Jacques de Vitry Critical Essays


(Classical and Medieval Literature Criticism)

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.