- Authorship and Publicity before Print: Jean Gerson and the Transformation of Late Medieval Learning
In the last decade, we have witnessed a series of new major publications on Jean Gerson. Patrick Brian McGuire's editorial efforts, such as Jean Gerson: Early Works (1998) and A Companion to Jean Gerson (2006), were accompanied by his own biographical account, Jean Gerson and the Last Medieval Reformation (2005). Marc Vial produced a theological study, Jean Gerson: Théoricien de la théologie mystique (2006). Daniel Hobbins' book, however, is not merely 'another' monograph on Gerson. In fact, it marks a significant departure from the existing scholarship: Hobbins attempts not only to offer a fresh reinterpretation of Gerson as a late medieval intellectual – which alone would have been significant enough – but also to reconstruct the rapidly transforming intellectual landscape in which Gerson lived and worked.
In this context, Gerson is viewed as a 'mirror' of the intellectual and cultural shifts of the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries. Hobbins' aim is to understand Gerson as an author who was 'self-conscious about the task of writing and skilled in putting it to good use' (p. 1). The book is neither a conventional biography nor a study of 'straight' intellectual history. It steers a middle course between conventional intellectual history that highlights intellectual 'giants' and their 'canons', and the social history of ideas and the history of the book that look at the circulation and impact of books and pamphlets written by anonymous or unknown authors as well as famous ones. Hobbins rises to this methodological challenge.
The question underlining this erudite work is: how and why was Gerson enormously successful in reaching a wide international audience? Hobbins begins his enquiry by exploring Gerson's literary motives. In the later Middle Ages, ancient authorities were still embraced, while new works continued to be produced by schoolmen. Living in the growing world of books, Gerson discerned the urgent need to establish the sources of a safe and secure theology, what he called the 'common school of theological truth'. Gerson privileged 'great books' which offered 'a blend of learning and piety'.
Through this endeavour, Hobbins argues, Gerson transformed late medieval learning in many ways. First, he redefined the role of a theologian [End Page 221] as a physician who diagnosed moral diseases, in opposition to the impersonal legalism of the canonists. His desire to safeguard Christian piety and the language by which to verbalize orthodox faith was also accompanied by his extraordinary drive to produce literary works one after another across literary genres ranging from sophisticated theological treatises to poetry. Further, Gerson refashioned contemporary prose: while he remained respectful of the scholastic logical style, he recognized the importance of rhetoric, thus seeking to achieve the readers' understandings as well as their devotional affections.
Unlike those of most schoolmen, Gerson's literary output was appealing to a lay audience because he was conscious of the reading public's needs. Thus he never wrote anything like a summa; instead, he wrote numerous short pieces on specific topics. Gerson's editorial attention to readers' needs allowed him to add colophons, diagrams, headings and subdivisions to the text. As a result, Gerson was no longer a conventional schoolman in the ivory tower; he increasingly emerged as a 'public intellectual'.
Gerson's ambitious undertakings, however, could not materialize unless as many copies as possible of his writings circulated far and wide in Western Europe. 'Publishing' in the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries posed problems unique to the time, such as how to ensure the accuracy and authenticity of copies produced by scribes. Hobbins concludes the book with two extensive chapters dealing with the highly complex questions of book production and distribution. While no 'open market' for books existed, Gerson's massive output was disseminated widely, if not evenly, in Western Europe through what Hobbins calls 'distribution circles' such as the Councils of Constance and Basel...