The surname being the name of his native place; b. in the hamlet of Gerson 14 December, 1363; d. at Lyons, 12 July, 1429. The hamlet of Gerson has disappeared, but it was then a dependency of the village of Barby not far from Bethel, in the Diocese of Reims, and now included in the department of Ardennes.
His father, Arnauld, and his mother, Elizabeth La Chardenière, were noted for their integrity and piety. They had twelve children, of whom Jean was the eldest. He attended the schools of Bethel and Reims and at the age of fourteen entered the famous Collège de Navarre at Paris, where he formed a life-long friendship with the rector, the illustrious Pierre d'Ailly of Compiègne. In 1381 Gerson obtained the degree of licentiate of arts under Maître Jean Loutrier; in 1388 he received that of Baccalarius Biblicus; in 1390 he lectured on the "Sententiæ", and in 1392 became a licentiate of theology. He was raised to the doctorate of theology in 1394, being then thirty-one years of age (cf. Denifle, Chartul. Univers. Paris, III). Before receiving the doctorate he had written several works. In 1387 he preached before Pope Clement VII of Avignon with a view to calling forth the condemnation of Jean de Monteson, a Dominican, who had denied the Immaculate Conception of the Blessed Virgin, and shortly afterwards he delivered a panegyric on St. Louis, King of France, thus making his debut in the oratorical career that was destined to become so brilliant.
Although Gerson had won the doctorate only a year before his former teacher, Pierre d'Ailly, was named Bishop of Puy (1395), Benedict XIII chose him to succeed d'Ailly in the important position of Chancellor of Notre-Dame and of the university (13 April). Thenceforth he was actively interested in the extirpation of the schism which, for seventeen years, had divided the Church into two hostile parties that were numerically almost equal. The friend of peace and union, he always expressed a sober and moderate opinion in regard to both the Pope of Rome and the Pope of Avignon, and on all occasions showed a strong repugnance to the violent proceedings extolled by certain members of the university (Noël Valois, III, 71, 180). Appointed dean of the church of Saint Donatien at Bruges, Gerson remained there four years (1397-1401). It was at this period that he wrote the treatise, strongly theological and sober in tone, entitled: "Sententia de mode se habendi tempore schismatis" (Schwab, Johannes Gerson, Professor der Theologie und Kanzler der Universität Paris, 97, 152). He had not voted to withdraw obedience from the Pope of Avignon, for whom, in the beginning, France had declared herself (1398). He was one of the first to show that Benedict should be considered neither a heretic nor a schismatic, and that it was in no wise proper to introduce, on this plea, an action against him (Opp. Gersonii, II, ed. 1706, passim). Accordingly, he energetically demanded the restoration of obedience, that is to say, the cessation of that abnormal state that constituted a schism within a schism, but this conciliatory attitude, so conformable to his character, incurred much hatred. On 18 November, 1403, he was made curé of Saint-Jean-en-Grève at Paris, accepting the charge in addition to the office of chancellor; this favour was granted by Pope Benedict in recognition of Gerson's fidelity to him during his four years of enforced sojourn in his fortress at Avignon. The chancellor freely and openly rejoiced at the pontiff's release and the university selected him to congratulate Benedict at Marseilles. But this harmony was not to last. The university, again dissatisfied with Benedict, wished to renew the withdrawal of obedience that had so poorly succeeded the first time. D'Ailly and Gerson tried to oppose the movement both before and during the Council of Paris in 1406, and strove to urge upon their colleagues the necessity of more moderate proceedings. After long and animated discussion, they partially succeeded in obtaining that the withdrawal of obedience adopted by the members of the assembly was brought within certain limits (cf. L. Salembier, "Le grand schisme d'Occident", 221).
