Towards a History of Human Curiosity: A Prolegomenon to its Medieval Phase


Die Vielfalt der curiositas im Mittelalter ist bisher von Wissenschaftlern nicht völlig erkannt worden. Vor allem verdienen ihre moralischen Implikationen das weitere Studium, denn einige prägen immer noch das Bild der Neugierde. Es wurde hier versucht, den Schwerpunkt hauptsächlich auf curiositas als Laster zu legen und dadurch den Horizont der Erforschung dieses Begriffs zu erweitern.


The complexity of medieval curiositas has not been fully appreciated by previous scholars. Above all, the varied moral implications of the concept deserve more study, for some of them still mark the image of curiosity today. I have attempted to broaden the perspectives of scholarship on this topic by focussing here primarily on curiositas as a medieval sin.

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  1. 1

    The designations are based on Alcuin, Liber de virtutibus et vitiis XXXIII (PL 101, 635). This distinction goes back to Paul’s words in 2 Cor. VII. 10: “Quae enim secundum Deum tristitia est, paenitentiam in salutem stabilem operatur; saeculi autem tristitia mortem operatur.” It became a common topos in the examination of sadness among the desert fathers and entered Cassian’s discussion of the Eight Deadly Sins, where it is represented, for example, in Institutum IX, 10–11 and VII, 3 (ed. M. Petschenig, CSEL 17 [1888], pp. 170 & 131). It is found very frequently thereafter. See Morton Bloomfield, The Seven Deadly Sins (1952; repr. 1967), p. 356, n. 25 and p. 362, n. 103

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  2. 1a

    Siegfried Wenzel, The Sin of Sloth (1967), pp. 25–26

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  3. 1b

    Dietrich Ruprecht, Tristitia, Palaestra, Bd. 227 (1959), p. 16.

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  4. 3

    Gregory’s statement is found in his Homiliarum in Evangelia liber II, XXXVI, 4 (PL 76, 1268). Its utility and longevity are indicated by its inclusion, in the mid-fourteenth century, in the article on curiositas in an illuminated encyclopedia known as the Omnebonum (London, British Library MS. Royal 6 E.VI–VII; see 6 E.VI, vol. II, fol. 454rb for Gregory’s words). On the relationship of this text to the vastly more popular Manipulus florum of Thomas of Ireland, see R. H. and M. A. Rouse, Preachers, Florilegia and Sermons,Studies and Texts 47 (1979), p. 201.

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  5. 5

    In the Magnus libellus Turonensis (Paris, B.N. MS. Lat. 13388), fols. 3–4 contain a long list of sins confessed, as it appears, by a woman, in which curiositas is mentioned immediately after Pride, Vainglory, Envy and Sloth. The list was probably written in the late tenth or early eleventh century; see A. Wilmart, Precum Libelli Aevi Karolini (1940), p. 63 and n. 3. From the eleventh century, the Lambeth Psalter (London, Lambeth Palace MS. 427) has on fols. 182r–183v another long list of sins and sinful activity for which a penitent prays for forgiveness. Here, curiositas is united with emulatio; see

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  6. 5a

    Max Förster, “Die altenglischen Beigaben des Lambeth-Psalters,” Archiv für das Studium der neueren Sprachen und Literaturen, 132 (1914), 328–335. These are the earliest occurrences known to me of curiositas as a confessed sin. Cf. also vuriwizgernî and niugerni, which are listed under vana gloria (úppigerguotlichi) in the “Bamberger Beichte” and the “Wessobrunner Beichte,” ed. K. Müllenhoff and W. Scherer in Denkmäler deutscher Poesie und Prosa aus dem 8. bis 12. Jahrhundert, 3 ed., by E. Steinmeyer, vol. I (1892), pp. 296 & 302. The sin of curiositas remained an important topic for confessors and was taken up in John of Freiburg’s very popular Summa Confessorum (completed 1297–1298), III, XXXIV, 276f.

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  7. 10

    Curiositas was first used by Cicero (Ep. Att. II, XII, 2), undoubtedly, as André Labhardt has argued (“Curiositas. Notes sur l’histoire d’un mot et d’une notion,” Museum Helveticum, 17 [1960], 209), as a nonceword. Cicero attached no great significance to the substantive, for this is the only place he used it. The next time it occurred, in the Metamorphoses of Apuleius of Madaura, the word had already come to include a number of meanings which are analogous to those seen in the writings of Christian moralists. Curiositas is a neologism based on the adjective curiosus, which in turn is derived from the substantive cura. The latter, related semantically to labor and opera, meant in general “care, sympathy, diligent effort.” By the Silver Age, however, curiosus already had negative connotations which gave it the aura of an excess of cura, for Quintilian (Inst. VIII, III, 55) opposed it to diligens on the same grounds as “superstition differs from religion.” Further pejoration can be seen in the use in late antiquity of curiosus as a substantive to mean “spy, secret agent” (as it is used in Cod. Theod. VI, XXIX, 1 — see Wilhelm Blum, Curiosi und Regendarii: Untersuchungen zur Geheimen Staatspolizei der Spätantike [1969], esp. p. 29). From its inception in Apuleius’ work, curiositas participated to some degree in the pejorative usage surrounding curiosus. See Manfred Hauser, Der römische Begriff cura, Diss. Basel (1954), p. 13, n. 48. Among Christian writers it seems that the etymology of curiositas was never quite lost sight of.

