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Jean Gerson

From Academic Kids

Jean Charlier de Gerson (December 14, 1363July 12, 1429), French scholar and divine, chancellor of the university of Paris, and the ruling spirit in the ecumenical councils of Pisa and Constance, was born at the village of Gerson, in the bishopric of Reims in Champagne.

Gerson and the Great Schism

Gerson's chief work was what he did to the great schism. Gregory XI had died in 1378, one year after Gerson went to the college of Navarre, and since his death the church had had two popes, which to the medieval mind meant two churches and a divided Christ. The schism had practically been brought about by France. The popes had been under French influence so long that it appeared to France a political necessity to have her own pope, and pious Frenchmen felt themselves somewhat responsible for the sins and scandals of the schism. Hence the melancholy piety of Gerson, Pierre d'Ailly and their companions, and the energy with which they strove to bring the schism to an end. During the lifetime of Clement VII. the university of Paris, led by Pierre d'AiIly, Gerson and Nicolas of Clamenges, met in deliberation about the state of Christendom, and resolved that the schism could be ended in three ways,--by cession, if both popes renounced the tiara unconditionally, by arbitration or by a general council. Clement died. The king of France, urged by the university, sent orders that no new pope should be elected. The cardinals first elected, and then opened the letter. In the new elections, however, both at Rome and Avignon, the influence of Paris was so much felt that each of the new popes swore to cede if his rival would do so also.

Meanwhile in 1395 the national assembly of France and the French clergy adopted the programme of the university--cession or a general council. The movement gathered strength. In 1398 most of the cardinals and most of the crowned heads in Europe had given their adhesion to the plan. During this period Gerson's literary activity was untiring, and the throb of public expectancy, of hope and fear, is revealed in his multitude of pamphlets. At first there were hopes of a settlement by way of cession. These come out in Protest. super statuni ecclesiae (ii. I), Tract. de mode kabendi Se tempore schismatis, De schismate, etc. But soon the conduct of the popes made Europe impatient, and the desire for a general council grew strong--see De concilio generali unius obedientiae (ii. 24). The council was resolved upon. It was to meet at Pisa, and Gerson poured forth tract after tract for its guidance.

The most important are--Trilogus in materia scijismatis (ii. 83), and De unitate Ecclesiae (ii. 113), in which, following Pierre d'Ailly (see Tschackert's Peter v. Ailli, p. 153), Gerson demonstrates that the ideal unity of the church, based upon Christ, destroyed by the popes, can only be restored by a general council, supreme and legitimate, though unsummoned by a pope. The council met, deposed both antipopes, and elected Alexander V. Gerson was chosen to address the new pope on the duties of his office. He did so in his Sermo coram Alexandro Papa in die ascensionis in concilio Pisano (ii. 131). All hopes of reformation, however, were quenched by the conduct of the new pope. He had been a Franciscan, and loved his order above measure. He issued a bull which laid the parish clergy and the universities at the mercy of the mendicants. The great university of Paris rose in revolt, headed by her chancellor, who wrote a fierce pamphlet--Censura professorum in theologia circa izullam Alexandri V (ii. 442).

The pope died soon after, and one of the most profligate men of that time, John XXIII (Baldassare Cossa), was elected his successor. The council of Pisa had not brought peace; it had only added a third pope. Pierre d'Ailly despaired of general councils (see his De difficultate reformationis in concilio universali), but Gerson struggled on. Another matter too had roused him. The feuds between the houses of Orleans and Burgundy had long distracted France. The duke of Orleans had been treacherously murdered by the followers of the duke of Burgundy, and a theologian. Jean Petit (c. 1360-1411), had publicly and unambiguously justified the murder. His eight verities, as he called them--his apologies for the murder--had been, mainly through the influence of Gerson, condemned by the university of Paris, and by the archbishop and grand inquisitor, and his book had been publicly burned before the cathedral of Notre Dame. Gerson wished a council to confirm this sentence. His literary labours were as untiring as ever. He maintained in a series of tracts that a general council could depose a pope; he drew up indictments against the reigning pontiffs, reiterated the charges against Jean Petit, and exposed the sin of schism--in short, he did all he could to direct the public mind towards the evils in the church and the way to heal them.

His efforts were powerfully seconded by the emperor Sigismund, and the result was the council of Constance. Gerson's influence at the council was supreme up to the election of a new pope. It was he who dictated the form of submission and cession made by John XXIII, and directed the process against Huss. Many of Gerson's biographers have found it difficult to reconcile his proceedings against Huss with his own opinions upon the supremacy of the pope; but the difficulty has arisen partly from misunderstanding Gerson's position, partly from supposing him to be the author of a famous tract De modis uniendiae reformandi Ecclesiam in concilio universali. All Gerson's high-sounding phrases about the supremacy of a council were meant to apply to some time of emergency. He was essentially a trimmer, and can scarcely be called a reformer, and he hated Huss with all the hatred the trimmer has of the reformer. The three bold treatises, De necessitate reformationis Ecclesiae, De modis uniendiae reformandi Ecclesiain, and De difficultate reformationis in concilio universali, long ascribed to Gerson, were proved by Schwab in his Johannes Gerson not to be his work, and have since been ascribed to Abbot Andreas of Randuf, and with more reason to Dietrich of Nieheim.

The council of Constance, which revealed the eminence of Gerson, became in the end the cause of his downfall. He was the prosecutor in the case of Jean Petit, and the council, overawed by the duke of Burgundy, would not affirm the censure of the university and archbishop of Paris. Petit's justification of murder was declared to be only a moral and philosophical opinion, not of faith. The utmost length the council would go was to condemn one proposition, and even this censure was annulled by the new pope, Martin V, on a formal pretext. Gerson dared not return to France, where, in the disturbed state of the kingdom, the duke of Burgundy was in power. He lay hid for a time at Constance and then at Rattenberg in Tirol, where he wrote his famous book De consolatione theologiae.


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