D'Ailly and Gerson also formed a part of the solemn embassy sent to Benedict in 1407 and tried to prevail upon the pope to resign the papacy by a formal Bull; but the pontiff refused. Thereupon some of the delegates wished openly to break with him, but here again d'Ailly and Gerson caused more peaceable sentiments to triumph and laboured to retard the total rupture (L. Salembier, op. cit., 229). During the following year Gerson attended the Council of Reims and delivered the opening discourse. That same year, because of his efforts at reconciliation, d'Ailly aroused the indignation of the members of the university incensed against Benedict. The king espoused their quarrel and wished to have the bishop of Cambrai arrested; at this juncture Clémanges and Gerson, his ever- faithful pupils, wrote him touching letters of condolence [L. Salembier, "Petrus de Alliaco" (1887), 75; Opp. Gersonii, III, 429]. Gerson himself was soon to become acquainted with human vicissitudes and to be persecuted for another reason. On 23 November, 1407, the Duke of Orléans was assassinated in one of the streets of Paris by the cowardly hirelings of the Duke of Burgundy. With singular audacity, the Duke of Burgundy, John the Fearless (Jean sans Peur), assumed the responsibility of the deed, pleaded his own cause before King Charles VI and chose as his defending counsel, Jean Petit (8 March, 1408) who dared openly to profess the immoral theory of tyrannicide. The chancellor deemed it his duty to bring this doctrine before the Bishop of Paris and the professors of theology. The doctors first condemned seven, then nine of Jean Petit's propositions as erroneous and scandalous and these were thrown into the fire. Later, in the Council of Constance, Gerson again denounced the articles incriminated (June, 1415), and repeated the denunciation seven times within fifteen days. The Fathers passed sentence on this point (6 July), by condemning tyrannicide in a general way without, however, mentioning the name of the powerful Duke of Burgundy; this half-measure satisfied neither Gerson nor the Armagnacs who were at the council. The chancellor addressed the assemblage in the name of the King of France, 5 May, 1416, and eloquently protested against the too moderate and indefinite sentence aimed at John the Fearless ("Opp. Gersonii", II, 328; V, 353, 355, 362 sq.; Labbe and Mansi, XXVII, 728 sqq., Schwab, op. cit., 609). Gerson had attended neither the Council of Pisa (1409), nor the Council of Rome (1412-13), but he had highly approved of both. His part in the Council of Constance was, however, an important one. He arrived at Constance, 21 February, 1415, with a delegation from the University of Paris. It is not necessary to enter here into the details of the trial of John Hus (Schwab, op. cit., 540-609), of the condemnation of the Flagellants ("Opp. Gersonii", II, 658, 660), of Gerson's differences with the English, nor of his doctrinal strife (1418) with Matthew Grabon, that great enemy of new religious orders ("Opp. Gersonii", I, 467). Mention will be made later of his attitude towards the three popes who then disputed the tiara, and of the theories that he set forth in the council in order to bring about the suppression of the schism.
It was above all his struggles against John the Fearless that brought Gerson into unmerited disgrace. In Paris the Duke of Burgundy had before this provoked a riotous disturbance against him; his house had been plundered and he had only escaped assassination by taking refuge for two months up under the vaulted roofs of Notre-Dame. After the Council of Constance, whilst the pope, the emperor, and the fathers were returning with all due pomp to their respective countries (1418), Gerson learned that John the Fearless had sworn his destruction and that the "nation of Picardy" in the university had demanded that he be disclaimed, recalled, and punished atrociter ("Opp. Gersonii", V, 374; Denifle, "Chartul.", etc., IV, 300; Max Lenz, "Revue historique", IX, 470). To prevent his persecutor from having an opportunity to destroy him he left Constance, 15 May, 1418, and with André and Cresio, who had acted as his secretaries at the council, he took the road to exile. He retired to the Benedictine Abbey of Melk (Mölk) in Germany, the abbot of which he had known at Constance. The Archduke Frederick wished to gain him for the University of Vienna, and Gerson repaired thither but did not remain. Finally in November, 1419, the chancellor learned of the death of his sworn enemy, John the Fearless, who, by order of the Dauphin, had been slain on the bridge of the town of Montereau. Gerson at once set out for France but did not return to Pariis, which was torn by factions and was still in the hands of the Burgundians. He directed his steps towards Lyons, called thither by his brother who was prior of the Celestines and by the archbishop, Amédée de Talaru (Schwab, op. cit., 767 sqq.). Here he spent his last years in exercises of devotion and in performing his priestly functions. He also while at Lyons wrote various works, some of edification, some on mystical or pastoral theology, one especially being his well-known treatise: "De parvulis ad Christum trahendis". Combining example with precept, he loved to surround himself with little children in the church of Saint-Paul and delighted to teach them the elements of Christian doctrine. These ten years were the sweetest of his militant life, and the regrets of all good men followed him to the grave. Miracles were attributed to him and at least five martylrologies give him the title of Blessed. Over fifty particular councils and many ecclesiastical writers recommend to pastors "this great, pious and learned doctor, this ardent lover of souls, this incomparable director, this model of ministers of the Gospel". Statues have been raised to his memory at Paris and Lyons; in the church of the Sorbonne his picture is the companion to that of Bossuet.
