Gerson, Jean

views updated


Chancellor of the University of Paris; b. Jean Charlier, in Gerson, near Rethel, Champagne, Dec. 14, 1363;d. Lyons, July 12, 1429. He became a master of theology Dec. 8, 1392, after study at the College of Navarre in Paris. Having received a D.Th., he succeeded peter of ailly as chancellor of the University of Paris (see paris, university of) (Apr. 13, 1395). He kept this title until his death, although after the Council of constance (141418) he was unable to return to Paris, taking refuge in Lyons with his brother, a Celestine. In the tradition of the great humanists, he was one of the masters of the French language. He was a renowned theologian, a spiritual writer of note, the tireless artisan of the peace of the Church. He was a poet when the muse inspired him, a recognized pedagogue, a proven mystic. His chancellorship gave unity to these varied activities, for Paris exercised great influence, and her chancellor was expected to take a stand on all the problems that touched the life of the state, the Church, or the intellectual and moral life of society. Though living in a period of bloody civil crises, e.g., Armagnacs vs. Burgundians, the Cabochian Revolution, Ordonnance Cabochienne, compounded by the Hundred Years' War, Gerson remained loyal to legitimate authority. He urged the reconciliation of the Armagnac and Burgundian parties, but did not hesitate to condemn the excesses of the French court and defend the poor against all oppressors. He opposed Jean Petit's Apologia for tyrannicide and had it condemned in both Paris and Constance, thus incurring the hatred of the Burgundians, who prevented his return to Paris after 1418.

Living in the midst of the western schism, Gerson labored to effect Church unity. He opposed the use of violence, favoring voluntary resignation of the papal candidates or compromise. He did not support the withdrawal of obedience from antipope benedict xiii (13981403), and after its restoration he was a member of the delegation (1408) sent to both popes urging an entente. Of his treatises on the Church, e.g., De unitate ecclesiae, written between 1391 and 1415, 27 are extant. At the Council of Constance, where he was head of the French delegation, his addresses created a sensation. He maintained the thesis of the superiority of the council over the pope, which was actually defined at the fifth session, but he was not an extremist. Though he applauded the election of Pope martin v, he spoke very frankly on the limitation of papal power and insisted on the necessary reform of prelates, of the Curia, and of pontifical finances. During his exile from Paris (141929) he continued to write; at least 25 of his works, some of great length, are from this period.

In 1400, while considering resigning his chancellorship, Gerson set forth his conception of teaching in Mé-moire sur la réforme de la faculté de théologie. Here he rejected purely speculative science and all theological research cut off from spiritual life or accessible only to an intellectual elite. He felt theological study should be coupled to spiritual and pastoral concerns.

This same tendency appeared in his more than 66 works on the spiritual life, e.g., De vita spirituali animae and De theologia mystica. Never losing sight of practical applications, he warned against deviations from accepted standards (his letters to Bartholomew Clantier on Jan van ruysbroeck's De ornatu spiritualium nuptiarum ), against vain curiosity, and against illusions (his correspondence with the Carthusians). He tried above all to bring such problems within the grasp of the simplest minds, especially in his informal writings, such as Miroir de l'âme, Montagne de contemplation, and Mendicité spirituelle, as well as in letters or treatises of spiritual direction, such as those he wrote for his sisters. Many of these latter writings were in French instead of Latin. He did not write The Imitation of Jesus Christ.

Gerson penned more than 100 sermons and addresses, of which some 60 were in French. He was a renowned orator, accustomed to great occasions and noble audiences, but he was equally at ease speaking to his parishioners at St-Jean-de-Grève. His series of Poenitemini and his great sermon Ad Deum vadit on the Passion are excellent examples of his direct and compelling style. Though an outstanding humanist, he avoided excesses, protesting against the paganism of the Roman de la Rose, because care for souls outweighed his concern for style. His personal life was in harmony with his teachings.

Bibliography: Opera omnia, ed. e. du pin, 5 v. (Antwerp 1706); centenary edition, ed. p. glorieux, 11 v. in progress, v.16 (Tournai 1960-), biographical essay 1:105139: bibliog. notes 1:153166. j. b. l'ecuy, Essai sur la vie de Jean Gerson, 2 v. (Paris 1832). h. jadart, Jean de Gerson: Recherches sur son origine (Rheims 1881). r. thomassy, Jean Gerson, chancelier de Notre Dame (Paris 1843). j. b. schwab, Johannes Gerson, Professor der Theologie und Kanzler der Universität Paris (Würzburg 1858). b.p. mcguire, tr., Jean Gerson: Early Works (New York, 1998). j. l. connolly, John Gerson: Reformer and Mystic (Louvain 1928). e. vansteenberghe, "Quelques écrits de Jean Gerson: Textes inédits et études," Revue des sciences religieuses 13 (1933) 165185, 393424; 14 (1934) 191218, 370395; 15 (1935) 532566; 16 (1936) 3346. l. mourin, "L'Oeuvre oratoire française de Jean Gerson," Archives d'histoire doctrinale et litéraire du moyen-âge 21 (1946) 225261; Jean Gerson, prédicateur français (Bruges 1952); ed., Six sermons français inédits de Jean Gerson (Paris 1946). a. combes, "Études gersoniennes," Archives d'histoire doctrinale et litéraire du moyen-âge 14 (1939) 291385; 21 (1946) 331482; Essai sur la critique de Ruysbroeck par Gerson (Paris 1945). m. lieberman, "Chronologie gersonienne," Romania 70 (194849) 5167, continued irregularly in subsequent volumes. p. glorieux, "L'Activité littéraire de Gerson à Lyon," Recherches de théologie ancienne et médiévale 18 (1951) 238307; "Autour de la liste des oeuvres de Gerson," ibid. 22 (1955) 95109; "L'Enseignement universitaire de Gerson," ibid. 23 (1956) 88113. a. ampe, "Les Rédactions successives de l'apologie schoonhovienne pour Ruusbroec contre Gerson," Revue d'histoire ecclésiastique 55 (1960) 401452. d. c. brown, Pastor and Laity in the Theology of Jean Gerson (Cambridge, England, 1987). m. s. burrows, Jean Gerson and De Consolatione Theologiae (Tü bingen, 1991). j. l. connolly, John Gerson: Reformer and Mystic (Louvain, 1928). j. b. morrall, Gerson and the Great Schism (Manchester, 1960). l. b. pascoe, Jean Gerson, Principles of Church Reform (Leiden, 1973).

[p. glorieux]