In all that time (from the fall of Rome to the Renaissance) nothing of real consequence had either improved or declined. Except for the invention of waterwheels in the 800s and windmills in the late 1100s, there had been no inventions of significance. No startling new ideas had appeared, no new territories outside Europe had been explored. Everything was it had been for as long as the oldest European could remember. The center of the Ptolemaic universe was the known world – Europe, with the Holy Land and North Africa on its fringes. The sun moved round it every day. Heaven was above the immovable earth, somewhere in the overarching sky; hell seethed far beneath their feet. Kings ruld at the pleasure of the Almighty; all others did what they were told to do. Jesus, the son of God, had been crucified and resurrected, and his reappearance was imminent, or at any rate inevitable. Every human being adored him (the Jews and the Muslims being invisible). During the 1,436 years since the death of Saint Peter the Apostle, 211 popes had succeeded him, all chosen by God and all infallible. The Church was indivisible, the afterlife a certainty; all knowledge was already known. And nothing would ever change. – William Manchester, A World Lit Only By Fire: The Medieval Mind And The Renaissance, Portrait Of An Age, pp. 26-27
Our question (The Shape Of Late Medieval Thought) assumes that it is possible to trace the shape of late medieval thought. One should be skeptical vis-a-vis such a claim. If we have learned one thing in the last twenty years of research, then it is to enlarge our awareness of geographical and sociological as well as religious diversification. This lesson is clearly reflected in the trend away from pan-European and national to regional and local history. Granted that the shape of late medieval thought is an abstraction for the purpose of communication, with this expression we have, nevertheless, a very concrete goal in main: namely, to present it as the common field of all those are involved in the pursuit of the late medieval history of ideas, be it through medieval scholastic, Renaissance, or Reformation research. . . . [T]he establishment of such a tripartite approach allows for – and de facto encourages – a priori assumptions of differences which obscure and preclude a wholesome vision of the whole period in its common features, . . . – Heiko Oberman, “The Shape of Late Medieval Thought”, in The Dawn Of The Reformation, p. 20.
The focus of this study, however, is on the treatise De consolatione theologia as a watershed marking a new departure from [Jean Gerson’s] earlier, and a decisive pointer toward his later, writings. By focusing upon this text in particular and subjecting this treatise to a detailed, critical reading, we begin to perceive a quite difference Gerson than previous studies have disclosed: doctor consolatorius, as he came to be called later in his century, offers a view of consolation and a revised model of the covenant which become the very foundation of his larger program of reform, ecclesiastical and theological, a “patient” reform as we shall suggest which Gerson roots within the Dionysian structure and dynamics of his ecclesiology. . . . Mark Burrows, Jean Gerson and De consolatione theologiae: The Consolation of a Biblical and Reforming Theology For A Disordered Age, pp. 27-28.
Most people, asked their thoughts on that period known as “the later middle ages” would, had they opinion at all, would most likely venture something along the lines of William Manchester’s description quoted above. What’s interesting about that description, coming as it does from a popular historian and biographer, is not only how cartoonish it is, but how wrong. Like all times in human history, the period from the mid-14th to mid-16th centuries was not an intellectual or political or historical desert, filled by nameless, egoless (one of Manchester’s earlier claims, that people had no concept of “the individual”, thus no sense of themselves, their worth, their place in society, or any of the other things the contemporary word “ego” designates, is as ahistorical as it is nonsensical) persons going about their round of days as had their ancestors. Kings and queens and popes and teachers of theology and explorers and geographers and astronomers were ciphers, adding nothing to the common human stock of understanding our world or ruling it – justly or not – with either cruelty or gentleness, wisdom or folly, as leaders had always done. The specifics of any particular time matter far less than the contours of “an age”, a term favored by biased, lazy researchers and proponents of the superiority of our later, allegedly more enlightened, “age”.
