Practicality over Politics: Jean Gerson and the Dukes of Burgundy

Jean Gerson was perhaps the most influential religious figure in the fifteenth century, reaching nearly all Western Christendom through his preaching, his teaching, and especially his promulgation of his works to an eager body of readers and listeners. Modern scholars of Gerson have shown how widespread the writings of the French prelate were, reflecting a long-standing scholarly consensus that Gerson spoke, intentionally so, to the minds and hearts of the non-elites of the late medieval West. Gerson’s effectiveness as a religious communicator cannot be denied, yet such a conception strangely still understates his work’s reach and efficacy. Examining the surviving manuscripts in the ducal library of the Dukes of Burgundy, we see that Gerson’s works resonated even with those who personally despised the man.

Gerson had a complicated relationship with the Burgundian Dukes. He first made their acquaintance by helping to expel Duke Philip the Bold’s agents at the French court during the Immaculate Conception controversy in 1388. Gerson’s actions led directly to a loss of Burgundian power in France, a loss which Duke Philip spent much of the 1390s trying to recoup. Philip did not punish Gerson for his past transgressions against Burgundian interests. Instead, Gerson’s part in the Immaculate Conception controversy convinced Philip that he needed this talented theologian in his own camp. The duke offered the lucrative position of dean of St. Donatien’s in Bruges to Gerson, hoping the bountiful benefice would entice the theologian to his party. Gerson accepted the position and went to Bruges in 1399. Installing Gerson in Bruges was a coup for the Burgundians: it removed the most talented of the French theologians from the University of Paris, and it ensnared Gerson within the economic web of Duke Philip. Philip undoubtedly hoped his financial offerings would persuade Gerson to permanently abandon French interests for those of Burgundy.

London, British Library MS Harley 4379; Fol. 170v.

Gerson’s working relationship with Burgundy changed after the death of Philip the Bold in 1404. The new duke, John the Fearless, despised Gerson. Duke John lacked his father’s willingness to forgive Gerson for his actions against the Burgundians in the 1380s. Near the time of his ascendancy to dukedom, Duke John removed the Saint Donatien ecclesiastical benefice from Gerson’s possession, citing the canons’ dissatisfaction with Gerson’s methods of governing the church. Historians are unclear as to the root cause behind Duke John’s personal animus toward Gerson, suggesting that the duke viewed Gerson as a French loyalist and thus an obstacle to John’s own ambition at the French court. The tension between the two men reached its apex when Gerson personally sought a condemnation of Duke John by the Council of Constance in 1414 for the assassination of his political rival Louis d’Orleans. The council was a gathering of all the most powerful churchmen in the West, and a public condemnation would have been a devastatingly blow to Burgundian political standing in France. Gerson failed in this venture in Constance, ultimately succumbing to the Burgundian delegation at the council. Nevertheless, by 1414, Gerson’s name had become anathema in Burgundian circles, particularly at the Burgundian court.

What is especially striking is that it was at exactly this moment at the height of the Burgundian and Gersonian feud that the works of Gerson entered the Burgundian court through the patronage of the ducal family. A member of the ducal household commissioned a manuscript of Gerson’s Opus Tripartitum around the year 1410 (Koninklijke Bibliotheek van België MS 11133-35). The Opus was a collection of three small treatises addressing the Ten Commandments (De praeceptis Decalogi), confession (De confessione), and death (de arte moriendi). The Opus Tripartitum was a short work, meant to serve as a practical guide to laypeople and less-educated priests on proper methods for handling these weighty religious issues. The treatise was an international best-seller, gaining even more popularity with the advent of printing and becoming one of the most widely published religious works in the fifteenth century. It enjoyed sixteen printings in the fifteenth century, with versions published in Latin, Spanish, Swedish, German, and Flemish.

