Vol. 6, Chapter III (Cont’d) – John Gerson, Theologian and Church Leader


In John Gerson, 1363-1429, we have the most attractive and the most influential theological leader of the first half of the fifteenth century. He was intimately identified with the University of Paris as professor and as its chancellor in the period of its most extensive influence in Europe. His voice carried great weight in the settlement of the questions rising out of the papal schism.

Jean Charlier Gerson, born Dec. 14, 1363, in the village of Gerson, in the diocese of Rheims, was the oldest of twelve children. In a letter to him still extant, his mother, a godly woman, pours out her heart in the prayer that her children may live in unity with each other and with God. Two of John’s brothers became ecclesiastics. In 1377 Gerson went to Paris, entering the College of Navarre. This college was founded by Johanna, queen of Navarre, 1304, who provided for 3 departments, the arts with 20 students, philosophy with 30 and theology with 20 students. Provision was made also for their support, 4 Paris sous weekly for the artists, 6 for the logicians and 8 for the theologians. These allowances were to continue until the graduates held benefices of the value respectively of 30, 40 and 60 pounds. The regulations allowed the theological students a fire, daily, from November to March after dinner and supper for one half-hour. The luxury of benches was forbidden by a commission appointed by Urban V. in 1366. On the festival days, the theologians were expected to deliver a collation to their fellow-students of the three classes. The rector at the head of the college, originally appointed by the faculty of the university, was now appointed by the king’s confessor. The students wore a special dress and the tonsure, spoke Latin amongst themselves and ate in common.

Gerson, perhaps the most distinguished name the University of Paris has on its list of students, was a faithful and enthusiastic son of his alma mater, calling her “his mother,” “the mother of the light of the holy Church,” “the nurse of all that is wise and good in Christendom,” “a prototype of the heavenly Jerusalem,” “the fountain of knowledge, the lamp of our faith, the beauty and ornament of France, yea, of the whole world.”

In 1382, at the age of nineteen, he passed into the theological department, and a year later came under the guidance of D’Ailly, the newly appointed rector, remaining under him for seven years. Gerson was already a marked man, and was chosen in 1383 procurator of the French “nation,” and in 1387 one of the delegation to appear before Clement VII. and argue the case against John of Montson. This Dominican, who had been condemned for denying the immaculate conception of Mary, refused to recant on the plea that in being condemned Thomas Aquinas was condemned, and he appealed to the pope. The University of Paris took up the case, and D’Ailly in two addresses before the papal consistory took the ground that Thomas, though a saint, was not infallible. The case went against De Montson; and the Dominicans, who refused to bow to the decision, left the university and did not return till 1403.

Gerson advocated Mary’s exemption from original as well as actual sin, and made a distinction between her and Christ, Christ being exempt by nature, and Mary — domina nostra — by an act of divine grace. This doctrine, he said, cannot be immediately derived from the Scriptures, but, as the Apostles knew more than the prophets, so the Church teachers know some things the Apostles did not know.

At D’Ailly’s promotion to the episcopate, 1395, his pupil fell heir to both his offices, the offices of professor of theology and chancellor of the university. In the discussion over the healing of the schism in which the university took the leading part, he occupied a place of first prominence, and by tracts, sermons and public memorials directed the opinion of the Church in this pressing matter. The premise from which he started out was that the peace of the Church is an essential condition to the fulfilment of its mission. This view he set forth in a famous sermon, preached in 1404 at Tarascon before Benedict XIII. and the duke of Orleans. Princes and prelates, he declared, both owe obedience to law. The end for which the Church was constituted is the peace and well-being of men. All Church authority is established to subserve the interests of peace. Peace is so great a boon that all should be ready to renounce dignities and position for it. Did not Christ suffer shame? Better for a while to be without a pope than that the Church should observe the canons and not have peace, for there can be salvation where there is no pope. A general council should be convened, and it was pious to believe that in the treatment of the schism it would not err — pium est credere non erraret. As Schwab has said, no one had ever preached in the same way to a pope before. The sermon caused a sensation.

