Jean Gerson Critical Essays


(Literary Criticism (1400-1800))

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.

Biographical Information

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.

Major Works

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.

Critical Reception

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.”