Jacques de Vitry Essay - Critical Essays

Jacques de Vitry


Jacques de Vitry c. 1160–70–-1240

(Also known as James de Vitry.) French writer of sermons, historian, and biographer.

One of the most acclaimed preachers of his time, Jacques wrote some four hundred and fifty sermons, many of which were used as models by other clergy. He popularized the use of exempla, or illustrative stories, and this method of conveying religious content was quickly incorporated by other preachers who understood its effectiveness in holding an audience's attention. Many of his sermons were tailored specifically for the social group he was addressing, which might on different occasions be made up primarily of merchants, religious leaders, or farmers. Jacques had a lengthy career in the church, fighting corruption and heresy and attaining the position of Cardinal Bishop; he was also active in lay spiritual organizations. His hagiography of Mary of Oignies, the Vita S. Mariae Oigniacensis (c. 1215; The Life of Marie d'Oignies), reports on the first important female member of the Beguines sect and on many thirteenth-century religious issues. Scholars regard Jacques's exempla important not primarily as scriptural interpretation, but for what they reveal of medieval culture. The popularity of his Historia Orientalis (c. 1219-25), an account of the Holy Land and the first three Crusades, is attested to by the fact that it was translated from Latin into the vernacular. Jacques's seven surviving letters, dating from about 1218 to 1220, are also highly respected for his frank discussion of the Fifth Crusade and have contributed to his reputation as one of the finest of the medieval historians.

Biographical Information

Jacques was most likely born in Vitry-sur-Seine, near Paris, sometime between 1160 and 1170. He received his education at the University of Paris, which had only recently been founded. His life was most influenced by making the acquaintance of the ascetic and mystic Mary of Oignies, of the Liège diocese, in what is present-day Belgium, who inspired him to become a priest in 1210. Jacques developed a reputation as a gifted speaker who could readily command an audience, leading in 1213 to a commission to preach for a crusade against the Albigenses, followed by another commission the following year to preach for a crusade to the Holy Land. The church leadership of St. John of Acre elected him their bishop in 1215, and he was initiated by Pope Honorius III in 1216. From 1218 to 1221 he took part in the Fifth Crusade, which took him to Egypt to fight the Saracens. In 1229 Pope Gregory IX appointed him Cardinal Bishop of Tusculum, a position he held until his death in 1240.

Major Works

Jacques's biography of Mary of Oignies is considered the most important document on the early history of the Beguine movement. It includes descriptions of some of Mary's visions and the author's views on miracles. Jacques originally had plans, which are outlined in a prologue, for a three-volume historical work to be called the Historia Hiersolomitana Abbreviata. While the third book apparently remained unwritten, the other two books of the projected set, the Historia Orientalis and the Historia Occidentalis (c. 1219-25), were completed and met with acclaim. The Historia Occidentalis seems to have been less popular than the first volume, judging by the number of manuscripts that survive, and its text, as scholars point out, may be less than wholly intact. The book concerns itself with the then more recent history and present times of western Europe and devotes numerous chapters to describing how to renew the western church, which Jacques finds seriously degenerate. Seven extant letters written by Jacques are highly prized by historians for his account of the Fifth Crusade addressed to Pope Honorius. Jacques's approximately 450 sermons are untitled, although scholars sometimes refer to them by their primary subject or by a designated letter. Jacques organized his sermons into four collections: Sermones Dominicales (c. 1220s; also called Sermones de Tempore); Sermones Festivales (c. 1220s); Sermones Vulgares (c. 1220s; also called Sermones ad Status); and Sermones Feriales et Communes (c. 1229-40). Although many of the sermons were directed towards the clergy, they were clearly intended to be passed on to the community of faithful at large.

Critical Reception

While he had ideological opponents, Jacques was a respected preacher and historian in his own time. His work did not receive much attention again until the twentieth century, when critics became intrigued with his sermons and historical writings for the light they shed on the mores and politics of his era. John Frederick Hinnebusch (see Further Reading) praises Jacques for his keen skills of observation and for his insight into the events he describes. He also explores some criticism concerning Jacques's lack of originality and use of dubious sources, but dismisses much of it. Leigh A. Arrathoon examines some of the literary devices employed in the exempla, while Carolyn A. Muessig attempts to determine Jacques's intended audience for various of his sermons by analyzing their themes. Cynthia Ho focuses on Jacques's portrayal of women in the exempla, noting his belief that, while man is subject to God, woman is subject to man. Emphasizing Jacques's literary skill, Debra J. Birch examines Jacques's use of symbolism in his sermons. She analyzes how the themes, structure, and use of biblical imagery in two particular sermons convey Jacques's message that a pilgrimage should be penitential. Translator Jessalyn Bird, who is working on an English translation of the Historia Occidentalis, stresses that Jacques was not a “marginal or idiosyncratic figure,” noting that he recognized the value of the secular clergy and discussing his critiques of specific religious and social groups.

Principal Works

Vita S. Mariae Oigniacensis (biography) c. 1215

Historia Occidentalis (history) c. 1219-25

Historia Orientalis (history) c. 1219-25

Sermones Dominicales [Sermones de Tempore] (sermons) c. 1220s

Sermones Festivales (sermons) c. 1220s

Sermones Vulgares [Sermones ad Status] (sermons) c. 1220s

Sermones Feriales et Communes (sermons) c. 1229-40

The Exempla or Illustrative Stories from the Sermones Vulgares of Jacques de Vitry (translated by Thomas Frederick Crane) 1890

The History of Jerusalem (translated by Aubrey Stewart) 1896

The Life of Marie d'Oignies by Jacques de Vitry (translated by Margot H. King) 1987

The Faces of Women in the Sermons of Jacques de Vitry (translated by Carolyn Muessig) 1990


Alfred J. Andrea (essay date June 1981)

SOURCE: Andrea, Alfred J. “Walter, Archdeacon of London, and the Historia Occidentalis of Jacques de Vitry.” Church History 50, no. 2 (June 1981): 144-51.