Gerson, though not present at the council of Pisa, contributed to its discussions by his important tracts on the Unity of the Church — De unitate ecclesiastica — and the Removal of a Pope — De auferbilitate papae ab ecclesia. The views set forth were that Christ is the head of the Church, and its monarchical constitution is unchangeable. There must be one pope, not several, and the bishops are not equal in authority with him. As the pope may separate himself from the Church, so the Church may separate itself from the pope. Such action might be required by considerations of self-defence. The papal office is of God, and yet the pope may be deposed even by a council called without his consent. All Church offices and officials exist for the good of the Church, that is, for the sake of peace which comes through the exercise of love. If a pope has a right to defend himself against, say, the charge of unchastity, why should not the Church have a like right to defend itself? A council acts under the immediate authority of Christ and His laws. The council may pronounce against a pope by virtue of the power of the keys which is given not only to one but to the body — unitati. Aristotle declared that the body has the right, if necessary, to depose its prince. So may the council, and whoso rejects a council of the Church rejects God who directs its action. A pope may be deposed for heresy and schism, as, for example, if he did not bend the knee before the sacrament, and he might be deposed when no personal guilt was chargeable against him, as in the case already referred to, when he was a captive of the Saracens and was reported dead.

At the Council of Constance, where Gerson spoke as the delegate of the French king, he advocated these positions again and again with his voice, as in his address March 23, 1415, and in a second address July 21, when he defended the decree which the synod had passed at its fifth session. He reasserted that the pope may be forced to abdicate, that general councils are above the popes and that infallibility only belongs to the Church as a body or its highest representative, a general council.

A blot rests upon Gerson’s name for the active part he took in the condemnation of John Huss. He was not above his age, and using the language of Innocent III. called heresy a cancer. He declares that he was as zealous in the proceedings against Huss and Wyclif as any one could be. He pronounced the nineteen errors drawn from Huss’ work on the Church “notoriously heretical.” Heresy, he declared, if it is obstinate, must be destroyed even by the death of its professors. He denied Huss’ fundamental position that nothing is to be accepted as divine truth which is not found in Scripture. Gerson also condemned the appeal to conscience, explicitly assuming the old position of Church authority and canon law as final. The opinions of an individual, however learned he may be in the Scriptures, have no weight before the judgment of a council.

In the controversy over the withdrawal of the cup from the laity, involved in the Bohemian heresy, Gerson also took an extreme position, defending it by arguments which seem to us altogether unworthy of a genuine theology. In a tract on the subject he declared that, though some passages of Scripture and of the Fathers favored the distribution of both wine and bread, they do not contain a definite command, and in the cases where an explicit command is given it must be understood as applying to the priests who are obliged to commune under both kinds so as to fully represent Christ’s sufferings and death. But this is not required of the laity who commune for the sake of the effect of Christ’s death and not to set it forth. Christ commanded only the Apostles to partake of both kinds. The custom of lay communion was never universal, as is proved by Act_2:42, Act_2:46. The essence of the sacrament of the body and blood is more important than the elements, Joh_6:54. But the whole Christ is in either element, and, if some of the doctors take a different view, the Church’s doctrine is to be followed, and not they. From time immemorial the Church has given the communion only in one form. The Council of Constance was right in deciding that only a single element is necessary to a saving participation in the sacrament. The Church may make changes in the outward observance when the change does not touch the essence of the right in question. The use of the two elements, once profitable, is now unprofitable and heretical.

To these statements Gerson added practical considerations against the distribution of the cup to laymen, such as the danger of spilling the wine, of soiling the vessels from the long beards of laymen, of having the wine turn to vinegar, if it be preserved for the sick and so it cease to be the blood of Christ — et ita desineret esse sanguis Christi — and from the impossibility of consecrating in one vessel enough for 10,000 to 20,000 communicants, as at Easter time may be necessary. Another danger was the encouragement such a practice would give to the notions that priest and layman are equal, and that the chief value of the sacrament lies in the participation and not in the consecration of the elements. Such are some of the “scandals” which this renowned teacher ascribed to the distribution of the cup to the laity.

A subject on which Gerson devoted a great deal of energy for many years was whether the murder of tyrants or of a traitorous vassal is justifiable or not. He advocated the negative side of the case, which he failed to win before the Council of Constance. The question grew out of the treatment of the half-insane French king, Charles VI. (1880-1422), and the attempt of different factions to get control of the government.