Views as to the constitution of the Church: Council of Constance
It is well known that what the theologians of the early part of the fourteenth century lacked most, was a fixed doctrine on what theologians today call the Traité de l'Église. Gallicanism was born of the false principles, or rather of the temporary expedients believed to be a necessity amid the unfortunate events of the Great Schism. Extenuating circumstances can be pleaded in Gerson's favour. He had been instructed by men who were none too stable, and had made a close study of William of Occam, the most evil genius of the fourteenth century. As we have seen, Gerson was generally more sensible and moderate in practice than in theory. Besides, it is now proved that several treatises, sometimes made the basis of an attack on his theological doctrine, were not his at all ("De modis uniendi; octo conclusiones quarum dogmatizatio utilis videtur ad exterminationem moderni schismatis; Sermo factus in die Ascensionis", 1409, etc.). In fact his Protestant or Gallican editors, von der Hardt, Richer, and Ellies-Dupin, have done his memory poor service by exaggerating or envenoming some of his propositions. It is but too true that in regard to the pope and the council, the chancellor maintained erroneous theories which were censurable and later condemned. In his opinion the sovereign pontiff is not the universal bishop possessing immediate power over all the faithful; his power is only subjective and executive ("Opp. Gersonii", II, 259, 279). Far from being infallible, he can even sometimes fall into heresy, in which event, if he still remain pope, the faithful are empowered to bind him, imprison him and even throw him into the sea (Ibid., 221; Noël Valois, IV, 84). Gerson's doctrine concerning the general council is no sounder. He admits the superiority of the Church and the æcumenical council over the pope, as he sees no other means of emerging from schism and returning to unity. With him temporary expedients become principles. It is what might be called ecclesiastical opportunism. Gerson is exclusively rational and practical, and the object of all his argumentation is the justification of the most extraordinary methods of procedure in order to attain the final result desired by him and by all Christendom. Hence, according to him, the sovereign pontiff is amenable to the council which may correct and even depose him ("Opp. Gersonii", II, 201).
Regarding the convocation and composition of this assembly he declares, with d'Ailly, that the first four æcumenical councils were not convened by the authority of the pope and that not only cardinals, but princes, and in fact any Christian, can convoke a council for the election of a single and universally acknowledged pope ("De auferibilitate papæ", in Opp. Gersonii, II, 209 sqq.). He also maintains that pastors may be summoned to such an assembly and may have a deliberate voice as well as bishops ("De potestate ecclesiastica", in ibid., II, 249). None of the faithful should be excluded (ibid., II, 205). In all of these propositions is seen, as it were, a reflection of the extreme theses of the revolutionary Franciscan, William of Occam. Moreover, Gerson's attitude in the Council of Constance was in conformity with his principles. With the delegates from the University of Paris, he demanded that all three popes immediately tender their resignation (Feb., 1415). A convinced partisan of the superiority of doctors over bishops, he insisted, like d'Ailly, that the doctors of canon and even of civil law should have a voice in the deliberations of the council. This was in consequence of his democratic tendencies (cf. Salembier, Le grand schisme, 212, 299). He exalted to excess the omnipotence of the general council and pursued Pope John XXIII with unflagging energy (Schwab, op. cit., 507; von der Hardt, II, 265). He voted for the four famous articles of Constance (March 1415) which are the code of Gallicanism and pave the way for all the schismatic decisions of the assembly of 1682. Besides, he bodily maintained that these revolutionary principles were dogmas and wanted them carved on the stone of all the churches (Opp. Gersonii, II, 275). However in 1416 he was obliged to admit with sadness that voices were still raised in denial of the superiority of the council over the popes. Gerson attributed this "condemnable" obstinancy to the necessity of sycophancy, calling it "a deadly poison with which the organism of the Church is impregnated to the very marrow" (Ibid, II, 247). It is because of these openly erroneous principles that Gerson, like d'Ailly, his master, passed for a precursor of the Protestant Reformation. It is also for this reason that Protestant writers, such as A. Jepp and Winklemann, in Germany, and de Bonnechose, in France, compared him to Wyclif and John Hus. What has gone before, however, proves that these comparisons do Gerson injustice.
