicia, Stepanos Orbelian, Hovanness Yerzengatzi, Khatchadour Getcharetzi, the poet Frig and architect Momig will find risible claims that Armenian medieval monasteries were but dens of irrationalism and prejudice. Stocks of surviving manuscripts show both Gladzor and Datev to have been well deserving of their reputations as the `mother of all schools', a `centre of wisdom, a `second Athens'. A sketch of `Aristotle's Tree of Knowledge' indicates the breadth of their syllabus that besides the obligatory theology included mathematics, music, geography, biology, astronomy, physics, morality, economics, politics, aesthetics and rhetoric. Degree courses could last anywhere from 6 to 12 years with Datev teaching some 80-100 students annually. Authentic intellectual content was supplied by the best available Armenian, Greek, Arabic and other texts, often painstakingly copied by the students, among them works from Plato, Aristotle, Euclid, Pilon, Armenian philosopher Yeznig, scientist Shragatzi and others. As Gzoyan notes furthermore within the subject of `rhetoric' was included logic, jurisprudence, style and concepts of form and content that though designed to train Church cadre to hold their own against theological opposition, nevertheless preserved a great deal of classical philosophical thought. A measure of Gladzor's and Datev's intellectual substance is suggested by Datev graduate Hovanness Yerzengatsi who compared the earth and space to an egg, with its yoke representing the earth that is held in balance by the egg-white representing space; and this from one who would pray on a Christian Bible and swear loyalty to a Church that proclaimed the earth to be flat. Bypassing bishops' sermons that announced earthquakes to be Divine punishment for the peoples' sins, other students investigated their natural, geological causes. Requirements of the Christian calendar further prompted an accurate study of the movements of the spheres based on Armenian, Hebrew, Assyrian, Greek, Latin and other texts. Graduate Momig's architectural legacy, somewhat obscured by his greater fame as a painter of miniatures, testifies to an advanced grasp of geology and geometry. Students of Armenian philosophy cannot but be overwhelmed with excitement on being introduced to the thought of Hovan Orodnetzi (1315-1386) and Krikor Datevatzi (1346-1409). Together with 11th cenury Krikor Makisdross, 12th century John the Philosopher and Vahram Rappouni from the 13th, they began formulating some of the central principles of pragmatic philosophy, well ahead of the English empiricists headed by Francis Bacon. Even as they accepted the existence of God as the creator of the universe and its laws they elaborated rationalist views to explain relations between knowledge and practice. John the Philosopher had argued that 'no assertion can be accepted without experimentation and analysis.' Hovan Orodnetzi followed with the view that 'nature was' in fact `the first cause' of knowledge, with Krikor Datevatzi clarifying that nature exists `prior to knowledge' and that `knowledge' `flows from the thing, not the thing from knowledge'. `The truth of an assertion' he adds `is established by the thing, not vice versa.' Quite remarkably, the accomplishments of both institutions were registered against almost impossible historical and political conditions. Harboured in the enclaves of the precarious and short-lived semi-autonomous province of Syounik, a last outpost of Armenian statehood crushed three centuries earlier, their lecture halls echoed to the permanent thud of invading horses' hooves. Nevertheless under adept Boshian and Orbelian leadership for a brief period Syounik remained free of the worst Mongol destruction and there the Church was protected, sponsored, granted land, villages, freedom from taxes and rights to collect tithes in return for training the princedoms' civil servants, scientists, architects, engineers and its keepers of ideological and social order. The Armenian clergy had additionally independent reasons to sustain education. In the absence of a protective nationwide state, an educated Church intelligentsia was decisive for the organisation and defence of what remained still a pan-national institution operating across a land ruled and ruined by imperial powers and subject to constant poaching raids by foreign denominations. Reviewing their history one cannot avoid a certain clinical admiration for the manner in which these two universities contributed to the survival of the Armenian Church and arguably certain foundations for the 19th century Armenian national revival. The unmatched vigour and tenacity of their tutors and students enabled the 14th century Armenian Church to fend off repeated Roman offensives that, unlike the Armenian, enjoyed state backing. In this battle against Unitarianism, having repelled Papal assault, Datev graduate Thomas Medzopetzi, triumphantly returned Armenian Church Headquarters from vulnerable and Papal influenced Cilicia to Etchmiadzin in Armenia's core from where it secured existence for four centuries preserving the Armenian language, its literature and its cultural heritage. II. The darker side of the stars Brilliant as their legacy shines today Gladzor and Datev were nevertheless feudal Church estates. Datev's priests owned 47 villages along with their serfs as well as rights to raises taxes on a further 677. The culture and science they produced had no ambition to save peasant souls or to bequeath riches to the future. Its