On Nov. 28, 1407, the king’s cousin, Louis, duke of Orleans, was murdered at the command of the king’s uncle, John, duke of Burgundy. The duke’s act was defended by the Franciscan and Paris professor, John Petit, — Johannes Parvus, — in an address delivered before the king March 8, 1408. Gerson, who at an earlier time seems to have advocated the murder of tyrants, answered Petit in a public address, and called upon the king to suppress Petit’s nine propositions. The University of Paris made Gerson’s cause its own. Petit died in 1411, but the controversy went on. Petit’s theory was this, that every vassal plotting against his lord is deserving of death in soul and body. He is a tyrant, and according to the laws of nature and God any one has the right to put him out of the way. The higher such a person is in rank, the more meritorious is the deed. He based his argument upon Thomas Aquinas, John of Salisbury, Aristotle, Cicero and other writers, and referred to Moses, Zambri and St. Michael who cast Lucifer out of heaven, and other examples. The duke of Orleans was guilty of treason against the king, and the duke of Burgundy was justified in killing him.

The bishop of Paris, supported by a commission of the Inquisition and at the king’s direction, condemned Petit and his views. In February, 1414, Gerson made a public address defending the condemnation, and two days later articles taken from Petit’s work were burnt in front of Notre Dame. The king ratified the bishop’s judgment, and the duke of Burgundy appealed the case to Rome.

The case was now transferred to the council, which at its fifteenth session, July 6, 1415, passed a compromise measure condemning the doctrine that a tyrant, in the absence of a judicial sentence, may and ought to be put to death by any subject whatever, even by the use of treacherous means, and in the face of an oath without committing perjury. Petit was not mentioned by name. It was this negative and timid action, which led Gerson to say that if Huss had had a defender, he would not have been found guilty. It was rumored that the commission which was appointed to bring in a report, by sixty-one out of eighty votes, decided for the permissibility of Petit’s articles declaring that Peter meant to kill the high priest’s servant, and that, if he had known Judas’ thoughts at the Last Supper, he would have been justified in killing him. The duke of Burgundy’s gold is said to have been freely used. The party led by the bishop of Arras argued that the tyrant who takes the sword is to be punished with the sword. Gerson, who was supported by D’Ailly replied that then the command “thou shalt not kill” would only forbid such an act as murder, if there was coupled with it an inspired gloss, “without judicial authority.” The command means, “thou shalt not kill the innocent, or kill out of revenge.” Gerson pressed the matter for the last time in an address delivered before the council, Jan. 17, 1417, but the council refused to go beyond the decree of the fifteenth session.

The duke of Burgundy got possession of Paris in 1418, and Gerson found the doors of France closed to him. Under the protection of the duke of Bavaria he found refuge at Rattenberg and later in Austria. On the assassination of the duke of Burgundy himself, with the connivance of the dauphin, Sept. 10, 1419, he returned to France, but not to Paris. He went to Lyons, where his brother John was, and spent his last years there in monastic seclusion. The dauphin is said to have granted him 200 livres in 1420 in recognition of his services to the crown.

It remains to speak of Gerson as a theologian, a preacher and a patriot.

In the department of theology proper Gerson has a place among the mystics. Mysticism he defines as “the art of love,” the “perception of God through experience.” Such experience is reached by humility and penance more than through the path of speculation. The contemplative life is most desirable, but, following Christ’s example, contemplation must be combined with action. The contemplation of God consists of knowledge as taught in Joh_17:3, “This is life eternal, to know Thee and Jesus Christ whom Thou hast sent.” Such knowledge is mingled with love. The soul is one with God through love. His mysticism was based, on the one hand, on the study of the Scriptures and, on the other, on the study of Bonaventura and the St. Victors. He wrote a special treatise in praise of Bonaventura and his mystical writings. Far from having any conscious affinity with the German mystics, he wrote against John of Ruysbroeck and Ruysbroeck’s pupil, John of Schoenhofen, charging them with pantheism.

