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.

Arguing against the Greeks: The Dominican Tractatus contra Graecos of 1252

Fragment of a floor mosaic (13th century) depicting the sack of Constantinople by the Latin crusaders in 1204; Ravenna, San Giovanni Evangelista

The Council of Ferrara-Florence (1438/39) is considered the last remarkable, though ultimately unsuccessful, attempt in the Middle Ages to restore church unity between the Latin West and the Greek East. Throughout history, certain events and their enduring consequences had nourished a growing scissure that ever deepened the alienation between the churches – just to mention a few of the most striking: the so-called Photian schism at the end of the 9th century, the mutual excommunications in 1054, the sack of Constantinople in 1204 followed by the Latin Empire of Constantinople until 1261, the Byzantine Emperor’s acceptance of an eventually short-lived church union on the Second Council of Lyons in 1274 (succeeded, though, by its refusal in 1282) etc. Following the history of reception of these events in the Middle Ages and beyond is like dealing with not only one, but several “points of no return”: While this might seem contradictory to itself, it nevertheless helps to understand (1) that dating the breakout of the schism depends on what kinds of sources we rely on, and (2) that, again throughout history, there have been many attempts and frequent parallel endeavours to heal this fracture between the churches.

© Viliam Štefan Dóci OP

One milestone of such an effort was the lifetime achievement of an anonymous Dominican from the year 1252, a learned theologian who dedicated himself to an in-depth study of the Greek language, theology, and church life. Based on this knowledge, he was capable and well-equipped to write a theological treatise “Against the Greeks” (Tractatus contra Graecos) in Constantinople, which eventually became a bestseller in controversial literature dealing with how to argue in Greek-Latin debates. Up to the 15th century, it greatly influenced theology and the Latin church and deeply affected how Latin authors perceived the Greek church. The anonymous Dominican was the first theologian who determined what later appeared on the agenda of the union councils in Lyon (1274) and Ferrara-Florence (1438/39): That a number of four issues of conflict – filioque, purgatory, azymes, and Roman primacy – had to be solved in order to proclaim the unity of the church, something which he didn’t see as lost, but as highly at risk. In a manner of fraternal correction, the Dominican author sought to convince the Greeks of their errors by quoting their own reliable sources, i.e. the Greek fathers and church councils, and by demonstrating that they all, in fact, supported the Latin positions. Additionally, he provided his (indented Latin) readers with a dossier of contemporary Greek writings in a Latin translation along with a commentary which was both meant to keep the readers informed about the situation on the spot and to support their argumentation in ongoing debates.

“Tractatus contra Graecos” (Inc.: Licet grecorum ecclesiam); Mantova, Bibliotecta Communale, Ms. Nr. 604 (D. I. 31), fol. 1ra-43rb, here: 1r

From today’s perspective, the actual value and impact of the Tractatus contra Graecos is impaired by the fact that today it is known only based on an early modern edition of 1616[1], which is deficient and at times almost incomprehensible. This is why an updated and reliable critical edition is a particularly urgent task: Based on 30 manuscripts that are known thus far and that are kept in libraries in Central and Southern or Southeast Europe, a critical edition will lead to a reconstruction of the text ranging from the time it was written in mid-13th-century Constantinople up to how it was used as a handout and source of information on the councils of the Late Middle Ages by leading Latin theologians. The surviving manuscripts give evidence that not only in the 15th century, but also already by the author himself, the treatise has been remodelled and shaped according to the needs of time and occasion. Both the critical edition of this Dominican key work and its history of reception contribute to a better understanding of the relationship between Rome and Byzantium in the Middle Ages and, thus, to a more detailed knowledge of the history of today’s Catholic and Orthodox churches.

Dr. Andrea Riedl
Senior research fellow at the Department of Theology/University of Vienna and currently visiting researcher at the Medieval Institute/University of Notre Dame.

[1] Ed. Petrus Stevartius Leodiensis (1549–1624), Tomus singularis insignium auctorum, tam graecorum, quam latinorum, Ingolstadt 1616, 487–574, and reprinted in Migne’s Patrologia graeca, PG 140, 487–574. This is the transcription of a manuscript of the Bavarian State Library in Munich, Clm 110 (fol. 1r-88).

