Skip to main content

Gilbert of Poitiers (c. 1076–1154)

(c. 10761154)

Gilbert of Poitiers (Gilbertus Porreta, Gilbert de la Porrée), the twelfth-century theologian and metaphysician, was born at Poitiers about 1076 and received his first schooling there. Next he went to study under Bernard of Chartres, and later (but before 1117) he devoted himself to theology under Anselm at Laon. He seems to have succeeded Bernard as chancellor at Chartres between 1126 and 1137 and, after a short period as a master in Paris, was elevated in 1142 to the bishopric of Poitiers. He died greatly esteemed in 1154, although in the 1140s he had been made to feel the hostility of other theologians, principally Bernard of Clairvaux, who brought him to trial to account for his opinions at Paris in 1147 and at Rheims in 1148.

Gilbert wrote much and acquired great fame for his scriptural and Boethian commentaries. The former were the fruit of his years at Laon and included major expositions of the Psalms and of the Epistles of St. Paul, as well as other biblical commentaries that have, with greater or lesser certainty, been ascribed to him. But the commentaries upon Boethius's four opuscula sacra (and especially that upon the De Trinitate ) proved controversial. Although Gilbert was never officially condemned for theological error, after his trial in 1148 he appended a new preface to these commentaries professing his orthodoxy. In addition, the treatise De Discretione Animae, Spiritus et Mentis is now confidently ascribed to Gilbert. Highly uncertain, however, is Gilbert's authorship of the Liber Sex Principiorum. The six principia are the last six Aristotelian categories (place, time, situation, habit, action, and passion), which the writer of this treatise considered to be accessory forms (formae assistentes ) or extrinsic circumstances of a substance. The first four categories, on the other hand, are either substance itself or necessarily inherent forms of a substance. This work enjoyed great authority in the Middle Ages as a completion of Aristotle's own Categoriae.

An understanding of Gilbert's authentic philosophical teaching must be based principally upon his Boethian commentaries and upon the literature inspired by his trial. Gilbert's doctrine of being and of the process of knowledge departs from a key distinction between substance and subsistence. A substance is an actually existing individual being that supports (substat ) a number of accidents. Some beings, howevergenera and species, for examplehave no need of accidents and are more accurately described as subsistences than as substances. Forms or Ideas in themselves are subsistences and do not come into contact with matter. Only copies (exempla ) descend into matter. The human mind arrives at the knowledge of the eternal Ideas by first "collecting" from concrete, individual things their substantial similarity, that is, their created or "native" forms (formae nativae ), to which Gilbert attributed universality. By perceiving the similarity of forms within a group, the mind arrives at the concept of species and then, by the same process, it arrives at the concept of genus. Finally, transcending all created forms, it attains the primary forms, which are in God. Thus, Gilbert inquired why concrete forms agree with one another, and he focused his attention upon the intellectus of the universal which is abstracted from singulars. He based his theory of knowledge upon the Platonic doctrine of Ideas but also employed the Boethian-Aristotelian doctrine of abstraction.

The divine work of creation involved the production of forms, which are images of the divine Ideas, and the uniting of these forms to matter. Gilbert described the created being as a compound of the id quod est ("what it is") and the id quo est ("that by which it is"). Socrates is a man (id quod est ), but he is what he is by virtue of his humanity and corporeity (id quo est ). The origin of this distinction is the grammatical rule that, in naturalibus, every name signifies both a substance and a quality. But whereas all created being is compound, the divine being is absolutely simple. In God, essence (id quod est ) and divinity (id quo est ) coincide. Nonetheless, Gilbert applied the distinction to God, describing divinity as the form in God by which he is God. Gilbert's opponents, such as Bernard of Clairvaux, would not accept this separation of God and his divinity; they maintained that divinity is God, and not that by which he is. Gilbert's position was a difficult one to maintain, but he had no desire to compromise the divine simplicity or unity, and his writings support his claim that he had not established a real distinction between God and his divinity.

In a similar manner, Gilbert's application of logical and grammatical principles to the problem of the Incarnation of Christ aroused suspicions. Gilbert was reluctant to say that the divine nature became flesh, preferring to say that a person, Christ, took a human nature. Other logicians of the day were similarly concerned to test various traditional formulations of the divine Incarnation in the light of Boethian concepts. If Gilbert slipped in his analysis of the person and natures of Christ, he did not intend to deny Christ's divinity or his humanity.

Gilbert's school of disciples survived as a strong force in the twelfth century and included John of Salisbury, Otto of Freising, Alan of Lille, Nicholas of Amiens, Radulphus Ardens, and John Beleth. It blended at times with the dialectical tradition stemming from Abelard, and, by its investigation of the character of essences, the school of Gilbert perhaps helped to prepare the way for the influx of Avicennian philosophy.

