first of the old talks: on Guillelmus de Aragonia, “De nobilitate animi”

A ten-minute contribution to a round-table, in what turned out to be very exciting pretty immediate response to the publication (some six weeks earlier) of:
  • De nobilitate animi
    William of Aragon / Guillelmus de Aragonia
    Ed. & trans. William D. Paden & Mario Trovato
    Cambridge: Harvard UP (Harvard Studies in Medieval Latin), 2013
An introduction to this text, from the publishers’ website:

Guillelmus de Aragonia was known as a philosopher for his commentary on Boethius and his works on physiognomy, oneirology, and astronomy; he was also a physician, perhaps a personal physician to the king of Aragon. In a time of intellectual upheaval and civil strife, when nobility was on the verge of being defined with legal precision as it had not been since antiquity, Guillelmus taught that true nobility is an acquired habit, not an inborn quality. Guillelmus wrote De nobilitate animi, “On Nobility of Mind,” around 1280–1290. Working in the recently renewed Aristotelian tradition, he took an independent and original approach, quoting from philosophers, astronomers, physicians, historians, naturalists, orators, poets, and rustics pronouncing proverbs.

This edition presents the Latin text, based on six manuscripts, three of them hitherto unknown, along with an English translation. An introduction reviews Guillelmus’s life and work, considering his theory of nobility in the contexts of history, philosophy, and rhetoric, and studies the authorities he quotes with particular attention to the troubadours, lyric poets from the area known today as the south of France. An appendix of sources and analogues is also included.

The venue:
  • 48th International Congress on Medieval Studies
    University of Western Michigan, Kalamazoo
    May 2013
  • Troubadours and Philosophers: A Roundtable on De nobilitate animi
    Sponsor: Société Guilhem IX
    Organizer: Sarah-Grace Heller, Ohio State Univ.
    Presider: Sarah-Grace Heller, Ohio State Univ.
    A roundtable discussion with William Paden, Northwestern Univ.; Christopher Davis, Univ. of California–Berkeley; Juliet O’Brien, Univ. of British Columbia; Lorenzo Valterza, Ohio State Univ.; and Michelle Bolduc, Univ. of Wisconsin–Milwaukee
This panel’s raison d’être, from the CFP:
The 13th-century philosophical treatise in Latin by Guillelmus de Aragonia, De Nobilitate Animi (new edition by William D. Paden and Mario Trovato to appear in 2012) attempts to define nobility, especially in terms of the heart and spirit. In scholastic style it invokes a variety of authorities: of particular interest for Occitan scholars, it cites such troubadours as Peire Vidal, Jaufre Rudel, Folquet de Marselha, Guilhem Montanhagol, and one Arnaut, translating excerpts of their works into Latin. It also quotes Aristotle, as well as the works or translations of Ahmed ben-Sirin. This roundtable invites participants to give a brief (10-minute) presentation on a topic related to the treatise — for instance the poets cited, the notion of nobility, the place of truth, philosophy and scholasticism, translation, or reception (e.g., in Dante’s appropriation of the troubadours in the Commedia or the De Vulgari Eloquentia, Matfre’s Breviari d’Amor, or Agamben’s criticism) — and then share in a discussion of this work, its importance, and the new Paden/Trovato edition.


This is a great book that is worth reading. Not only is it worth reading, it is important and useful. Directly useful, in an applied medievalism / meta-sort of of way. It has a central positive message that may well make a reader feel happy. It is also funny as hell and a jolly good joke. If you liked the “joke writ large” aspects of works such as Jean de Meun’s Roman de la Rose or the Flamenca romance (more coming up in a later post, from an old talk about Flamenca as a joke), you may find this amusing. If you like the wise aphoristic writings of elder(ly) gentlemen such as Montaigne, you may also appreciate De nobilitate animi.


[Ed. bear in mind that this was written as a talk; any subsequent versions rewritten for reading will of course differ. Bear in mind also that this was a round-table, hence why there’s no ten-minute introduction to the work here; and our talks were followed by considerable and very fruitful discussion… And: welcome to the first post in the new regular weekly Old Talks Series, appearing every Friday. With apologies to serious, proper, live, new Speaker Series.]