Gerson's mystical theology and oratory
Gerson's mystical theology has its own peculiar and original character; it is that of an eminent and almost impeccable master. First of all he distinguishes it from scientific theology which is abstract and discursive. His mysticism in its essence is an experimental knowledge of God which, by love, one perceives in himself. If the inferior powers remain in darkness, the superior faculties, the intellect, and especially pure love, have the freer play, and therefore constitute a sublime state of transport which surpasses all theoretical learning. This theology does not require great scientific attainments, it is within the reach of the most simple. Moreover, through close union with God, it gives us perfect contentment of soul with the entire and definitive appeasement of our desires (cf. Schwab, op. cit., 325; Ellies- Dupin, "Opp. Gersonii", I, clv). Gerson further distinguishes a practical part in his mystical theology and lays down the conditions and means (industriæ) preparatory to contemplation. These industriæ are as follows: (1) to await the call of God; (2) to know well one's own temperament; (3) to be heedful of one's vocation and one's state; (4) to aim constantly towards greater perfection; (5) to avoid as much as possible a multiplicity of occupations and, in any event, not to become absorbed in them; (6) to set aside all vain desire for learning, i.e. all idle curiosity; (7) to remain calm and practise patience; (8) to know the origin of the affections and passions; (9) to choose the necessary time and place; (10) to avoid extremes, either of abstinence or excess, in sleeping and eating; (11) to indulge in thoughts that excite pious affections; (12) to banish from one's mind all images, which is preëminently modus simplificandi cor in meditationibus and producendi contemplationem. Gerson's many treatises are in Vol. III of his works. He was one of the first to recognize and proclaim the supernatural vocation of Joan of Arc. He laboured diligently to promote devotion to the Blessed Virgin and St. Joseph and even dedicated to this saint a poem of 4600 lines entitled "Josephina". He was not the author of the "Imitation of Jesus Christ", and the reasons for this adverse opinion advanced by Rosweyde, Amort, Malou, Funk and Vacandard, seem convincing.
He was one of the most eminent orators of his time and preached frequently, either in French or Latin, before the university, at court, in the principal churches of the capital or in his parish of Saint-Jean-en-Grève. It was in this parish that he preached the most of his sermons in French; these discourses, sixty-four in number, have been specially studied by the Abbé Bournet, later Bishop of Rodez and cardinal. In plan these instructions are almost the same as modern sermons but Gerson's learning is often deficient in taste and judgment, and he makes sometimes too pompous a display of incongruous quotations. From the point of view of doctrine he treats, for the greater part, ethical subjects and inveighs against intemperance and the dissoluteness of morals. He labours mainly for reform within, frequently exhorts to penance, and threatens his flock with the judgments of God, but does not leave them without words of hope and consolation. His style is far from uniform and differs according to his hearers. Cold and accurate in the setting forth of dogma, he most frequently stirs the passions and resorts largely to allegory and word-painting; his language, although having all the piquancy, naïveté, and originality of the old French chronicles, is always dignified and becoming.
Gerson's works were published directly after the introduction of printing, first at Cologne in 1483 (4 vols. in fol., for details consult Schwab, op. cit. ad finem). Both French editions, the one by Richer (Paris, 1635, 4 vols.), the other by Ellies-Dupin (Antwerp, or rather Amsterdam, 1703, 5 vols. in fol.) were prepared under the influence of Gallican ideas and with a view to religious polemics. They were hastily and confusedly compiled without any great care and contain serious defects. However, the one by Ellies-Dupin is fairly complete and the first four volumes embody over 400 of Gerson's treatises. The references to Gerson's works in this article are to this edition.