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Authorship and Publicity Before Print

Jean Gerson and the Transformation of Late Medieval Learning

By Daniel Hobbins

Publication Year: 2011

Widely recognized by contemporaries as the most powerful theologian of his generation, Jean Gerson (1363-1429) dominated the stage of western Europe during a time of plague, fratricidal war, and religious schism. Yet modern scholarship has struggled to define Gerson's place in history, even as it searches for a compelling narrative to tell the story of his era.

Daniel Hobbins argues for a new understanding of Gerson as a man of letters actively managing the publication of his works in a period of rapid expansion in written culture. More broadly, Hobbins casts Gerson as a mirror of the complex cultural and intellectual shifts of the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries. In contrast to earlier theologians, Gerson took a more humanist approach to reading and to authorship. He distributed his works, both Latin and French, to a more diverse medieval public. And he succeeded in reaching a truly international audience of readers within his lifetime. Through such efforts, Gerson effectively embodies the aspirations of a generation of writers and intellectuals. Removed from the narrow confines of late scholastic theology and placed into a broad interdisciplinary context, his writings open a window onto the fascinating landscape of fifteenth-century Europe.

The picture of late medieval culture that emerges from this study is neither a specter of decaying scholasticism nor a triumphalist narrative of budding humanism and reform. Instead, Hobbins describes a period of creative and dynamic growth, when new attitudes toward writing and debate demanded and eventually produced new technologies of the written word.

Published by: University of Pennsylvania Press

Front Matter

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pp. vii-viii

List of Illustrations and Maps

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pp. ix-x

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pp. xi-xii

Centuries from now, historians of the written word will surely describe this present age as a moment of transition. Not twenty years into the Virtual Age, and Americans are reading fewer books. Some doomsayers announced the end of the printed book prematurely, but does anyone doubt that the world of books...

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pp. 1-17

In the prologue of a treatise written in 1389, Jean Gerson makes a surprising admission. Years earlier, Petrarch had boasted that ‘‘no one looks beyond Italy for orators and poets.’’1 His taunt deeply embarrassed French humanists. Gerson simply agrees with Petrarch. ‘‘France,’’ he writes in the first sentence, ‘‘has hitherto...

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1. Gerson as Bookman: Prescribing "the Common School of Theological Truth"

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pp. 18-50

In 1426 a Carthusian monk named Michael Hartrut wrote Gerson asking for advice about books.1 It was just the kind of question Gerson liked, and he replied with On Books a Monk Should Read. At the work’s close he speaks adoringly of Bonaventure’s Breviloquium and Journey of the Mind to God (Itinerarium mentis ad Deum): ‘‘I confess...

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2. Justifying Authorship: New Diseases and New Cures

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pp. 51-71

In May 1423, Jean the Celestine wrote a letter to a Carthusian monk named Ambrose who had asked for copies of Gerson’s works. Though the request was friendly, something in it struck a nerve. Jean quickly assured Ambrose that his brother never wrote willingly. Asked to write...

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3. A Tour of Medieval Authorship: Late Works and Poetry

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pp. 72-101

In 1423, a Carthusian monk asked Gerson if it was permissible to copy books without charge on feast days. Gerson replied with his tract In Praise of Scribes of Healthy Doctrine. As the title suggests, he set out to defend copying. But before long he had turned to a theme just beneath the surface of this entire work...

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4. Literary Expression: Logic, Rhetoric, and Scholarly Vice

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pp. 102-127

I have already emphasized Gerson’s praise for earlier schoolmen in this key passage. Unifying theological language, they wrote the rulebook and set the stage for the modern possession of theology, the safe, secure world where all terms are defined, all questions answered. Reading carefully, one detects another sentiment...

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5. The Schoolman as Public Intellectual: Implications of the Late Medieval Tract

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pp. 128-151

A few weeks before Gerson began to pour out his soul to the College of Navarre, he wrote a letter to his master, Pierre d’Ailly (1 April 1400). Still recovering from sickness, he spoke of all that was wrong with the theology students of his day. At the letter’s close, he appended a list of remedies. One demands our particular...

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6. Publishing Before Print (1): A Series of Publishing Moments

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pp. 152-182

In January 1417 at the Council of Constance, Gerson preached a sermon in which he mentioned a ‘‘recently composed’’ tract that would soon be published.1 He was referring to one of the most important statements of conciliar theory ever produced, On Ecclesiastical Power and the Origin of Laws, which appeared the following...

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7. Publishing Before Print (2): From Coterie Readership to Massive Market

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pp. 183-216

When Étienne Delaruelle described the fifteenth century as ‘‘the century of Gerson,’’ he was effectively summarizing claims that could be found in a century of scholarship. Recent studies have detected Gerson’s long reach in spheres never before imagined. A mystery long surrounded the sixth tapestry of the...

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pp. 217-218

In this book we have seen a series of developments and shifts that distinguish Gerson from his thirteenth-century predecessors. The dramatic convergence of these shifts in the period under study here fully justifies the designation of a new historical space. We have seen a new space in the history of reading, a schoolman...

List of Abbreviations

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pp. 219-220

Appendix: Gerson Manuscripts in Carthusian and Celestine Monasteries

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pp. 221-225


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pp. 227-291

Selected Bibliography

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pp. 293-311

Index of Manuscripts

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pp. 313-316

Index of Works by Gerson

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pp. 317-320

General Index

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pp. 321-332

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pp. 333-335

This book concerns authorship and the material conditions within which it occurs. Many individuals and institutions have generously supported my own authorship, and it is a pleasure to be able to thank them for helping to make this book possible. Among the many research librarians who have assisted me, I should mention...

E-ISBN-13: 9780812202298
Print-ISBN-13: 9780812241556

Page Count: 352
Publication Year: 2011