Medieval Wanderlust and Virtual Wayfinding

Google “wanderlust” and you’ll be greeted by a barrage of images of stunning landscapes, wrinkled maps, and relatively-unoriginal tattoos. The word, now tagged over fifty million times on Instagram, denotes “an eager desire or fondness for wandering or travelling” and has clearly captured the popular imagination, earning articles on BuzzFeed and finding itself titling disappointing movies.  Though the word itself only entered the English language around the beginning of the twentieth century, the concept — according to cognitive theorists — is likely as old as humanity itself. Nancy Easterlin, in her chapter, “Cognitive Ecocriticism: Human Wayfinding, Sociality, and Literary Interpretation,” argues that humans have innate needs to “travel in time and through space without getting lost” as a means for gathering resources, seeking refuge, and obtaining knowledge.1 Wayfinding, this human drive to explore and attach meaning to the world around us, establishes an important cognitive basis for our contemporary obsession with wanderlust. But what happens when our ability to navigate our environments is limited? And is this sudden cultural obsession with travel, with all of its racist and classist baggage, really a new phenomenon?

Religious pilgrimage — a journey “made to a sacred place as an act of religious devotion” — may at first glance have little in common with the contemporary wanderlust fever, but in the late medieval period, faithful pilgrims often went to great lengths to traverse the known world in order to visit many of the same landmarks populating Instagram pages today. Pilgrimages were typically undertaken by groups of travelers, and these journeys could be as short as Chaucer’s famous trip from London to Canterbury or as long as medieval mystic Margery Kempe’s voyage from Lynn to Jerusalem. Records of these pilgrimages prefigure many of the critiques of present-day travel — namely, that “the experience of travel [was] exotic” and “the purview of the privileged.”2 Despite this, I wish to read pilgrimage — one of the most common types of medieval travel — as motivated not just by religious devotion, but by a human cognitive need to wander.

This reading is facilitated by accounts of medieval religious devotees who found themselves confined, enclosed, or otherwise unable to undertake the physical pilgrimages, yet nevertheless invented means to satisfy this cognitive urge. In his work with the itinerary maps of thirteenth-century Benedictine monk Matthew Paris, Daniel K. Connolly demonstrates that “cloistered monks, though discouraged from going on pilgrimages to the earthly city [of Jerusalem], could nonetheless use Matthew’s maps for an imaginative journey to the Heavenly Jerusalem.”These imagined journeys, I believe, were abetted by the map’s engagement with the same cognitive processes that human beings experience when wayfinding, or moving through physical space. This map (pictured below), depicts the Holy Land from a bird’s-eye perspective — cognitive scientists call this a “survey” perspective, in contrast to the horizontal “route” perspective experienced when actually traveling through a location.4 At first glance, this seems odd — how does this survey perspective aid imagined travel experiences, when human beings generally experience travel through a horizontal route-based perspective? The answer, in all too-human fashion, has to do with time.

Matthew Paris’ itinerary map. The physical action of unfolding the tabs on this map may have helped monks immerse themselves in the imaginative travel experience. British Library Royal MS 14 C VII, f.4r.

Spatial cognitive researchers theorize that human beings initially conceive of new environments horizontally, using route-based perception; in recall, first-time travelers imagine themselves at the center of their memories, with the environment situated around them. Over time, however, we restructure this mental image, creating survey knowledge of a location — in other words, the more time we spend in a location, the more we’re able to imagine from a bird’s-eye view. The map of Matthew Paris, as a tool for imaginative travel, reflects this cognitive restructuring. If the point of a pilgrimage is to allow a traveler to truly immerse themselves in the historical life of Christ in the world that he knew, then an imaginative traveler needed to experience the world as Christ did: through a complex, survey perspective.

Logan Quigley
Ph.D. Student
University of Notre Dame

1. Nancy Easterlin, “Cognitive Ecocriticism: Human Wayfinding, Sociality, and Literary Interpretation,” Introduction to Cognitive Cultural Studies, ed. Lisa Zunshine (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 2010).

2. Kathryn M. Rudy, Virtual Pilgrimages in the Convent: Imagining Jerusalem in the Late Middle Ages (Turnhout: Brepols Publishers, 2011).

3. Daniel K. Connolly, “Imagined Pilgrimage in the Itinerary Maps of Matthew Paris,” Art Bulletin (81:4), 598.
Ehrenschwendtner, Marie-Luise. “Virtual Pilgrimages? Enclosure and the Practice of Piety at St. Katherine’s Convent, Augsburg.”…

4. Montello, et. al. “Real Environments, Virtual Environments, maps.” Human Spatial Memory, 261.