While Gerson emphasized the religious feelings, he was far from being a religious visionary and wrote treatises against the dangers of delusion from dreams and revelations. As coins must be tested by their weight, hardness, color, shape and stamp, so visions are to be tested by the humility and honesty of those who profess to have them and their readiness to teach and be taught. He commended the monk who, when some one offered to show him a figure like Christ, replied, “I do not want to see Christ on the earth. I am contented to wait till I see him in heaven.”

When the negotiations were going on at the Council of Constance for the confirmation of the canonization of St. Brigitta, Gerson laid down the principle that, if visions reveal what is already in the Scriptures, then they are false, for God does not repeat Himself, Job_33:14. People have itching ears for revelations because they do not study the Bible. Later he warned against the revelations of women, as women are more open to deception than men.

The Scriptures, Gerson taught, are the Church’s rule and guide to the end of the world. If a single statement should be proved false, then the whole volume is false, for the Holy Spirit is author of the whole. The letter of the text, however, is not sufficient to determine their meaning, as is proved from the translations of the Waldenses, Beghards and other sectaries. The text needs the authority of the Church, as Augustine indicated when he said, “I would not believe the Gospel if the authority of the Church did not compel me.”

Great as Gerson’s services were in other departments, it was, to follow his sympathetic and scholarly biographer, Schwab, from the pulpit that he exercised most influence on his generation. He preached in French as well as Latin, and his sermons had, for the most part, a practical intent, being occupied with ethical themes such as pride, idleness, anger, the commandments of the Decalogue, the marital state. He held that the ordinary priest should confine himself to a simple explanation of the Decalogue, the greater sins and the articles of faith.

During the last ten years of his life, spent in seclusion at Lyons, he continued his literary activity, writing more particularly in the vein of mystical theology. His last work was on the Canticles.

The tradition runs that the great teacher in his last years conducted a catechetical school for children in St. Paul’s at Lyons, and that he taught them to offer for himself the daily prayer, “God, my creator, have pity upon Thy poor servant, Jean Gerson” — Mon Dieu, mon Createur, ayez pitié de vostre pauvre serviteur, Jean Gerson. It was for young boys and perhaps for boys spending their first years in the university that he wrote his tractate entitled Leading Children to Christ. It opens with an exposition of the words, “Suffer little children to come unto me” and proceeds to show how much more seemly it is to offer to God our best in youth than the dregs of sickly old age. The author takes up the sins children should be admonished to avoid, especially unchastity, and holds up to reprobation the principle that vice is venial if it is kept secret, the principle expressed in the words si non caste tamen caute.

In a threefold work, giving a brief exposition of the Ten Commandments, a statement of the seven mortal sins and some short meditations on death and the way to meet it, Gerson gives a sort of catechism, although it is not thrown into the form of questions and answers. As the author states, it was intended for the benefit of poorly instructed curates who heard confessions, for parents who had children to instruct, for persons not interested in the public services of worship and for those who had the care of the sick in hospitals.

The title, most Christian doctor — doctor christianissimus — given to John Gerson is intended to emphasize the evangelical temper of his teaching. To a clear intellect, he added warm religious fervor. With a love for the Church, which it would be hard to find excelled, he magnified the body of Christian people as possessing the mind and immediate guidance of Christ and threw himself into the advocacy of the principle that the judgment of Christendom, as expressed in a general council, is the final authority of religious matters on the earth.

He opposed some of the superstitions inherited from another time. He emphasized the authority of the sacred text. In these views as in others he was in sympathy with the progressive spirit of his age. But he stopped short of the principles of the Reformers. He knew nothing of the principles of individual sovereignty and the rights of conscience. His thinking moved along churchly lines. He had none of the bold original thought of Wyclif and little of that spirit which sets itself against the current errors of the times in which we live. His vote for Huss’ burning proves sufficiently that the light of the new age had not dawned upon his mind. He was not, like them, a forerunner of the movement of the sixteenth century.

The chief principle for which Gerson contended, the supremacy of general councils, met with defeat soon after the great chancellor’s death, and was set aside by popes and later by the judgment of a general council. His writings, however, which were frequently published remain the chief literary monuments in the department of theology of the first half of the fourteenth century. Separated from the Schoolmen in spirit and method, he stands almost in a class by himself, the most eminent theologian of his century. This judgment is an extension of the judgment of the eminent German abbot and writer, Trithemius, at the close of the fifteenth century: “He was by far the chief divine of his age” Theologorum sui temporis longe princeps.


