Jean Gerson 1363-1429
(Full name Jean Charlier de Gerson) French essayist, nonfiction writer, sermon writer, and poet.
Gerson was a prominent French ecclesiastical scholar and the Chancellor of the University of Paris for over thirty years. The author of more than 400 works, Gerson's writings on theological issues drew from the works of previous reformers of the Middle Ages while anticipating those of later reformers such as Martin Luther. Of particular concern to Gerson was the Great Schism in the Roman Catholic Church, which he played a prominent role in ending. His involvement in the Schism—in which two rival popes, one based in Rome, the other in Avignon, France, competed for control of the Church—led Gerson to question the nature of the Church, its evolution, and related reform movements. Gerson also authored many works on mysticism and the nature of contemplation and the soul. He also wrote on ethical issues, education and education reform, secular politics, and economics. Additionally, Gerson composed poetry, most notably Josephina (c. 1414-18), an epic on the life of Christ. Throughout most of his writings, Gerson took a moderate, common-sense, spiritually informed approach.
Born on December 14, 1363, in Gerson-les-Barbey, Champagne, Jean Charlier de Gerson was the first of twelve children born to Arnoul le Charlier and his wife, Elizabeth la Chardenière. The family was very devout, and several of Gerson's younger siblings entered religious orders. Gerson received his early education at Rethel, then continued his studies at Rheims with the Benedictines. His training was grounded in religious studies and Latin. By 1377 Gerson had entered the College of Navarre at the University of Paris as a student of the arts. In 1381 Gerson earned his Bachelor of Arts degree, then entered a theological course of study that was to end in a doctorate. He spent the next two years attending lectures, then he himself lectured for four years. While still a student Gerson was given a prestigious honor by being elected a French Nation proctor. Later in the decade he was part of a contingent from the university that appeared before the Papal Curia at Avignon. During this time Gerson was gaining a reputation as a preacher; his first known sermon, entitled De quarendo Domino, was delivered in 1389. In 1392 he earned Master's degree in theology. His reputation as a preacher grew, and by the early 1390s was invited to preach at the court of the French King Charles VI. France was a country in turmoil, facing the problems of Charles' fragile mental state, the toll of Hundred Years' War, and the ongoing Schism. In 1393 Gerson became almoner to Philip, Duke of Burgundy, as well as Dean of the collegiate church of St. Donatien at Bruges. Gerson also worked in Paris as a deacon. After earning his doctorate in 1395 Gerson was named Chancellor of the University of Paris. Gerson faced numerous challenges related to the Great Schism in this prestigious post while regularly publishing treatises on religious and educational topics. An early work by Gerson addresses his opinion on the Schism, De Modo se habendi tempore schismatis (1398; On How to Conduct Oneself at a Time of Schism). He considered retirement at the turn of the century because he supported the current Avignon pope, Benedict XIII, in the Schism, while the Duke of Burgundy, still his sponsor, did not. By early 1400 Gerson had become more concerned with education for students of all ages and was a well-known public sermonizer. Gerson also became interested in mysticism, perhaps as a result of a spiritual crisis. As time went on Gerson played a greater role in trying to end the Schism. Before 1406-07, he tried to work with both rival popes, but after the failed Council of Pisa, he became a “conciliarist,” advocating that both popes be deposed and a third elected. A third was elected, but the other two were not deposed, resulting in three rival popes competing for control.
Gerson became more entangled in French political issues after the death of the Duke of Burgundy, clashing with his sponsor's son and heir, John the Fearless. In 1415 Gerson went to the Council of Constance as a representative of the University of Paris to defend its actions related to the controversial theories of Jean Petit. Gerson ended up spending four years there, during which time he developed his conciliar theories to maturity. He came to believe that the Council should have more power than the popes and all three rival popes should be removed in favor of one, thus reuniting Church. Because of ongoing problems in France, he did not return to Paris after the end of the Council, but went to Germany. John the Fearless made the political situation in Paris worse by seizing the city in 1418 and massacring several thousand people, including friends of Gerson. France remain divided after John's murder, and Gerson never returned to Paris, though he remained Chancellor of the University. For the last decade of his life, he resided in Lyons. He continued to write on ecclesiastical and theological issues, and corresponded on similar issues and ethical questions. One significant piece from the late 1420s, De puella Aurelianensi (1429; On the Maid of Orléans), defends Joan of Arc. Gerson died on July 12, 1429, and was buried in a chapel of the church at St. Laurent.
