Major, John (1469–1550)

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John Major, or Mair, was a Scottish theologian, active at the University of Paris for some years before and after he secured a license in theology in 1506. Major helped to revive, if only briefly, the spirit of fourteenth-century nominalism. He was entirely sympathetic with the approach of William of Ockham and Jean Buridan, even though he adopted some doctrines of John Duns Scotus and other realists.

Major came to Paris in 1493 after studying at Cambridge. He taught at the University of Paris for most of his lengthy career, with the exception of seven years at the Scottish universities of Glasgow and St. Andrews. When he arrived at Paris, scholasticism, pietism, and humanism were rivals within the university itself. Late medieval pietism was reflected in the ascetic discipline instituted at the Collège de Montaigu, the school that so repelled Desiderius Erasmus by its austerity and its logic-chopping. Major, with his frugal Scottish background, found the atmosphere of Montaigu less forbidding, and he responded with initial enthusiasm to its manner of disputing. He seems to have been little influenced by the sort of humanism being advocated at the time by Jacques Lefèvre d'Étaples, who stressed the value of knowing Aristotle and the Church Fathers in the original Greek. Major belonged to the scholastic tradition completely. His theological and philosophical works proceed entirely from a formal analysis of separate arguments. He made no use of Greek, although he clearly was conversant with Latin literature.

Major's earliest published work consisted of short treatises on terminist logic, published separately from 1500 to 1503, and then together at Lyons in 1505 as a commentary on Peter of Spain. Later he published commentaries on Aristotle's Ethics and Physics. In theology, he wrote commentaries on the Sentences of Peter Lombard and on the Gospels. All of these writings reflect his teaching duties, even in their style. Toward the close of his long life, Major complained mildly at having been forced to accommodate himself to the "manner of our ancestors" and admitted that students had not always found the disputatious style agreeable. In addition to the works already mentioned, Major wrote A History of Greater Britain, a landmark in the writing of Scottish history and a most unusual work for a nominalist theologian. Many passages in this worksuch as those in defense of the "oaten bread" of Scotland or of ale as opposed to winesuggest a personality by no means dry and pedantic. Nevertheless, Major's philosophical style has put off scholars, and his work still awaits total and mature evaluation. Almost all present-day accounts of Major continue to be colored by humanist criticisms of theology made in the spirit of Erasmus, with little sympathy for medieval logic.

See also Aristotle; Buridan, John; Duns Scotus, John; Erasmus, Desiderius; Logic, History of: Medieval (European) Logic; Medieval Philosophy; Patristic Philosophy; Peter Lombard; Peter of Spain; Pietism; William of Ockham.


A reliable, although sketchy, account of Major's philosophical opinions is given by Ricardo Garcia Villoslada in La universidad de Paris durante los estudios de Francisco de Vitoria (Rome: Universitatis Gregorianae, 1938), pp. 127164. Carl Prantl, in Geschichte der Logik im Abendlande (Leipzig, 1927), Vol. IV, pp. 247250, gives a few excerpts from Major's logical writings. Major's views on church matters (he was a conciliarist and champion of Gallicanism) are sometimes dealt with briefly in histories of political theory. The details of his life are presented in Aeneas J. G. Mackay's biography, prefixed to an English translation of A History of Greater Britain (Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press, Scottish History Society, 1892), which also contains a bibliography of Major's writings. This bibliography needs to be supplemented, however, by the additions given by Hubert Élie, Le traité "De l'infini" de Jean Mair (Paris: Vrin, 1938); James F. Keenan, "The Casuistry of John Major: Nominalist Professor of Paris (15061531)," Annual of the Society of Christian Ethics (1993, pp. 205221).

Neal W. Gilbert (1967)

Bibliography updated by Tamra Frei (2005)