By John Shea
Photography by Candace diCarlo

Some 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.

“The meaning changes depending on who’s 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 office’s two desks appears to have been given over entirely to piles of journals, course materials, assorted papers—and, of course, books, with titles like Possessed by the Past; Baudolino (Umberto Eco’s new novel set in medieval Europe); M. R. James’s 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.

“There’s 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 heretics—and 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.

“All 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 do—anyone in academe—because you want to find out things.”

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2003 The Pennsylvania Gazette Last modified 04/28/03