3 May 2012

Learning Without a Title

Johannes Butzbach (1477-1516) on one of his favourite teachers, Bartholomew of Cologne, from The Autobiography of Johannes Butzbach, A Wandering Scholar of the Fifteenth Century, translated by Robert Francis Seybolt and Paul Monroe (Ann Arbor: Edwards Brothers, 1933), pp. 116-7:
He was very fond of industrious students, and cheerfully did for them whatever they desired. The more studious and energetic students, whom I knew, clung to him with such a strong affection, that, after they had studied for several years under so excellent a master and lecturer in the philosophical studies and then finally had to leave him, they could hardly tear themselves away. Although he was in every way worthy, still no university had honored him with the degree of Master. For this reason, he is, to this very day, a thorn in the flesh for many blockheads, who are proud of their empty titles; and his works are criticized by them as schoolboys' exercises and despised by them. Like a true and genuine philosopher, he pays no more attention to such people, whose learning consists of empty titles and certain externalities, than a camel does to the purple. Indeed it is better to possess the essence of learning than a silly title. Among the many who are now styled Masters of Arts there are only a few who have a thorough or sufficient knowledge of one single, though minor art. Of what use then is such a title without content? What are titles without possession? What is honor without merit? What is a name without truth? If, moreover, anyone has completed his period of study without industry, whether he knows something of what he has heard or not, whether he is ignorant or capable, it is easy for him to attain, by a gift, to the degree of Bachelor, Master, or Doctor. Our teacher Bartholomew, for his part, agrees with the ancients: he despises as folly this custom of modern times, and values an earnest pursuit of learning more highly than an empty display. An educated mind is worth more to him than a decorated head. Of what use is a red biretta on the head, if the mind within is clouded by the darkness of ignorance? At any rate, learning without a title is to be more highly valued than a title alone in which people ignorantly take pride.
I suppose that the line about a camel paying attention to purple means "than a camel would pay to someone wearing bishop's robes", or perhaps "to someone wearing a toga praetexta", but these are just guesses.

Someone has posted the entire book here. The English version is actually a translation of a German translation from the Latin, namely Damian Johann Becker's Chronica eines fahrenden Schülers (Regensburg: G.J. Manz, 1869), which can be found here. Butzbach's manuscript is held by the University of Bonn but, as far as I can tell, they have not made it available in their digital collection.