sole purpose was to safeguard the Church's enormous privilege and power and enable its elites to enjoy these to the full. The peasant in all this was just the means to the Church elite's ends. The cost of what survives of the Church's glory days was paid for by the Armenian peasantry in unimaginable measures of poverty, hunger, pain and misery. It was the common people who in addition to paying Church taxes and tithes that left them and their families hungry, had to build the elite's monasteries and castles, their bridges and their roads. It was the peasant that had to till the soil and produce the food served to prince and bishop. To this peasantry, what we today consider marvels of our cultural inheritance must have appeared understandably in a very indifferent light. Of what import after all are beautifully illuminated manuscripts when the last morsel of your child's food is snatched by the priest in the form of a tax demand backed by threats of eternal hell fire. Living in blood and mire, always on the edge of death all the treasures of Armenian architecture, miniature paintings and music meant little or nothing to the peasant. It was a legacy that did not belong to them but to the high and the haughty. It requires little imagination to grasp popular contempt and protest registered in expansively in folklore and modern literature in which the clergy appear as `free eating' parasites or as ruthless collectors of tithes. Western Armenian Dikran Chyoguryan's fine novel `The Monastery' refers to an 'exploitative' and 'heartless' clergy whose `sole concern is `to fatten themselves on the monastery's chickens, eggs and butter' no doubt produced by hungry serfs. In eastern Armenian Hovanness Toumanian's poem `The Song of the Ploughman, the head of the family already suffering a `hand that does not function' and `strength that is diminished' must yet drive himself harder in order to escape not just `the usurer (who) will come to beat us' but `the priest (who) if unpaid after his blessing, will rage and curse.' But it is perhaps Yeghishe Charents in his terribly misunderstood `On the Highways of History' who captures best and puts in proper perspective the dialectic of peasant sensibility and the legacy of elite culture. Charents's dismissal of the entire legacy of Armenian history was deemed `nihilistic' even in Soviet times for allegedly failing to acknowledge `progressive elements' in feudal society. Charents was not however engaged in the construction of teleological narratives that so blighted a great deal of Soviet era historiography. Instead, with an angry passion and a vivid imagination he resurrects the body and soul of the medieval peasant. He brings this peasant alive into his own times and bonding him with his contemporary brothers and sisters gives their voice unmistakeable authority. Classical Armenian histories, written primarily by Churchmen uphold Charents's judgement that for the people, for the peasantry, Armenian feudal history did indeed represent `slavery, ashes, oblivion and death'. Eleventh century Lazdivertzi's dramatic account of the collapse of the Bagratouni dynasty is a singular instance. Classical historians provide ample evidence for Charents to show that the elites did indeed `waste away the treasure we inherited' and having `put out for sale' the people's `last anchors' of hope fled to `foreign shores' there to build `mansions and castles'. The historical record shows that prince and priest did indeed `sow nothing but poverty of spirit', nothing `but turmoil and beggary' for the mass of the peasantry that was left behind to suffer `brutal tyranny', `live in the deep darkness' with freedom only to `dream of the sun'. But even as Charents opens up the sensibilities of living, feeling, suffering, dreaming common people he was certainly no vulgar `nihilist'. He neither denied nor rejected the culture and civilisation produced in the past. Another poem, `To the Miniature Painter', evokes images of medieval manuscripts `fashioned often with unerring skill' and touched with the `grandeur of resurrection'. To underline historical truth however he also notes that those who produced these works were often `serfs', albeit `genius serfs' labouring till `their backs buckled with pain'. Charents understood well that each generation must build on the legacy of earlier ones, on the legacy left among others by such genius serfs. In the unimaginably beautiful `To the Builders of Cities' he affirms that a solid present must stand upon past accomplishments. He advises builders to `mix into `the stone of the city walls' the `thousand year old ashes' of `those who sleep for ever' and to `place their marble coffin' at `the city's golden gate': `For the ashes of the dead make the strongest cement The strongest and most enduring binding And it is with that that the land becomes land, The people, a people, the future a future...' IV. Reason and religion That much of classical Armenian culture was produced and preserved by men of a Church often driven by violent and sectarian purposes does not disqualify it from a place in modern intellectual discourse. It hardly requires noting that Christian European and Islamic Arab civilizations flourished remarkably in eras of religious dominance. The point is well put by Hicham Ben Abdallah El Alaoui when he remarks that: `Part of the grandeur of Islam was its ability to absorb a myriad of cultural influences. The Muslim world protected, studied and developed the great traditions of classical