So, why did the Burgundian ducal family want a copy of the Opus Tripartitum, a piece crafted by one of the household’s most prominent enemies? If they solely sought thorough theological instruction on the contents of the Opus Tripartitum, there were many such other works readily available to them, such as the Guido of Monte Rochen’s Manipulus Curatorum. If the ducal family sought personal religious instruction, they had their own bevy of Parisian-trained theologians to personally oversee their religious lives. Their choice of Gerson’s Opus Tripartitum indicates that the dukes were not seeking sophisticated explanations of these weighty theological concepts. They instead wanted clear, concise instruction on how to approach issues that weighed on the mind of any conscientious Christian at the time. That the dukes of Burgundy patronized Gerson’s Opus in the early years of the fifteenth century, a period characterized by fraught relationships between the Burgundians and the French (and by extension between the Burgundians and Jean Gerson) speaks to the overwhelming efficacy of Gerson’s work.

As the fifteenth century waned, the popularity of Gerson’s writings waxed at the Burgundian court. By the death of the last Valois Duke Charles the Bold in 1476, the dukes possessed at least five manuscripts by Gerson, and most likely had more. Of the surviving ducal library housed in the Royal Library of Belgium (Koninklijke Bibliotheek van België), Gerson authored the largest number of manuscripts in the dukes’ theological holdings. Despite their political rivalry with the cleric, the Dukes recognized the efficacy of Gerson’s writings, and they put political prejudice aside for their own spiritual instruction. His work was simply the best at what it did. Even his enemies would have been remiss to ignore it.

Sean Sapp
Ph.D. Candidate

Further Reading:

Bernard Guenée, Between Church and State: The Lives of Four French Prelates in the Late Middle Ages trans. Arthur Goldhammer (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1991).

Bernard Guenée, Un Meurtre, Une Société: L’assassinat du Duc d’Orleans 23 Novembre 1407 (Paris: Gaillimard, 1992).

E. Steenberghe, Gerson A Bruges Revue d’Histoire Ecclésiastique 31, no. 1 (1935): 5-51.

“And the eyes of them both were opened”: The Moment of Knowing in an Anglo-Saxon Bible

When Eve and Adam ate the forbidden fruit, the Book of Genesis tells us, their eyes were opened, and they knew that they were naked. In modern editions of the Bible, the verses are divided as follows:

6 … and she took of the fruit thereof, and did eat, and gave to her husband who did eat.

7 And the eyes of them both were opened, and when they perceived themselves to be naked, they sewed together fig leaves, and made themselves aprons.[1]

The pause comes after the eating of the fruit, emphasizing this act. The immediate results of the act—the opening of the eyes, the recognition of nakedness, and the couple’s decision to cover their nakedness with fig leaves—all follow in quick succession. The next verses detail the further consequences of humanity’s fall. But what if the turning point were not so much the act of choosing to disobey God and eat the fruit, but the cognitive effect of doing so, the revelatory moment when human understanding changed? Such is the interpretation created by one eleventh-century manuscript of the Old Testament in Old English.

This manuscript (Cambridge, British Library, Cotton MS Claudius B.iv) was probably created around 1020-1040, and is large and heavily illustrated. It contrasts with another surviving manuscript of the Old Testament, Oxford, Bodleian Library, Laud Misc. 509, which was likely based on the same exemplar, but which is small and unillustrated. The punctuation differs significantly throughout the two manuscripts. Laud Misc. 509 punctuates Genesis 3:6-7 as follows (the ⁊ symbol is the scribal abbreviation for “and”):

⁊ genam þa of þæs treowes wæstme. ⁊ geæt ⁊ sealde hire were. He æt þa ⁊ heora begra eagan wurdon geopenode hig oncneowon þa þæt hig nacode wæron ⁊ siwodon fic leaf ⁊ worhton him wædbrec.

[and took then of the tree’s fruit. and ate and gave (it) to her husband. He ate then and the eyes of them both were opened they knew then that they were naked and sewed fig leaves and made themselves clothing]

The passage is a bit of a run-on. Punctuation separates Eve’s act of taking the fruit from her eating it and giving it to her husband, but everything that follows does so without a pause.

