Main Page | See live article | Alphabetical index

John Gerson

John Gerson (December 14, 1363 - July 12, 1429), otherwise Jean Charlier de Gerson, 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.

His parents, Arnulph Charlier and Elizabeth de la Chardeniêre, "a second Monica," were pious peasants, and seven of their twelve children, four daughters and three sons, devoted themselves to a religious life. Young Gerson was sent to Paris to the famous college of Navarre when fourteen years of age. After a five years' course he obtained the degree of licentiate of arts, and then began his theological studies under two very celebrated teachers, Gilles des Champs (Aegidius Campensis) and Pierre d'Ailly (Petrus de Alliaco), rector of the college of Navarre, chancellor of the university, and afterwards bishop of Puy, archbishop of Cambrai and cardinal. Pierre d'Ailly remained his life-long friend, and in later life the pupil seems to have become the teacher (see preface to Liber de vita Spir. Animae).

Table of contents
1 Gerson and the University of Paris
2 Gerson's writings
3 Gerson and the Great Schism
4 Retirement
5 References

Gerson and the University of Paris

Gerson very soon attracted the notice of the university. He was elected procurator for the French 'nation' (the French-born Francophone students at the University) in 1383, and again in 1384, in which year he graduated bachelor of theology. Three years later a still higher honour was bestowed upon him; he was sent along with the chancellor and others to represent the university in a case of appeal taken to the pope. John of Montson (Monzon de Montesono), an Aragonese Dominican who had recently graduated as doctor of theology at Paris, had in 1387 been condemned by the faculty of theology because he had taught that the Virgin Mary, like other ordinary descendants of Adam, was born in original sin; and the Dominicans, who were fierce opponents of the doctrine of the immaculate conception, were expelled the university.

John of Montson appealed to Pope Clement VII at Avignon, and Pierre d'Ailly, Gerson and the other university delegates, while they personally supported the doctrine of the immaculate conception, were content to rest their case upon. the legal rights of the university to test in its own way its theological teachers. Gerson's biographers have compared his journey to Avignon with Luther's visit to Rome. It is certain that from this time onwards he was zealous in his endeavours to spiritualize the universities, to reform the morals of the clergy, and to put an end to the schism which then divided the church.

In 1392 Gerson became doctor of theology; and in 1395, when Pierre d'Ailly was made bishop of Puy, he was, at the early age of thirty-two, elected chancellor of the university of Paris, and made a canon of Notre Dame. The university was then at the height of its fame, and its chancellor was necessarily a man prominent not only in France but in Europe, sworn to maintain the rights of his university against both king and pope, and entrusted with the conduct and studies of a vast crowd of students attracted from almost every country in Europe. Gerson's writings bear witness to his deep sense of the responsibilities, anxieties and troubles of his position. He was all his days a man of letters, and an analysis of his writings is his best biography. His work has three periods, in which he was engaged in reforming the university studies, maturing plans for overcoming the schism (a task which after 1404 absorbed all his energies), and in the evening of his life writing books of devotion.

Gerson's writings

Gerson wished to banish scholastic subtleties from the studies of the university, and at the same time to put some evangelical warmth into them. He was called at this period of his life Doctor Christianissimus; later his devotional works brought him the title Doctor Consolatorius. His plan was to make theology plain and simple by founding it on the philosophical principles of nominalism. His method was a clear exposition of the principles of theology where clearness was possible, with a due recognition of the place of mystery in the Christian system of doctrine. Like the great nominalist William of Occam, he saved himself from rationalism by laying hold on mysticism--the Christian mysticism of the school of Saint Victor. He thought that in this way he would equally guard against the folly of the old scholasticism, and the seductions of such Averroistic pantheism as was preached by heretics like Amalric of Bena. His plans for the reformation of university studies may be learned from his Tractatus de examinatione doctrinarum (Opp. i. 7), Epistolae de reform. theol. (i. I 21), Epistolae ad studentes Coligii Navarrae, quid et qualiter studere debeal novus ideologiae auditor, et contra curiositatem studentium (i. 106), and Lectiones duae contra vanam curiositatem in negotiocidei (i. 86). The study of the Bible and of the fathers was to supersede the idle questions of the schools, and in his Tract. contra romantiam de rosa (iii. 297) he warns young men against the evil consequences of romance-reading. He was oftentimes weary of the chancellorship--it involved him in strife and in money difficulties; he grew tired of public life, and longed for learned leisure. To obtain it he accepted the deanery of Bruges from the duke of Burgundy, but after a short sojourn he returned to Paris and to the chancellorship.

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, Pope 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.


On returning to France he went to Lyons, where his brother was prior of the Celestines. It is said that he taught a school of boys and girls in Lyons, and that the only fee he exacted was to make the children promise to repeat the prayer, "Lord, have mercy on thy poor servant Gerson." His later years were spent in writing books of mystical devotion and hymns. He died at Lyons on the 12th of July 1429. Tradition declares that during his sojourn there he translated or adapted from the Latin a work upon eternal consolation, which afterwards became very famous under the title of The Imitation of Christ, and was attributed to Thomas à Kempis. It has, however, been proved beyond a doubt that the famous Imitatio Christi was really written by Thomas, and not by John Gerson or the abbot Gerson.


The literature on Gerson is very abundant. See Dupin, Gersoniana, including Vita Gersoni, prefixed to the edition of Gerson's works in 5 vols. fol., from which quotations have here been made; Charles Schmidt, Essai sur Jean Gerson, chancelier de l'Université de Paris (Strassburg, 1839); JB Schwab, Johannes Gerson (Wurzburg, 1859); H Jadart, Jean Gerson, son origine, son village natal et sa familie (Reims, 1882). On the relations between Gerson and D'Ailly see Paul Tschackert, Peter von Ailli (Gotha, 1877). On Gerson's public life see also histories of the councils of Pisa and constance, especially Hermann von der Hardt, Con. Constantiensis libn IC. (1695?1699). The best editions of his works are those of Paris (3 vols., 1606) and Antwerp (5 you., 1706). See also Ulysse Chevalier, Repertoire des sources hist., Bio-bibliographie (Paris, 1905, etc.), s.v. Gerson."

This entry was originally from the 1911 Encyclopedia Britannica.