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  8. 13

    Desapientia veterum, in The Works of Francis Bacon, ed. J. Spedding, R. L. Ellis, and D. D. Heath, vol. VI (1858), pp. 605–86. The first edition of De sap. vet. was 1609. On the importance of this work in Bacon’s corpus of writings, see F. H. Anderson, The Philosophy of Francis Bacon (1948, repr. 1975), esp. pp. 58–59

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  9. 13a

    for Pentheus and Prometheus; and James Stephens, Francis Bacon and the Style of Science (1975), esp. pp. 145f.

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  10. 13b

    See also the excellent study by Howard Schultz, Milton and Forbidden Knowledge (1955), pp. 33ff.

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  11. 17

    Even before this, of course, the concept was important for Christian ethics. As Heiko Oberman has pointed out (pp. 14–18 of the work mentioned below in n. 18) in correcting Blumenberg on the same issue, the Sententiae of Sextus Pythagoraeus, very early accepted as authentically Christian, contain the words “multa velle scire curiositas animi putanda est” (Rufinus’ translation). See Henry Chadwick, The Sentences of Sextus, Texts and Studies, N.S. 5 (1959), pp. 40–41, no. 249.

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  12. 18

    Heiko Augustinus Oberman, Contra Vanam Curiositatem, Theologische Studien, Bd. 113 (1974).

  13. 21

    This is, of course, not to say that the issue was without all importance, but rather that it must be seen in context. For an article which takes the conception of a separate sphere of “highness” which mankind was forbidden to know as its central topic, see Carlo Ginzburg, “High and Low: The Theme of Forbidden Knowledge in the Sixteenth and Seventeenth Centuries,” Past and Present, 73 (1976), 28–41.

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  14. 23

    Elucidarium II, 23 (PL 172, 1152). For arguments against pilgrimage in the eleventh and twelfth centuries, see Giles Constable, “Opposition to Pilgrimage in the Middle Ages,” Stadia Gratiana, 19 (1976), 123–46.

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  15. 26

    See Book XVI, cap. III of her diary in Itinerarium Egeriae (Peregrinatio Aetheriae), ed.Otto Prinz, 5th rev., enl. ed. (1960). Of Egeria, Leo Spitzer (“The Epic Style of the Pilgrim Aetheria,” Comparative Literature, 1 [1949], 256) says that her “pious curiosity was … a virtue and was … felt by her as a necessary ingredient in the pilgrim.”

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  16. 30

    See PL 110, 1099–1102. On Hrabanus’ connection between curiositas and the desire to know the mira performed by demons see Edward Peters, The Magician, The Witch and the Law (1978), p. 17.

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  17. 31

    Cf. Cicero, De divininatione II, 50 (ed. R. Giomini [1975], p. 100)

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  18. 31a

    and Augustine, De Civitate Dei VII, XXXIV (ed. B. Dombart and A. Kalb, CC ser lat 47 [1955], pp. 214–15). Augustine tells a tale of Numa Pompilius, quoted from Varro’s lost Liber de cultu deorum. Varro makes the point that the books which were dug up near Numa’s tomb, and which he had written and buried there himself, explained the reasons for the religious rites of his day. The books were brought to the Senate and when the leading members ofthat body read them, they agreed that the information should not become known and ordered the books burned. Augustine goes on to note the Numa had come by the information through illicita curiositas which led him to delve into the secrets of demons. Numa had only buried the books so that he would not anger the demons, but the Senate had them burned instead of reburied so that humana curiositas would not drive man to dig them up again and learn the reasons for their forms of worship. It is interesting that in Hrabanus’ retelling of the story, the real pejoration of curiositas comes about through the machinations of demons who pervert men’s desire to know. Insofar as this desire leads them to read such material, it is mildly negative in itself, though it is only a sin after the process of perversion takes place.

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  19. 32

    Jean-Claude Fredouille, Tertullien et la conversion de la culture antique (1972), pp. 417ff.; Oberman, pp. 16–18.

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  20. 33

    Hermannus quondam Judaeus, Opusculum de conversione sua, II (ed. Gerlinde Niemeyer, MGH. Quellen zur Geistesgeschichte des Mittelalters IV [1963], pp. 72–76; also found in PL 170, 807ff.). For a succinct presentation of Hermann’s life, see the introduction to Niemeyer’s edition.

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  21. 37

    The Works of the Right Reverend Joseph Hall, D. D., ed. Philip Wynter, vol. VI (1863, repr. 1969), p. 453. That sinful curiosity consists in an excess is still the essential teaching of the Catholic Church today. See, for example, P. Palazzini, “Curiositas,” in Dictionarium Morale et Canonicum, I (1962), col. 1016.

  22. 44

    Ep. I, 4 (ed. J. Leclercq and H. Rochais in Sancti Bernardi Opera VII [1974], p. 4).

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Correspondence to Richard Newhauser.

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* The present essay is part of the author’s investigation leading towards a longer study of the history of curiositas undertaken in collaboration with Edward Peters, of the University of Pennsylvania.

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Newhauser, R. Towards a History of Human Curiosity: A Prolegomenon to its Medieval Phase. Dtsch Vierteljahrsschr Literaturwiss Geistesgesch 56, 559–575 (1982).

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