To focus upon a singular work of a figure like Jean Gerson, whose literary output was immense, varied, yet always focused upon the pastoral and ecclesiastical demands of his time, brings to light the hollowness of such a view. To take just one example, the waning of the 100 Years War brought along in its train not only the rise of France as a more unified nation, but created the first truly powerful kingdom in what was then “Christendom” (not “Europe”, yet another ahistorical word offered by Manchester). France’s power became the bane of the Church of Rome, much to the chagrin of France’s most brilliant, prolific, and embattled teacher, writer, and defender of the faith. Following the Council of Constance Gerson found himself on the wrong side of a political battle between the Houses of Orleans and Burgundy, contending for the rule of the Kingdom. Yet he did so less out of loyalty to either House than what he viewed as the heretical defense of the murder of the Duke of Orleans by Jean Petit. His failure to secure a condemnation of Petit’s writings at the Council of Constance resulted in Gerson abdicating his chair as Rector of the University of Paris, remaining in exile in Constance until late in his life.
It is the mixed success and failure Gerson experienced in the midst of and immediately following the Council of Constance that prompted him to write De consolatione theologiae. Part of Burrows’ thesis, that both the form and content of Gerson’s work demonstrate a major shift within Gerson’s own thought, come back to what Burrows himself, earlier in the Introduction, refers to as Gerson’s “depressed” state of mind. Burrows also offers the tantalizing thesis that, like Boethius, whose Consolatione philosophia Gerson follows in spirit, was the result of what the author clearly believed would be his final writing.
It is more, however, than the pivotal place this work has within Gerson’s large and well-thumbed library. Burrows’ main thesis regarding major shifts not only in emphasis but philosophical and theological method and outlook undergirds a literature review that lays heavy emphasis upon those who study Gerson’s early and mid-career, both as theologian and later as Rector of the University of Paris. While these earlier studies looked principally either at Gerson The Mystic or Gerson The Nominalist, Burrows cautions against relying on too-simplistic understandings of either word to describe what Burrows understands to be Gerson’s emphasis upon the pastoral nature of theology. That is to say neither mysticism nor what Burrows calls “Ockhamism” rather than “nominalism” are important for Gerson in and for themselves. Rather, whether as teacher, administrator, controversialist, conciliar theologian, or after, theology of any and all sorts should be subject to the demands of the pastoral role of theology.
All the same, the most decisive shift for Burrows is one away from the regnant Ockhamist nominalism for one that is similar to Ockham’s earlier confrere, John Duns Scotus. While both men emphasized both God’s freedom vis-a-vis creation, leading Oberman in his essay quoted above, to offer “contingency” as one of the main themes of late-medieval thought, a theme bringing in its train insecurity about the nature and place of the human being and Church within the created order. Unlike Ockham, however, Scotus placed far greater emphasis upon the convenantal nature of the Divine-Human relationship, said covenant offering a far firmer foundation than what had become the absolute freedom of the divine, rooted in a relentless defense of God’s power. This later development removed any sense of necessity from either the incarnation or the later birth and growth of the Church. In Scotus, at least, the Divine prerogative includes the freedom precisely to join with humanity for the sake of the latter’s salvation to the greater glory of God.
The author, Mark Burrows, was my professor of Church History I and leader of a seminar on Pauline Exegesis in Crisis: Reading Romans from St. John Chrysostom and Augustine to the Reformers. Brilliant, kind, gentle, funny, and encouraging as a teacher, in this a modification of his doctoral dissertation at Princeton University I hope to learn much not only about Gerson and his times. I also hope to come to understand a way of finding hope in times that, while less disordered than Gerson’s, certainly do not lack in the need for a sense of consolation in the midst of controversy.
Our own historical moment is a time of unrest as we watch the waning of an overarching Christian culture even as the tattered remnants battle for some kind of intellectual dominance in the face of its own increasing irrelevance. My own beloved United Methodist Church, rending itself asunder due to too-simplistic and often ahistorical and wrong-headed notions of the nature of theology and doctrine, is in dire need of words of comfort, words that demonstrate the ongoing power for peace and solace inherent in a theology oriented as it always should be to the pastoral office of the Church. Spawning our own schismatic “movement”, the Wesleyan Covenant Association, we are desperate for someone firm and thorough and unceasing who offers a view of the necessary unity of the Church and its mission and ministry that is rooted in the wandering nature toward God that is the Christian life, individual and corporate. One could do worse than spend some time considering Gerson’s own sense of “consolatione theologiae” precisely at a time when the latter word has become increasingly meaningless.