At  the end of the second book, the tenth and final chapter concludes, then adds a laudetur altissimus a quo fluit omnis nobilitas et in quem omnis actio nobilis terminatur, there’s an explicit, and finally–from one of the six manuscripts–a colophon:

Hec lectura petit quisnam sit lector et unde
Ne careat titulis ut peregrina suis.
Hic est Willelmus medicine sorte magister;
Regis Arrogonie de dictione fuit.

This last section brings together the main strands of my reading. They are:

  1. that De nobilitate animi is (amongst other things) a treatise on ethics, with emphasis on application, on practice and the practical, and learning.
  2. what it does with Aristotle and Boethius is an interesting innovation, especially the integration of Aristotle’s physical, biological, medical works; as is the use of other material, what shape these references and citations take and how they are used; not just what material is used, but what isn’t, how it’s used, and why. We may be discussing this point more later.

  3. assuming that we’re all more or less happy–as happy as medievalists can be, anyway–with the authorial attribution: it may be useful to be aware of William of Aragon’s identity as a man of the court, as a medical man, and as a scholar (and possibly teacher). Who has suffered reversals of fortune and recovered. Who might also (depending on the exact time of writing, and I’m just throwing the idea out there)–might be having a poke at Arnold of Villanova. Usefulness here is not only regarding what is said, but what is oversaid when it didn’t need to be, and what is left unspoken.

De nobilitate animi sets up a theory of nobility of mind that is distinct from a common sense (and, indeed, our most current one now; more perhaps on these senses from our legal scholars?). That more usual sense is twofold. First, there’s the nobility of body: discussed with support from Aristotle’s biological works, and from assorted troubadours (in the most troubadour-rich section of the treatise). Second usual sense: nobility due to fortune, within which are distinguished power, wealth, and fame. Nobility of mind is the highest of these three, and the nobility of fortune is definitely the lowest; with the caveat that body and mind are working together in concert, and nobility of mind itself is the well-ordered conjunction of its speculative and its active or practical parts. The holistic medical angle is emphasized if we bring in that colophon, which is also in William’s Commentum in Boetium. That commentary includes a prologue (also in Jean de Meun’s translation), featuring the rather clinical dolor et turbacio animi and sanitas mentis nostre.

Next step in the argument: It’s not so much a case of “nobility” or “being noble,” but rather, acting, behaving, doing things nobly (so, an adverbialist theory of mind rather than one of mental states; and movement–there’s a lot of operatio, movere, and so on–rather than stasis):

nobilis […] est quam bene operans


And of doing so as a matter of habit:

nobilitas est habitus qui movet ad bona opera

(1.1.4). That desire to the good is doubly Aristotelian, via the Ethics and Politics (as explicit in Part 2), and via Boethius. It also frames the whole treatise, integrating its expression in De anima: from

ex naturali appetitu ad bonum et ex eius cognicione ad bene operandum movemur, et ex bonis operibus boni, noti, et notabiles iudicamur in bonum

(1.0.1) to the final sentence praising the almighty from whom all nobility flows, and

in quem omnis actio nobilis terminatur.


Two political, and perhaps politic, steps here.

First: these references to the almighty are formulaic, straight out of Aristotle and Boethius, and some of the few religious references in the text. All these references could be as Jewish as they could Christian. With a few exceptions–wise words from Solomon and David–there is an avoidance of matters theological, overly so in 1.11 (whether all men are noble by nature), 18-19:

ea que a Deo principaliter procreantur. Sed quia hec solucio metas naturales transcendit, hic magis naturaliter est loquendum.

Sticking to medicine like a good doctor should (Boniface VIII and Arnault de Villanova). This is also one of the few appearances of the first-person voice.

