740 years ago,
St. Bonaventure, a Doctor of the Church and Minister General
of the Franciscan Order, argued that God had provided humans
with as much knowledge as they needed to live the proper Christian
life. To investigate by reason beyond the point of adequate
knowledge, writes Dr. Edward Peters, the Henry Charles Lea
Professor of History, is to move away from divine wisdom
and be guilty of curiositas.
Since its appearance in the late Classical period, curiositas,
which roughly translates as curiosity, has been a slippery
term, sometimes considered a virtue, at other times a vice.
meaning changes depending on whos using it, says Peters,
sitting in his cluttered office on the sixth floor of Van
Pelt Library. Two walls are covered with tightly packed bookcases
that stretch from floor to ceiling, and one of the offices
two desks appears to have been given over entirely to piles
of journals, course materials, assorted papersand, of course,
books, with titles like Possessed by the Past; Baudolino
(Umberto Ecos new novel set in medieval Europe); M. R. Jamess
Apocryphal New Testament; and Demon Lovers,
a new book on witchcraft.
For Bonaventure, explains Peters, curiositas was clearly
a dangerous quality, given the various heresies that threatened
to undermine Christian Europe. During the 13th and 14th centuries,
Church leaders became increasingly suspicious of heterodox
interpretations or alternative texts.
this consistent condemnation of other scriptures, says Peters,
a fear that these are polluting, poisoning texts. The inquisitors
who sought to identify and eradicate heresy were themselves
cautioned on what to ask the suspected hereticsand what to
avoid asking. Even Bonaventure, a member of the faculty of
the University of Paris who had studied heretical texts in
order to refute them, had to defend himself from the charge
of unhealthy curiosity.
of this connects back to curiositas what should you
know and why should you know it, says Peters. Asked whether
it is an impulse he shares, he shrugs: We all doanyone in
academebecause you want to find out things.