While Gerson was a well-known public preacher of his time and many of his sermons were highly regarded, his most important works were written on the Great Schism, theology, Christian education, and related topics. In On How to Conduct Oneself at a Time of Schism Gerson offers his moderate opinion on the Schism. He argues that each person has a right to give loyalty to one pope or the other as he or she sees fit, but should not believe that others who support the rival pope are any less Catholic, nor should threats of excommunication be used as a weapon. In 1400 Gerson published his first important treatise on theology, Montagne de contemplation (Mountain of Contemplation). Written in French, the work was composed by Gerson to guide the religious life of his younger sisters. In it, Gerson explores the nature of contemplation, describing it as a three-stage process. Around 1402 De mystica theologia speculativa et practica (On Mystical Theology, Speculative and Practical), arguably Gerson's most important and influential work, was published. Comprising a series of lectures, On Mystical Theology continues the exploration of themes discussed in Mountain of Contemplation, and promotes the ideas that faith is superior to reason and that the anatomy of the soul must be detailed for mystical theology to be fully understood. In addition, Gerson offers practical methods of contemplation and again emphasizes the importance of mysticism. Other lectures of 1402 concern different theological and philosophical topics. In Contra curiositatem studentium, for example, Gerson considers the problems of speculative theology and the limits of reason. Shifts in Gerson's thought on the topic of mystical theology are apparent in De mystica theologia practica (1407), a companion to De mystica theologia speculativa et practica.
In addition to his writings on mystical theology, many of Gerson's works concern the importance of Christian education for children. In Doctrina pro pueris ecclesiae Parisiensis (1411), Gerson outlines a plan for the education of students at the church of Notre Dame. Between 1414 and 1418 Gerson wrote Josephina, an epic narrative on the early life of Christ told from the perspective of St. Joseph. The poem also celebrates the Council of Constance, Gerson's theory of Conciliar supremacy, and the reunification of the Catholic Church at the end of the Great Schism. In 1418 Gerson wrote his last major work, De consolatione theologiae (On the Consolation of Theology). Written in both prose and verse, this dialogue, influenced by the sacking of Paris by John the Fearless, addresses political events of the time. Theological issues are also discussed, including the duality between human freedom and divine sovereignty and the process of salvation. The continued evolution of Gerson's thought is shown in a late work, Tractatus de elucidatione scholastica mysticae theologiae (1424; also known as De concordia theologiae mysticae cum scholastica). In this piece Gerson continues to refine his theory of contemplation. He argues that the intellect plays a bigger role than he previously expressed.
While Gerson was a controversial figure in his lifetime, critics believe that his writings had a significant influence on Martin Luther and other subsequent religious reformers. Many have focused on the nature of Gerson's views on church and spiritual reform, particularly as they derive from the conflicts of the Great Schism. They have also investigated common elements among Gerson's ideas about reform of church, school, and the individual. While the concept of hierarchy and its importance played a significant role in his writings on the Church, especially those regarding unification and reform, many critics have argued that it also plays a role in his theories on education and personal reform. Other areas of critical focus have concerned the importance of mysticism in Gerson's theology, his views on the nature the soul, and how the two relate and provide context for each other. Gerson's political writings have also received critical attention, but Gerson's evolution as a reformer and the nature of his mysticism have drawn the most attention from modern critics. As one intimately involved with the Schism nearly from its beginning to its end, Gerson is viewed by scholars as offering a particularly valuable perspective on the division within the Church and on the related conciliar movement; there was, John B. Morrall has stressed, “hardly any aspect of religious life, in the widest sense of that term, in which Gerson did not play a part.”