[In the following essay, Andrea confirms the validity of Jacques's reference to Master Walter of London, an archdeacon and influential preacher.]

Jacques de Vitry's Historia Occidentalis is one of the more remarkable and informative studies of contemporary western Christendom to come out of the thirteenth century.1 As numerous commentators have pointed out, it is unmistakably the product of the spiritual-intellectual school of Master Peter the Chanter of Paris, who inspired a generation...

(The entire section is 5332 words.)

Leigh A. Arrathoon (essay date 1984)

SOURCE: Arrathoon, Leigh A. “Jacques de Vitry, the Tale of Calogrenant, La Chastelaine de Vergi, and the Genres of Medieval Narrative Fiction.” In The Craft of Fiction: Essays in Medieval Poetics, edited by Leigh A. Arrathoon, pp. 281-368. Rochester, Mich.: Solaris Press, 1984.

[In the following excerpt, Arrathoon discusses and analyzes a preaching exemplum by Jacques in the context of medieval fiction that is ethically oriented.]

Tria sunt item, quae praestare debeat orator ut doceat, moveat, delectat.

Quintilian, Institutionis Oratoriae, 3. 5. 2.

In the third book of his...

(The entire section is 11441 words.)

Carolyn A. Muessig (essay date 1998)

SOURCE: Muessig, Carolyn A. “Audience and Sources in Jacques de Vitry's Sermones Feriales et Communes.” In Medieval Sermons and Society: Cloister, City, University, edited by Jacqueline Hamesse, Beverly Mayne Kienzle, Debra L. Stoudt, and Anne T. Thayer, pp. 183-202. Louvain-la-Neuve, Belgium: Fédération Internationale des Instituts d'Études Médiévales, 1998.

[In the following essay, Muessig discusses the themes of Jacques's sermons, explaining that they were originally intended for clerics.]

Jacques de Vitry's (c. 1160-1240) dedication to preaching, reform, and pastoral care attracted him to various places. He studied in Paris and was a product of...

(The entire section is 7411 words.)

Cynthia Ho (essay date 1998)

SOURCE: Ho, Cynthia. “Corpus Delicti: The Edifying Dead in the Exempla of Jacques de Vitry.” In Medieval Sermons and Society: Cloister, City, University, edited by Jacqueline Hamesse, Beverly Mayne Kienzle, Debra L. Stoudt, and Anne T. Thayer, pp. 203-18. Louvain-la-Neuve, Belgium: Fédération Internationale des Instituts d'Études Médiévales, 1998.

[In the following essay, Ho discusses Jacques's understanding of the relationship between body and soul, both in life and in death, and examines his views on women as seen in his sermons.]

Scholars of medieval literature and history are increasingly turning to the numerous surviving sermon collections...

(The entire section is 6249 words.)

Jessalynn Bird (review date 1999)

SOURCE: Bird, Jessalynn. Review of Orient und Okzident nach den Hauptwerken des Jakob von Vitry, by Ilse Schöndorfer. Revue Belge de Philologie et d'Histoire 77, no. 4 (1999): 1098-1103.

[In the following review, Bird praises Ilse Schöndorfer's book on Jacques, particularly her attempt to provide a comprehensive study of Jacques's views, but criticizes the author for insufficiently considering the context of his works.]

Many historians have mined James of Vitry's historical and homiletic works for colorful anecdotes while ignoring the moral imperatives which informed his descriptions. His jeremiadic decrial of contemporary abuses and sanguine hopes for the...

(The entire section is 3137 words.)

Debra J. Birch (essay date 1999)

SOURCE: Birch, Debra J. “Jacques de Vitry and the Ideology of Pilgrimage.” In Pilgrimage Explored, edited by J. Stopford, pp. 79-93. York, England: York Medieval Press, 1999.

[In the following essay, Birch analyzes two sermons Jacques wrote specifically for Christian pilgrims.]

Enthusiasm for pilgrimage amongst the peoples of Christendom remained unabated throughout the medieval period. Journeys to the tomb or shrine of a saint or martyr, or a visit to some other holy place, were readily undertaken by men and women, young and old, rich and poor alike. Some travelled only as far as a local holy place, while others ventured much further afield. For the majority of...

(The entire section is 7514 words.)

Further Reading


Böhmer, H. “Jacob (James) of Vitry (Jacques de Vitry).” In The New Schaff-Herzog Encyclopedia of Religious Knowledge, edited by Samuel Macauley Jackson, p. 80. New York: Funk and Wagnalls Company, 1910.

Sketches Jacques's life and career.

Gurevich, Aaron. “Heresy and Literacy: Evidence of the Thirteenth-Century ‘Exempla.’” In Heresy and Literacy, 1000-1530, edited by Peter Biller and Anne Hudson, pp. 104-11. Cambridge, England: Cambridge University Press, 1994.

Explores the prevalence of guarded attitudes towards literacy due to its association with heresy; Jacques's use of the vernacular is...

(The entire section is 216 words.)