In the late eleventh and early twelfth centuries, in the schools of northern France which were among the forerunners of the medieval university, one of the biggest intellectual debates to attract the attention of scholars was the relationship between words and things, and by extension the ways in which language does or does not capture the reality of the world that we perceive around us. This debate was no empty academic exercise. Perhaps the greatest thinker of the age, Peter Abelard, cut his intellectual teeth on the problem. At stake ultimately was the way in which people could say that they understood God, whose revelation to humankind was believed to be transmitted through the Bible, that is to say, through words. ‘In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God’, as the opening of the Gospel of St John declares. Does something exist independently of our having a word for it, so that words are simply after-the-fact labels that we devise in order to describe the world to one another satisfactorily? Or does a word have a more active function, actually creating the notion of the thing that it designates?
KeywordsMedieval Period Middle Period European History Terminal Date Feudal Society
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