“Mental Habits” in Panofsky’s Gothic Architecture and Scholasticism

The following passage, spanning pages twenty through twenty-five, presents the earliest complete articulation of Panofsky’s thesis in Gothic Architecture and Scholasticism. In these pages, he articulates a social and political order in which the values and methods of scholastic thought were widespread and popularly consumed at the same time that Gothic art flourished in the particular mode in which he posits its clearest relationship to scholastic thought. Panofsky begins by setting the limits of his argument temporary and geographically, a procedure rather scientific in its approach, as not to make too broad of a claim that would inevitably be deflated by numerous counter examples. He isolates the period between 1130 and 1270 and the area of 100 miles radius around Paris, the urban epicenter of social and political order, and thus, cultural and knowledge production. He identifies vehicles for the transmission of scholastic thought and Gothic style, a phenomenon he calls a “mental habit”. Thus, Panofsky claims a “genuine cause-and-effect relation” between scholastic methods and the emergence of a coherent Gothic order without at the same time committing to a theory of transmission by “direct impact”, a model he ascribes to the relationships between “painters, sculptors, or architects” and their “erudite advisors”. This move permits Panofsky to manufacture a unique argument that simultaneously claims a bold, directed line of influence without requiring him to produce the specific transactional evidence that might support claims to influential relationships between producers of the Gothic arts and the scholastics who allegedly influenced them. It is no surprise that this term habitus (mental habit) was taken up by sociologist Pierre Bourdieu in his theories on the dynamics of social exchange and power. Indeed, Bourdieu first used the term in his 1967 introduction to the tenth-anniversary reprint of Gothic Architecture and Scholasticism.

Not leaving anything to chance, despite how his theory might seem, Panofsky identifies the social milieu in which scholastic thought disseminated itself widely from the leaders of the field (he mentions Thomas Aquinas and Gilbert de la Porrée) to the cathedral schools and universities of the urbanized and relatively cosmopolitan Paris. As scholasticism was developed and spread by a legion of Benedictine and Franciscan monks, so too was the Gothic style upheld and developed by the architectural outputs of these orders. Panofsky writes: “They had gone to school; they listened to sermons; they could attend the public disputationes de quolibet which, dealing as they did with all imaginable questions of the day, had developed into social events not unlike our operas, concerts, or public lectures; and they could come into profitable contact with the learned on many other occasions.” The social system he traces seems convincingly to point toward the total hold of scholasticism on social and religious thought, and thus, the inevitable relationship of that philosophy to the grand architectural edifices that the institutional guardians of scholasticism built to house their ideas and practices.

Panofsky goes a step further, sketching out the Paris streets as they filled with the professional classes of publishers, scribes and manuscript illuminators who produced scholastic texts for wider consumption, as well as the scholar who used these manuscripts to teach, and the jewelers, sculptors, and painters who fashioned devotional objects in the scholastic milieu which, by this point, seems to utterly enshroud them. Lastly, he comes to the “professional, town-dwelling architect”, who presumably enacts the scholastic methods in the production of architectural forms. 

What remains remarkable about Panofsky’s argument more than half a century after it was first made is the sheer conviction with which he is able to convincingly reconstruct an entire social and cultural order of the medieval past to argue for a widespread system of influence between the ecclesiastic order and cultural production. Such a maneuver opens up a great deal of potential for the field of art history to broaden the stakes of its claims on humanistic knowledge. Of course, it’s clear that such an approach would not survive peer review today. Indeed, Panofsky’s seemingly off-handed remark that present day society speaks fluently of concepts like evolution and inferiority complexes without the necessary scientific knowledge and training is a stunningly nonchalant defense of his unprecedented approach. Nonetheless, having observed the caginess and lack of confidence of a field long hemmed in by its fears of overreach, Panofsky remains a refreshing reminder of what art history once was and might still be.

Excerpt from Gothic Architecture and Scholasticism, p. 20-25 , Meridian Books, 1971 (14th printing)

During the “concentrated” phase of this astonishingly synchronous development, viz., in the period between about 1130-40 and about 1270, we can observe, it seems to me, a connection between Gothic art and Scholasticism which is more concrete than a mere “parallelism” and yet more general than those individual (and very important) “influences” which are inevitably exerted on painters, sculptors, or architects by erudite advisers. In contrast to a mere parallelism, the connection which I have in mind is a genuine cause-and effect relation; but in contrast to an individual influence, this cause-and-effect relation comes about by diffusion rather than by direct impact. It comes about by the spreading of what may be called, for want of a better term, a mental habit—reducing this overworked cliche to its precise Scholastic sense as a “principle that regulates the act,” principium importans ordinem ad actum. Such mental habits are at work in all and every civilization. All modem writing on history is permeated by the idea of evolution (an idea the evolution of which needs much more study than it has received thus far and seems to enter a critical phase right now); and all of us, without a thorough knowledge of biochemistry or psychoanalysis, speak with the greatest of ease of vitamin deficiencies, allergies, mother fixations, and inferiority complexes.

Often it is difficult or impossible to single out one habit-forming force from many others and to imagine the channels of transmission. However, the period from about 1130-40 to about 1270 and the “100-mile zone around Paris” constitute an exception. In this tight little sphere Scholasticism possessed what amounted to a monopoly in education. By and large, intellectual training shifted from the monastic schools to institutions urban rather than rural, cosmopolitan rather than regional, and, so to speak, only half ecclesiastic: to the cathedral schools, the universities, and the studia of the new mendicant orders—nearly all of them products of the thirteenth century—whose members played an increasingly important role within the universities themselves. And as the Scholastic movement, prepared by Benedictine learning and initiated by Lanfranc and Anselm of Bec, was carried on and brought to fruition by the Dominicans and Franciscans, so did the Gothic style, prepared in Benedictine monasteries and initiated by Suger of St.- Denis, achieve its culmination in the great city churches. It is significant that during the Romanesque period the greatest names in architectural history are those of Benedictine abbeys, in the High Gothic period those of cathedrals, and in the Late Gothic periods those of parish churches.

It is not very probable that the builders of Gothic structures read Gilbert de la Porrée or Thomas Aquinas in the original. But they were exposed to the Scholastic point of view in innumerable other ways, quite apart from the fact that their own work automatically brought them into a working association with those who devised the liturgical and iconographic programs. They had gone to school; they listened to sermons; they could attend the public disputationes de quolibet which, dealing as they did with all imaginable questions of the day, had developed into social events not unlike our operas, concerts, or public lectures; and they could come into profitable contact with the learned on many other occasions. The very fact that neither the natural sciences nor the humanities nor even mathematics had evolved their special esoteric methods and terminologies kept the whole of human knowledge within the range of the normal, non-specialized intellect; and—perhaps the most important point—the entire social system was rapidly changing toward an urban professionalism. Not as yet hardened into the later guild and ”Bauhütten”systems, it provided a meeting ground where the priest and the layman, the poet and the lawyer, the scholar and the artisan could get together on terms of near-equality. There appeared the professional, town-dwelling publisher (stationarius, hence our “stationer”), who, more or less strictly supervised by a university, produced manuscript books en masse with the aid of hired scribes, together with the bookseller (mentioned from about 1170), the book-lender, the bookbinder, and the book-illuminator (by the end of the thirteenth century the enlumineurs already occupied a whole street in Paris); the professional, town-dwelling painter, sculptor, and jeweler; the professional, town-dwelling scholar who, though usually a cleric, yet devoted the substance of his life to writing and teaching (hence the words “scholastic”and “scholasticism”); and, last but not least, the professional, town-dwelling architect.