William of Conches (DNB00)

WILLIAM of Conches (d. 1154?), natural philosopher, was born at Conches in Normandy in the last quarter of the eleventh century. The name ‘De Conches’ has been Anglicised into Shelley, which Bale gives as William's alias; under it William appears in various bibliographies and catalogues. Bale, moreover, in his notebook (Selden MS. 64 B) states that William was born in Cornwall ‘ut fertur,’ giving Boston of Bury as his authority. There is, however, no reason to doubt that he was born at Conches.

Writing about 1145, William describes himself as one who has been for more than twenty years a teacher (Dragmaticon, p. 210, and Schaarschmidt, Johannes Saresberiensis, pp. 22, 73, has shown that Chartres, and not Paris, as was once supposed, was the school to which he belonged). At Chartres he was taught by Bernard Sylvester, and here in his turn he taught John of Salisbury [q. v.] in 1137–8 (Metalog. i. 24). John calls him the most accomplished grammarian of his time, and describes his teaching in detail. He followed the method of Bernard of Chartres, based on Quintilian's recommendations. The lectures covered the whole field of classical Latin, with questions on parsing, scansion, and construction. There was daily practice in Latin prose and verse composition in imitation of classical models, and frequent discussion among the pupils on set subjects, with a view to the acquisition of fluency and elegant diction (Rashdall, Univ. of Europe, i. 65). In his encyclopædic work, ‘De Philosophia,’ which is incomplete, his teaching on the Trinity and the Atonement shows the influence of Abelard; but it was not till after Abelard's condemnation at the council of Sens, 1140, that William's heresies were noticed. William of Saint Thierry first detected them, and pointed them out to Bernard of Clairvaux (Tissier, Bibl. Pat. Cisterc. iv. 127). As a consequence of this attack William withdrew from public teaching, and found protection at the court of Geoffrey the Fair, count of Anjou, where he taught the future Henry II and his brothers. He rewrote the ‘Philosophia,’ admitting his errors, and the corrected version, republished in the form of a dialogue (‘Dragmaticon’), was addressed to the count. He died either at Paris or near Evreux, probably in 1154 (Bouquet, Recueil, xiii. 703 D).

Besides the ‘Philosophia’ (printed in three editions, and with three false ascriptions to Beda, William of Hirschau, and Honorius of Autun) and the ‘Dragmaticon or Dialogue’ (printed at Strasburg in 1567 as the work of one ‘Willelmus Aneponymus Philosophus’), he wrote also glosses on the ‘Timæus,’ part of which have been printed as the work of Honorius of Autun in Cousin's ‘Œuvres inédits d'Abélard,’ App. pp. 648 seq., and a commentary on Boethius's ‘De Consolatione Philosophiæ,’ which Jourdain describes as the first real commentary other than mere glosses on this popular work (Notices et Extraits, vol. xx. pt. ii. p. 57). His tendencies were strongly platonistic and realistic; the most interesting of his speculations are perhaps those which develop the Epicurean atomic theory and a theory of the antipodes.

[The complicated bibliographical history of William's work has been unravelled by Mr. R. L. Poole in Herzog and Plitt's Real-Encyklopädie and in his Illustrations of the Hist. of Mediæval Thought, where full references may be found, pp. 124 sqq. 338–63. See also Antoine Charma's Guillaume de Conches, Paris, 1857, 8vo.]

M. B.