De quarendo Domino (sermon) 1389
De Modo se habendi tempore schismatis [On How to Conduct Oneself at a Time of Schism] (treatise) 1398
Montagne de contemplation [Mountain of Contemplation] (treatise) 1400
A deo exivit (sermon) 1402
Contra curiositatem studentium (lecture) 1402
Contra vanam curiositatem in negotio fideo (lecture) 1402
De mystica theologia speculativa et practica [On Mystical Theology, Speculative and Practical] (nonfiction) c. 1402-03
De mystica theologia pratica (nonfiction) 1407
De auferibilitate sponsi ab Ecclesia (treatise) 1409
De unitate ecclesiastica (treatise) 1409
Propositio facto coram Anglicis (treatise) 1409
Doctrina pro pueris ecclesiae Parisiensis (nonfiction) 1411
Josephina (poem) c. 1414-18
De consolatione theologiae [On the Consolation of Theology] (nonfiction) 1418
Tractatus de elucidatione scholastica mysticae theologiae [De concordia theologiae mysticae cum scholastica] (nonfiction) 1424
De concordia metaphysicae cum logica (nonfiction) 1426
De puella Aurelianensi [On the Maid of...
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SOURCE: Oberman, Heiko Augustinus. “Jean Gerson: Nominalist and Mystic.” In The Harvest of Medieval Theology: Gabriel Biel and Late Medieval Nominalism, pp. 331-40. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1963.
[In following excerpt, Oberman investigates the apparent influence of two contradictory theological schools on Gerson's thought.]
1. GERSON'S ATTITUDE TOWARD THOMISM AND NOMINALISM
[Gabriel] Biel's authority par eminence for all problems concerning the contemplative life is Jean Gerson, the influential Chancellor of the University of Paris from 1395 throughout the turbulent beginnings of the conciliar high tide of the fifteenth century. For Biel, Gerson was a great systematic and mystical authority whom he honored and quoted, not only from his university lectern in Tübingen, but also from his pulpit at the Cathedral of Mainz. There was no doubt in his mind nor in that of the other nominalistic schoolmen that Gerson belonged to the via moderna.1
A reference to the thought of Gerson could have sufficied to prove the compatibility of nominalism and mysticism if there were not less unanimity as regards Gerson's position in our time than in the fifteenth century. We are faced with the remarkable situation that those who stress the nominalistic aspects of his thought challenge his place in the mystical school of thought;2...
(The entire section is 4064 words.)
SOURCE: Ozment, Steven E. “The University and the Church: Patterns of Reform in Jean Gerson.” Medievalia et Humanistica 1 (1970): 111-26.
[In the following essay, Ozment argues that Gerson's programs for reform of the University of Paris and the Church are part of a consistent strain of his thought.]
This essay will explore the relationship between Jean Gerson's program for theological reform within the University of Paris and his program for the unification and reform of the Church. The former program culminates in the development of a mystical theology as the more effective way to salutary knowledge of God. The latter culminates in the enactment of the via concilii as the only effective route to the settlement of the Great Schism and as doctrina which can assure reform in head and members. Are Gerson's efforts against errant theological “heads,” specifically the speculation of the more extravagant followers of Duns Scotus (the “formalizantes”), and against errant ecclesatistical “heads,” specifically the popes of Rome, Avignon, and eventually Pisa, fundamentally consistent? Is there a common pattern of reform expressed in Gerson's advocacy of the via mystica against the curiosity of scholars and his promotion of the via concilii against the obstinacy of Christ's vicars?
André Combes, the most prolific and formidable of the Gerson...
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SOURCE: Pascoe, Louis B. “Personal Reform.” In Jean Gerson: Principles of Church Reform, pp. 175-206. Leiden: E. J. Brill, 1973.
[In the following essay, Pascoe explores how Gerson's views on ecclesiastical reform are rooted in the reformation of the individual.]
All ecclesiastical reform must, in the final analysis, terminate in personal reform if it is to be in any way effective. This personal orientation is intrinsic to Gerson's ideas on episcopal and clerical reform. Hierarchy and hierarchical activity result in the reformation and sanctification of the individual and thereby contribute toward the growth and edification of the entire mystical body. The purpose of the present chapter is to analyze the process of personal reform. Like episcopal and clerical reform, personal reform rests heavily upon the principle that man has been made to the image and likeness of God. The present chapter, therefore, will investigate the various interpretations of the image utilized by Gerson. Attention will also be given to the consequences of sin upon the image and the various ways in which Gerson conceived of the image under sin. Our study, finally, will turn to the process by which the reformation and renewal of the image of God is achieved in man.
1. MAN AND THE IMAGE
All understanding of personal reform in Gerson's writings has its starting point in the fact that man...
