Early modern disputation: conduct, structure and topics

Keywords: early modern period, disputation, history of universities, book history

Early modern disputation was a phenomenon in its own right, involving both performative and textual aspects. The texts of the disputations were different from modern academic dissertations and articles, while at the same time serving as a kind of model for both. For this reason, they must also be approached as a specific genre that no longer exists today. Disputations are intrinsically linked to the early modern university and its traditions: from the 16th to 18th century, the disputation was the main academic product of universities. It was the basis on which degrees were awarded and jobs were applied for. Changes in universities at the end of the eigh­teenth century led to the introduction of the requirement of an independently written monograph as a prerequisite for the award of a degree, and this development was accompanied by a gradual disappearance of exercise disputation in the 19th century.

Early modern disputations contain a wealth of information for study: they document the attractiveness and innovation potential of universities, the academic developments of the various faculties, the careers of participants, personal relationships, the reputation of professors and, of course, changes within individual disciplines. Often, the printed theses allow conclusions to be drawn about the educational policies and the theological-philosophical background of the schools concerned. The arguments put forward in the disputations and the choice of authorities cited make it possible to place the participants in the context of certain methodological trends or to associate them with leading figures in the discipline. The content of the disputations conveys the debates that took place at a particular place and time, informs about the basic knowledge that students were taught, and gives an explanation of how the hot topics of the time were understood.

From the vast number of disputations, which has hitherto been an obstacle to research, digitization, distant reading and other statistical methods can glean very useful information. For example, it is possible to determine with great precision when certain topics were discussed in certain universities or how ideas moved between universities, while gratulations and other paratexts enable one to map (also visually) academic circles of communication, a citation index helps to identify authorities, topic modelling provides access to the central issues of controversy in different time periods, etc.

More in-depth study of the disputations has only gained momentum in the last couple of decades, and there are many unexplored themes and problems. Disputations are also one of the main sources for the intellectual history of the Estonian early modern period, and our philosophical, medical, legal and theological disputations will provide ample material for further research.


Meelis Friedenthal (b. 1973), PhD, University of Tartu, Institute of Philosophy and Semiotics, Associate Professor of Intellectual History (Jakobi 2, 51005 Tartu)