Second politic point: The mere acquisition of power, wealth, or fame is a doubly-contingent mere accident of fortune; distinguished (1.5-8) from the good exercice of power or good use of wealth, which is noble as it’s intentional (1.6.3): not just largesse (or broad-sense prez), but doing so for the public good:

ut ratio inter homines conservatur et pax et amicitia inter ipsos

(1.6.1). Yes, it’s not entirely unexpected, it’s straight out of the Politics and the Consolation: but a sensible move not to alienate one’s lord, and a reminder of his duties (with much use of servare). Potential for noble activity: like any other muscle, use it or lose it…

Some are born with this potential to be noble-minded and/or can figure things out for themselves; some are sadly incapable; but most people would probably fall somewhere between the two. Even–as covered in the second section of part 1–even women. Those who have the capacity for noble-mindedness can be taught by others, and improve through practice. And that’s why we have part two’s useful

breves et tutas lecturas, proverbia et sententia

(2.0.1-2) and the second section of part one come in–the questions and responses, in different voices and styles (where the plain-talking of our main narrative voice is highlighted in contrast with Mr Logic putting the questions), of that debate in the middle of the text. That debate is recalled by the colophon’s playful conversation between the text and its composer, in the present tense and third-person reported speech (and there’s a lot more to be said on the use of direct and indirect speech in this text).

This treatise is eminently practical. Not just a description of what nobility or noble-mindedness is. But how to recognise it through direct observation of it in action, with a view to learning from experience. And a good way to find role-models and tutors. And a nice demonstration of its principles put into practice: following Quintillian on proper full acquisition of knowledge, when it’s integrated into your own thinking, including the encouragement of paraphrase.

De nobilitate animi reads nicely as a useful and uplifting supplement to De consolatione and to William’s Commentum in Boetium. The Consolation leaves one to suffer Fortune well and wisely. In the prologue to his Commentum, William states the Consolation‘s purpose as being to offer consolation but also healing and building resistance:

consolacio vero et resistencia,

and represents its personae as doctor and patient. Here in De Nobilitate animi, we are offered further hope: sidestep the Wheel of Fortune and its associated nobility altogether, and aim for nobility of mind instead, looking out for suitable teachers. This idea would be kin to those of clerical and learned virtues (including those of professional poets), and at times sniffy atitudes towards nobility of birth and wealth (Andreas Cappellanus’s De amore, Ramon Vidal de Besalú’s Abril issi’ e mays intrava, and Jean’s Roman de la Rose). I’m sure we’ll have further discussion on historical developments here.

If De nobilitate animi is also informed by contemporary events–Arnault de Villanova, the Paris condemnations of 1277, reading and reception of Jean de Meun’s Roman de la Rose–and by the lived experience of William of Aragon, it may be read as an exemplary exercise, the treatise at once theory and applied practice. As applied here to his own case: possibly some grudges and snarks with respect to Arnaut de Villanova’s better (and worse) fortunes at Montpellier; and William himself being brought down by the slings and arrows of outrageous Fortune, raised up again, but in between, spending time in a scholarly environment and learning a lesson: it’s what you do with Fortune’s fruits that counts.


There are, as ever, more notes, notes made alongside each reading, bibliographical researchy stuff, and assorted stream-of-consciousnesss bits and pieces. Mostly in notebooks. That will be posted up. If you find anything here interesting, or if it fits in with your own work: I would strongly encourage you to go forth, read De nobilitate animi, get others to read it, talk and write about it, and generally spread the word.


  • “François Rigolot: Renaissance Medievalist”
    Renaissance Society of America
    Montréal, 2011
  • “Courtly Love and Chrétien de Troyes’s Lancelot” (or, Why Gaston Paris Was Not Actually Wrong)
    Maynooth Medieval and Renaissance Forum
    NUI Maynooth, 2009
  • “Losing Oneself, Being Found, and Finding One’s Own Way: Lancelot’s Adventurous Travel Without Maps”
    38th Annual Medieval Workshop, UBC
    Vancouver, 2009
  • then back to part of current business: Flamenca and (other) femin/ist medievalism, or medieval/ist feminism; which will also come into New Stuff too
  • and then, again in New Stuff, back to Guilhem d’Aragonia revisited: notes, reading / research, notes taken at the round-table, thoughts and other Further Considerations noted down later, etc.

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