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SOURCE: Pascoe, Louis B. “Jean Gerson: Mysticism, Conciliarism, and Reform.” Annuarium Historiae Concilorum 6 (1974): 135-53.
[In following essay, Pascoe emphasizes the importance of the concept of hierarchical order in Gerson's writings, arguing that it links several aspects of his thought.]
Within the past ten years our understanding of the ecclesiology of Jean Gerson (1363-1429) has undergone a considerable, if not revolutionary, transformation. Until the work of G. H. M. Posthumus Meyjes, Gerson's ecclesiology was commonly regarded as a form of radical conciliarism. His ideas on the church were frequently compared to the laicizing tradition of Marsilius of Padua (d. 1342), and William of Ockham (d. 1349). The significance of Meyjes' work was to reverse that interpretation. As a result of his detailed and extensive study, the ecclesiological orientation of Gerson's thought became more accurately identified. Instead of the traditional association with Marsilius and Ockham, Gerson emerged from Meyjes' study as a firm exponent of a hierarchical ecclesiology1.
Meyjes shows, however, that the strong hierarchical orientation in Gerson's thought successfully avoids the absolutistic tendencies characteristic of such papal hierocrats as Giles of Rome (d. 1316) and Alvaro Pelayo (d. c. 1349). Although Gerson strongly stressed the hierarchical dimensions of church structures, he...
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SOURCE: Pascoe, Louis B. “Jean Gerson: The ‘Ecclesia Primitiva’ and Reform.” Traditio 30 (1974): 379-409.
[In following essay, Pascoe discusses Gerson's ideas concerning the “primitive Church,” the Church in its earliest days, which held a central place in his teachings on Church reform.]
Recent studies on the history of reform in the early and medieval church have been highly influenced by the works of Gerhart Ladner.1 In his writings Ladner stresses primarily the ideological foundations of reform. He distinguishes, moreover, the idea of reform from other types of renewal. In contrast with cosmological, vitalistic, and millenaristic renewal, reform implies conscious intention and finality.2 Church reform, consequently, both in its personal and institutional dimensions necessarily involves some concept of what a church should be. For this reason in most reform ideologies the idea of the ecclesia primitiva has played an important role. The primitive Church is regarded as a privileged moment in the history of the Church since it was in immediate personal contact with its founder and the direct recipient of his message.
An understanding of the idea of the ecclesia primitiva in the reformers of the Middle Ages, consequently, should shed considerable light upon their understanding of Church reform. Unfortunately, however, a comprehensive study...
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SOURCE: Pascoe, Louis B. “Gerson and the Donation of Constantine: Growth and Development within the Church.” Viator 5 (1974): 469-85.
[In the essay that follows, Pascoe examines Gerson's views of the early Church, particularly regarding the enormous changes brought about the Donation of Constantine, a document long believed legitimate but ultimately proved a forgery, in which the Emperor granted great power and possessions to the Pope.]
In the Middle Ages, few documents received the attention given to the Donation of Constantine.1 Although lawyers and royal publicists frequently doubted its validity, its authenticity was generally accepted. Not until the time of Reginald Pecock (ca. 1393-1461), Nicholas of Cusa (ca. 1400-1464), and Lorenzo Valla (ca. 1406-1457) was the document exposed as a forgery.2 The successful challenge of men such as Pecock, Cusa, and Valla, however, does not lessen the value of the document for the intellectual historian, for medieval man accepted the Donation as a reality. To dismiss the Donation simply as a forgery is to deprive oneself of a most valuable instrument for understanding medieval thought.
Moreover, the Donation played an important role in the ecclesiastical history of the period and helped to form the historical consciousness of the medieval church. The endowment of the church by Constantine was regarded as marking a most...
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SOURCE: Ozment, Steven. “The Spiritual Traditions: Critics of Scholasticism.” In The Age of Reform, 1250-1550: An Intellectual and Religious History of Late Medieval and Reformation Europe, pp. 73-82. New Haven, Conn.: Yale University Press, 1980.
[In the following excerpt, Ozment sketches out the main lines of Gerson's thought.]
