Gerson, Jean De

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Gerson, Jean De



Jean Charlier de Gerson (1363–1429) was born at Gerson-les-Barbey in Champagne. He began his studies at the University of Paris in 1377, becoming a bachelor of arts in 1381 and a doctor of theology in 1392. For much of his life Gerson was a leading academic theologian of his university; he was made chancellor in 1395, succeeding his friend Pierre d’Ailly, with whom he was later to share the intellectual leadership of the conciliar movement.

Gerson was prominent in support of the attempt of the Council of Pisa, 1409, to end the great schism in the papacy by appealing to the allegedly superior authority of the General Council in church government. Later he was a member of the French delegation to the Council of Constance, 1414-1418, where he formulated his mature conciliarist theo ries. He had strongly alienated the Burgundian faction in French court politics by his strong condemnation of their use of the doctrine of tyrannicide to justify the murder of the anti-Burgundian Duke Charles of Orleans in 1408, and their hostility pre vented him from returning to Paris; his surviving years were spent in Vienna and Lyons.

Although he wrote a number of academic theological treatises, in the scholastic manner, Gerson was primarily concerned with the active implemen tation of the demands of the Christian life. His considerable pastoral experience was gained in Paris and in Bruges, where he was for a time dean of the Church of St. Donatien. A large number of his sermons and pastoral and spiritual treatises, including influential writings on mysticism, survive. His preoccupation with the problem of how best to end the scandal of the papal schism grew out of his pastoral responsibilities.

Theories of church government. Gerson’s ideas on church authority in general, and on the position of the General Council within the government of the church in particular, are among the most original and permanently influential parts of his works. He arrived at a full-blown conciliar position only after a slow process of disillusionment with the executive power of the papacy. It was as late as 1409, on the eve of the Council of Pisa, that Gerson first put forward the idea that in case of grave necessity the ordinary canon law of the church could be set aside. Gerson was here dealing with the problem of how a council to end the schism could be summoned without papal approval, hitherto considered essential by the canonists. He solved the difficulty by appealing to the principle of epikeia, or equity, which set aside the letter of the law in order to preserve its spirit (a concept going back via Aquinas and other Scholastics to Aristotle).

Gerson’s mature conciliar theory is set forth in De potestate ecclesiastica, written in 1416-1417, during the Council of Constance. Gerson argued that the General Council, representing the totality of the faithful, was superior to any other institution in the church, including the papacy, even though, as the executive head of the church, the papacy had the prerogative to oversee its day-to-day gov ernance. The theory of conciliar supremacy was not new; it had been discussed freely in the fourteenth century, but Gerson gave it its most compre hensive expression. His application of the theory of representation to the church, the most articulated social organism of the Middle Ages, is his enduring contribution to political science.

There has been some controversy about Gerson’s position in the medieval philosophical and theolog ical spectrum. He certainly had close affinities with the Ockhamist school, sharing with them a dislike of the excessive intrusion of man-made intellectual concepts into the data of revelation, a practice characteristic of the Scotists. But he referred freely also to the authority of pre-Ockhamist writers of the realist tradition, such as St. Bonaventure, St. Thomas Aquinas, and St. Albert the Great, as well as to the authority of patristic sources. The truth may be that Gerson’s system was an eclectic one, evolved with a constant eye on the needs of prac tical Christian teaching.

John B. Morrall

[Other relevant material may be found in the biog raphies ofaquinas; marsilius of padua; ockham.]


(1417) 1965 De potestate ecclesiastica. Volume 6, pages 210-250 in Jean de Gerson, Oeuvres completes. Paris:Desclee.

Oeuvres complètes. 12 vols. Paris: Desclee, 1960—.→ To be published in 12 volumes. Volumes 1-6 have been completed.

Opera omnia. 5 vols. in 4. Antwerp (Belgium): Sumptibus Societatis, 1706.


AriÈs, Philippe (1960) 1962 Centuries of Childhood: A Social History of Family Life. New York: Knopf. → First published as L’enfant et la vie familiale sous Vancien regime. Contains a discussion of Gerson’s pedagogical ideas.

Combes, Andre 1940 Jean Gerson: Commentateur di-onysien. Ėtudes de philosophie medievale, Vol. 30. Paris: Vrin.

Combes, AndrĖ 1942 Jean de Montreuil et le chancelier Gerson: Contribution a I’histoire des rapports de Vhumanisme et de la theologie en France au debut du XVe siecle. Etudes de philosophie médiévale, Vol. 32. Paris: Vrin.

Combes, AndrĖ 1945-1959 Essai sur la critique de Ruysbroeck par Gerson. 3 vols. Paris: Vrin.

Combes, AndrĖ; Mourin, Louis; and Simone, Franco 1951 Jean Gerson. Volume 6, pages 185-191 in Enciclopedia cattolica. Vatican City: The Encyclo pedia.

Connolly, James L. 1928 John Gerson: Reformer and Mystic. Louvain, Universite Catholique, Recueil de travaux d’histoire et de philologie, 2d Series, fasc. 12.Louvain (Belgium): Librairie Universitaire.

Morrall, John B. 1960 Gerson and the Great Schism. Manchester Univ. Press.

Mourin, Louis 1952 Jean Gerson: Predicateur frangais. Bruges (Belgium): De Tempel.

Schwab, Johann B. 1858 Johannes Gerson; Professorder Theologie und Kanzler der Universitat Paris: Eine Monographie. Wurzburg (Germany): Stahel.