See also Abelard, Peter; Anselm, St.; Bernard of Chartres; Bernard of Clairveaux, St.; Boethius, Anicius Manlius Severinus; Ideas; John of Salisbury.


works by gilbert

Liber de Sex Principiis Gilberto Porretano Ascriptus has appeared in two modern editions: that by A. Heysse (Münster-in-Westfalen: Aschendorf, 1929) and that by D. van den Eynde (Münster-in-Westfalen, 1953). Commentaries on Boethius may be found in Patrologia Latina, edited by J. P. Migne, Vol. 64 (Paris, 1847), cols. 12551412. N. M. Häring has edited new editions of the commentaries on the De Trinitate and on the De Praedicatione, which are in Nine Mediaeval Thinkers, edited by J. R. O'Donnell (Toronto, 1955); on the De Hebdomadibus, which is in Traditio 9 (1953): 177211; and on the Contra Eutychen et Nestorium, which is in Archives d'histoire doctrinale et littéraire du moyen âge 21 (1954): 241357. Häring has also edited the De Discretione Animae, Mentis et Spiritus, which is in Mediaeval Studies 22 (1960): 148191, and "A Christmas Sermon by Gilbert of Poitiers," in Mediaeval Studies 23 (1961): 126135. Gilbert's biblical commentaries are unprinted save for the prologue and commentary on Psalms 1 and 2, edited by M. Fontana, in Logos 13 (1930): 283301.

See also Commentarius Porretanus Anonymus in Primam Epistolam ad Corinthios, edited by A. M. Landgraf, in Vol. 117 of the series Studi e testi (Vatican City: Biblioteca Apostolica Vaticana, 1945), and E. Rathbone, Notae Super Iohannem Secundum Magistrum Gil [bertum ], in Vol. 18 of the series Recherches de théologie ancienne et médiévale (Louvain: Abbaye du Mont César, 1951), pp. 205210.

works on gilbert

The following works contain information on Gilbert: Étienne Gilson, History of Christian Philosophy in the Middle Ages (London: Sheed and Ward, 1955), pp. 140144; A. M. Landgraf, "Untersuchungen zu den Eigenlehre Gilberts," in Zeitschrift für katholische Theologie 54 (1930): 180213; A. Forest, "Le Réalisme de Gilbert de la Porrée dans le commentaire du De Hebdomadibus," in Revue néo-scholastique de philosophie 36 (1934): 101110; A. Hayen, "Le Concile de Reims et l'erreur théologique de Gilbert," in Archives d'histoire doctrinale et littéraire du moyen âge 1011 (19351936): 29102; M. H. Vicaire, "Les Porrétains et l'avicennisme avant 1215," in Revue des sciences philosophiques et théologiques 26 (1937): 449482; M. E. Williams, The Teaching of Gilbert Porreta on the Trinity, Vol. 56 in the series Analecta Gregoriana (Rome, 1951); M. A. Schmidt, Gottheit und Trinität nach dem Kommentar des Gilbert Porreta zu Boethius, De Trinitate (Basel, 1956); S. Gammersbach, Gilbert von Poitiers und seine Prozesse im Urteil der Zeitgenossen (Cologne: Böhlau, 1959); and N. M. Häring, "The Case of Gilbert." in Mediaeval Studies 13 (1951): 140; "A Latin Dialogue on the Doctrine of Gilbert," in Mediaeval Studies 15 (1953): 243289; and "Sprachlogische und philosophische Voraussetzungen zum Verstandnis der Christologie Gilberts," in Scholastik 32 (1957): 373398.

David Luscombe (1967)

Cite this article
Pick a style below, and copy the text for your bibliography.

  • MLA
  • Chicago
  • APA

"Gilbert of Poitiers (c. 1076–1154)." Encyclopedia of Philosophy. . 22 Mar. 2019 <>.

"Gilbert of Poitiers (c. 1076–1154)." Encyclopedia of Philosophy. . (March 22, 2019).

"Gilbert of Poitiers (c. 1076–1154)." Encyclopedia of Philosophy. . Retrieved March 22, 2019 from

Learn more about citation styles

Citation styles gives you the ability to cite reference entries and articles according to common styles from the Modern Language Association (MLA), The Chicago Manual of Style, and the American Psychological Association (APA).

Within the “Cite this article” tool, pick a style to see how all available information looks when formatted according to that style. Then, copy and paste the text into your bibliography or works cited list.

Because each style has its own formatting nuances that evolve over time and not all information is available for every reference entry or article, cannot guarantee each citation it generates. Therefore, it’s best to use citations as a starting point before checking the style against your school or publication’s requirements and the most-recent information available at these sites:

Modern Language Association

The Chicago Manual of Style

American Psychological Association

  • Most online reference entries and articles do not have page numbers. Therefore, that information is unavailable for most content. However, the date of retrieval is often important. Refer to each style’s convention regarding the best way to format page numbers and retrieval dates.
  • In addition to the MLA, Chicago, and APA styles, your school, university, publication, or institution may have its own requirements for citations. Therefore, be sure to refer to those guidelines when editing your bibliography or works cited list.