Contrast this with the same passage in MS Claudius B.iv:

⁊ genam ða of ðæs treowes wæstme. ⁊ geæt. ⁊ sealde hyre were. He æt ða ⁊ heora begra eagan wurdon geopenode .·.

[and took then of the tree’s fruit. and ate. and gave (it) to her husband. He ate then. and the eyes of them both were opened .·.]

The punctuation mark .·. is the “strongest” punctuation mark in the scribe’s repertoire. Used infrequently compared to the single punctus, it represents the biggest pause. And that is the last line on the page (although there is in fact space for at least a couple more words). The reader must pause here at the moment when the eyes of the first human beings are opened, and lift their own eyes to the top of the next page. This page begins with an image: the naked Eve and Adam, Adam in the act of eating the fruit, the serpent in a tree to the left. The text resumes below it, midway through Genesis 3:7, with a large colored initial that, combined with the previous punctuation and page change, suggests that this should be considered a significant break in the text, and that something new is beginning:

Hi oncneowon ða ðæt hi nacode wæron. ⁊ sywodon him fic leaf. ⁊ worhton him wædbrec.

[They knew then that they were naked. and sewed themselves fig leaves. and made themselves clothing.]

While the image still suggests the significance of the eating of the fruit, the page layout and strong punctuation invite the reader to pause and reflect at a different point in the narrative: the time when “the eyes of them both were opened” and the knowledge of good and evil was revealed. What did the world look like, in that moment?

Cambridge, British Library, Cotton MS Claudius B.iv, fols. 6 verso and 7 recto. (A twelfth-century annotator has added commentary in Latin at the bottom of the pages and within the borders of the second image.)

Emily Mahan
PhD Student, Medieval Studies
University of Notre Dame

Further reading:

Rebecca Barnhouse and Benjamin C. Withers, The Old English Hexateuch: Aspects and Approaches, Kalamazoo, MI: Medieval Institute Publications, 2000.

N. Doane and William P. Stoneman, Purloined Letters: The Twelfth-Century Reception of the Anglo-Saxon Illustrated Hexateuch (British Library, Cotton Claudius B. iv), Tempe: Arizona Center for Medieval and Renaissance Studies, 2011.

Benjamin C. Withers, The Illustrated Old English Hexateuch, Cotton Claudius B.iv: The Frontier of Seeing and Reading in Anglo-Saxon England, Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 2007.

[1] Douay-Rheims 1899 American Edition, Gen. 3:6-7.

The Return of Grendelkin

One year ago, Grendelkin made its debut at the University of Notre Dame’s Washington Hall (April 7th and 8th 2017). Today, it is my pleasure to share video documentation of the project.

Grendelkin was directed by Richard Fahey, produced by Tom Fahey and sponsored by the Medieval Institute. Contributors include scholar and storyteller Chris Vinsonhaler, the Boston-based musical group (((::OFTHESUN:))) and performing artists Shri Rajuli and Wisty Andres.

A previous post on Grendelkin, predating the event, describes the project’s program in detail and provides scholar and artist biographies for anyone interested in additional information.

We hope that you enjoy the video of Grendelkin!


Art direction by Richard Fahey
Event production by Tom Fahey
Postproduction Video by Tom Fahey

Beowulf: A Poem For Our Time”
Storytelling and harp accompaniment by Chris Vinsonhaler

“Giedd in Geardagum”
Recitations by Richard Fahey with harp accompaniment by Chris Vinsonhaler

“Sceadugenga” and “Umberhulk”
Performances by (((::OFTHESUN:))) with dance accompaniment by Wisty Andres

“Maternal Vengeance”
Movement performance by Shri Rajuli to “Trøllabundin” by Eivør Pálsdóttir

Grendelkin wants to direct special thanks to Washington Hall for providing a venue, to Chris Abram, John Van Engen, Thomas Burman, Megan Hall, Christopher Scheirer, Sara Maurer, Peter Holland and the English Graduate School for supporting the project, and especially the Medieval Institute and the University of Notre Dame for sponsoring and hosting the event.

Richard Fahey
Ph.D. Candidate