By the end of the fourteenth century, when scholasticism had run its course as a creative movement and its excesses and limitations had become all too evident, critics returned to patristic and monastic ideals in an effort to revive traditional religious life both within and beyond the universities. Two of the most effective late medieval spiritual reformers were trained scholastics themselves: Jean Gerson and Nicholas of Clémanges. In bringing together traditional spiritual complaints against the schoolmen, they set forth independently many of the substantive criticisms and reforms of the humanists. So effective were these native critics of scholasticism that modern scholars have occasionally treated them as humanists.1 Gerson and Nicholas are another reminder, however, that humanism was itself a movement within the larger scholastic and spiritual traditions of the Middle Ages and neither the first nor necessarily the most profound critical alternative to scholasticism.
In his magisterial study, On Mystical Theology, Gerson (1363-1429),...
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SOURCE: Caiger, B. J. “Doctrine and Discipline in the Church of Jean Gerson.” Journal of Ecclesiastical History 41, No. 3 (July 1990): 389-407.
[In the essay that follows, Caiger discusses how Gerson's views of teaching shifted over time, from an emphasis on “how one may be confident that what is taught is true” to “how one may know that the teacher has a right to teach and may therefore be trusted.”]
The problem of ascertaining by what means and what authority true teachings may be distinguished from false is fundamental to any ecclesiology, since the ecclesiastical community is based, above all, on commonly accepted doctrine. It is a community whose limits are defined—and the parameters within which it operates set—by the body of teachings which is accepted within it as true. Thus, the fundamental practical question which any ecclesiology must address becomes, in effect, who has authority to determine what is taught and what is not; and the answer reveals the main thrust of that ecclesiology. In broad terms, two principal, and often conflicting, emphases may be noted: on the community of Christian pilgrims (whom any structure exists to serve), and on the formal ecclesiastical structure (within which the faithful may find security). Pastorally, these emphases are associated to some degree with two different assumptions: either that the believer gains confidence in the institution because...
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SOURCE: Burrows, Mark S. “Jean Gerson after Constance: ‘Via Media et Regia’ as a Revision of the Ockhamist Covenant.” Church History 49, No. 4 (December 1990): 467-81.
[In following essay, Burrows focuses on how Gerson's theological theories changed after the Council of Constance, especially as reflected in his On the Consolation of Theology.]
Few issues have received as much attention and achieved as little consensus among historians of late medieval theology during the past several generations as the debate over the character of “nominalism.” One thrust of the research from this debate has focused on the theological dimensions of this scholastic tradition: building on the work of Erich Hochstetter, Paul Vignaux, and others, Heiko Oberman discussed this development in the North American arena of scholarship by describing theological concerns as “the inner core of nominalism.”1 Oberman portrayed “Ockhamism” as the “main stream of the [nominalist] tradition,” characterizing it as a “school” of theologians including William of Ockham (d. 1349) and Gabriel Biel (d. 1495) at its boundaries and Jean Gerson (d. 1429) at its midpoint.2 Gerson's inclusion in this so-called “Ockham-Biel circle” was significant not only as a chronological convenience but because of his prominence as theologian and churchman in his day and because of the continuing influence of...
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Francq, H. G. “Jean Gerson's Theological Treatise and Other Memoirs in Defence of Joan of Arc.” Revue de l'Universite d'Ottawa 41, No. 1 (January 1971): 58-80.
Considers Gerson's writings related to Joan of Arc and the use of them in defending her at her trial.
Morrall, John B. “Gerson's Career and Background.” In Gerson and the Great Schism.Manchester: Manchester University Press, 1960. 132 p.
Provides an overview of Gerson's life and works within their historical context.
Ozment, Steven E. Introduction to Jean Gerson: Selections from A Deo exivit, Contra curiositatem studentium and De mystica theologica speculativa, edited by Steven E. Ozment, pp. 1-8. Leiden: E. J. Brill, 1969.
Offers a brief overview of Gerson's life, theories, and writings.
———. “Jean Gerson.” In Homo Spiritualis: A Comparative Study of the Anthropology of Johannes Tauler, Jean Gerson and Martin Luther (1509-16) in the Context of Their Theological Thought, pp. 49-83. Leiden: E J. Brill.
Discusses Gerson's theories and writings related to mystical theology, including his ideas about the soul.
Additional coverage of Gerson's life and career is contained in the following source published by the Gale Group: Dictionary of...
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