literature and philosophy. It was not a place for burning books, but for building libraries to preserve them. It was for some time the guardian of the founding documents of what became known as "western civilisation". It understood that these were part of the intellectual legacy of all mankind.' (Le Monde Diplomatique, English Edition, August 2010, No. 1008) Culture and science are at all times necessary conditions for life. >From the standpoint of their own interests, dominant classes and institutions, secular or religious had to at least tolerate and sometimes even directly sponsor their development. The Church could not obstruct the codification of knowledge necessary for agriculture, for the building of roads and bridges and their own palaces, Churches and mansions. Agriculture required knowledge of nature's seasons and of animal and plant life. Men and women also required science to tend to illnesses and physical ailments. Even at its most reactionary religious hegemony was never exclusively a devotional concern, never just theology to regulate men and women's spiritual lives. The Church existed as a secular and a religious power. By virtue of its position in society, whatever its dogmas it had to attend to concrete problems of everyday life where reason and science were necessary. The Church itself possessed economic, political, social and even military interests all of which required science, organization and administration and so also literacy, mathematics, history and even accounting. In eras of religious ascendancy there were of course attempts to limit the development of science and knowledge when these upset clerical interest. But sometimes limits were broad and even when narrow social necessity frequently found ways to let science and reason through. So it was with the Armenian Church too. At its height secular forces often cowered helplessly before the force of the Armenian Church. Born of specific historical conditions, it was, beneath the devotional and theological gloss, a political and social force that imposed itself on society and people by means of military force. In uniquely barbaric fashion, it incinerated pre-Christian Armenian pagan culture. But even as it did, it produced its own incorporating international culture and elements of Armenian pagan culture driven significantly in the 5th century by its struggle against the Persian state. The works of classical Armenian historians, scientists, philosophers stand as evidence. This thread of cultural engagement stretched through Church history, sustained by its own efforts and by the support and sponsorship of secular feudal estates and later by a powerful Armenian merchant class. Those who display disdain for medieval Armenian education, terming it as 'monastic', as something in which reason, art and science is absent confess only ignorance and superficiality. Those who thus deride can be described as sneering slaves of cultural imperialism. To be persuaded of the historical reality, pick up any of these four volumes. Throughout its history the Armenian Church trained generations of intellectuals, poets, musicians, teachers, scientists and philosophers. They turned out outstanding scribes and miniature painters whose copying labours ensured the survival of a great deal of earlier works of Armenian literature and the works of a few of foreign authors too that now exist only in their Armenian renditions. Thus they played a role in preserving and developing ancient stocks of knowledge we can avail ourselves of today. The single extant manuscript of 5th century Yeznig's philosophical work is a copy produced in Gladzor. That their efforts served the education priests dedicated to bending peasant flocks to the will of native and foreign feudal masters does not invalidate the value of that which survives today. Our business is to ensure that this value is shared by all, enjoyed not just by elites but by the people. These volumes additionally show that our current debates about the relationship between science and religion cannot and should not be narrowed to whether individuals believe or do not believe in god or whether people of faith, even under the auspices of the Church, can or cannot produce rational knowledge. In certain circumstances they evidently can do so. The debate between reason and faith certainly has its acute philosophical and theoretical dimension where there is no room for coexistence. But at its most urgent today it is a social and political debate about the Church's role, its attitude and intervention into the world of science, scientific research and its application. Whenever the Church or any other secular institution for that matter attempt to impose limits on human reason, whenever religious or secular irrationalism pit themselves against science and reason they demand uncompromising examination, challenge and rebuttal. Post Mortem: 'Those interested in the relationship between medieval Christianity and science can follow up by reading 'God's Philosophers: how the medieval world laid the foundaions of modern science' by James Hannam. In many ways, albeit indirectly, it supports the arguments advanced by the four authors of the Armenian publications noted above.' -- Eddie Arnavoudian holds degrees in history and politics from Manchester, England, and is Groong's commentator-in-residence on Armenian literature. His works on literary and political issues have also appeared in Harach in Paris, Nairi in Beirut and Open Letter in Los Angeles.