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The Critical Corner - 11/22/2010

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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.

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