John Gerson

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John Gerson

The French clergyman John Gerson (1363-1429) was a leader of the Conciliar movement. He is known for his efforts in ending the Great Schism.

John Gerson was born Jean Charlier at Gerson on Dec. 13, 1363. He attended the College of Navarre at the University of Paris, where he was taught by Pierre d'Ailly, who became his close friend. He became chancellor of the University of Paris in 1395, when d'Ailly resigned the post. Gerson's early actions at the university were not particularly notable, but they reflect the general opinion of the times. Thus in 1387 he demanded the condemnation of the Dominican monk Jean de Montson, who denied the Immaculate Conception; and he warned students away from "immoral" popular literature.

Gerson emerged as a firebrand reformer only when the university took a leading role in ending the Great Schism. Since 1378 the Church had been divided between rival popes, one at Rome and one at Avignon, and by 1409 the initiative in ending this schism was taken by the Conciliarists. They argued that a general council of the Church had the right to choose a new pope, and this was attempted, without success, at the Council of Pisa (1409). The University of Paris was a strong base for the Conciliarists, and Gerson had joined the movement by the time of the Council of Constance (1414-1418). At Constance he led the successful drive to end the schism, in which the Council deposed the rival popes and elected Martin V.

But Gerson's influence was fleeting. He alienated much of the Council by his stubborn insistence on the condemnation of Jean Petit (who had written that the assassination of the Duc d'Orléans by Burgundian partisans was justifiable tyrannicide). The Council refused to condemn Jean Petit, and under threats from the Duke of Burgundy, Gerson had to flee to Germany at the end of the Council. Later he was able to return to France and spent his last days at Lyons, where he taught children and wrote devotional works and hymns. He died there on July 12, 1429.

John Gerson ranks as one of the outstanding Conciliar pamphleteers. He wrote that the authority of the universal Church (as represented by a general council) is greater than that of the pope and that therefore a general council may depose and elect popes. He was also a proponent of Gallicanism and a supporter of a strong monarchy in France. In philosophy he adopted the Ockhamist position, and in theology he was attracted by the mysticism of the Devotio Moderna—in both cases following the late medieval trend against rational investigation of the faith.

Further Reading

The established biography of Gerson is J. L. Connolly, John Gerson, Reformer and Mystic (1928). A more recent study is J. B. Morrall, Gerson and the Great Schism (1960). For information on Gerson's Conciliar theories and his part in healing the schism see J. N. Figgis, Studies in Political Thought from Gerson to Grotius (1907; 2d ed. 1931); E. F. Jacob, Essays in the Conciliar Epoch (1943; rev. ed. 1963); and Brian Tierney, Foundations of the Conciliar Theory (1955). □

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