24. Nicolas of Clamanges, the Moralist

The third of the great luminaries who gave fame to the University of Paris in this period, Nicolas Poillevillain de Clamanges, was born at Clamengis, Champagne, about 1367 and died in Paris about 1437. Shy by nature, he took a less prominent part in the settlement of the great questions of the age than his contemporaries, D’Ailly and Gerson. Like them, he was identified with the discussions called forth by the schism, and is distinguished for the high value he put on the study of the Scriptures and his sharp exposition of the corruption of the clergy. He entered the College of Navarre at twelve, and had D’Ailly and Gerson for his teachers. In theology he did not go beyond the baccalaureate. It is probable he was chosen rector of the university 1393. With Peter of Monsterolio, he was the chief classical scholar of the university and was able to write that in Paris, Virgil, Terence and Cicero were often read in public and in private.

In 1394, Clamanges took a prominent part in preparing the paper, setting forth the conclusions of the university in regard to the healing of the schism. It was addressed to the “most Christian king, Charles VI., most zealous of religious orthodoxy by his daughter, the university.” This, the famous document suggesting the three ways of healing the schism, — by abdication, arbitration and by a general council, — is characterized by firmness and moderation, two of the elements prominent in Clamanges’ character. It pronounced the schism pestiferous, and in answer to the question who would give the council its authority, it answered: “The communion of all the faithful will give it; Christ will give it, who said: ‘Where two or three are gathered together in my name there am I in the midst of them.’”

The Paris professor was one of the men whom the keen-eyed Peter de Luna picked out, and when he was elected pope, Clamanges supported him and wrote appealing to him, as the one who no longer occupied the position of one boatman among others, but stood at the rudder of the ship, to act in the interest of all Christendom. He was called as secretary to the Avignon court, but became weary of the commotion and the vices of the palace and the town. In 1406, he seems to have withdrawn from Benedict at Genoa and retired to Langres, where he held a canon’s stall. He did not, however, break with the pope, and, when Benedict in 1408 issued the bull threatening the French court with excommunication, Clamanges was charged with being its author. He denied the charge, but the accusation of want of patriotism had made a strong impression, and he withdrew to the Carthusian convent, Valprofonds, and later to Fontaine du Bosc. His seclusion he employed in writing letters and treatises and in the study of the Bible which he now expressed regret for having neglected in former years for classical studies.

To D’Ailly he wrote on the advantages of a secluded life. — De fructu eremi. In another tract — De fructu rerum adversarum — he presented the advantages of adversity. One of more importance complained of the abuse of the Lord’s Day and of the multiplication of festivals as taking the workman from his work while the interests of piety were not advanced. In still another tract — De studio theologico — addressed to a theologian at Paris who had inquired whether it was better for him to continue where he was or to retire to a pastorate, he emphasized the importance and delicacy of caring for souls, but advised the inquirer to remain at the university and to concern himself chiefly with the study of the Scriptures. He ascribed the Church’s decline to their neglect, and pronounced the mass, processionals and festivals as of no account unless the heart be purified by faith.

During the sessions of the Council of Constance, which he did not attend, Clamanges sent a letter to that body urging unity of thought and action. He expressed doubt whether general councils were always led by the Holy Spirit. The Church, which he defined as infallible, is only there where the Holy Spirit is, and where the Church is, can be only known to God Himself. In 1425 he returned to Paris and lectured on rhetoric and theology.

Clamanges’ reputation rests chiefly upon his sharp criticism of the corrupt morals of the clergy. His residence in Avignon gave him a good opportunity for observation. His tract on the prelates who were practising simony — De praesulibus simoniacis — is a commentary on the words, “But ye have made it a den of thieves,” Mat_21:13. A second tract on the downfall of the Church — De ruina ecclesiae — is one of the most noted writings of the age. Here are set forth the simony and private vices practised at Avignon where all things holy were prostituted for gold and luxury. Here is described the corruption of the clergy from the pope down to the lowest class of priests. The author found ideal conditions in the first century, when the minds of the clergy were wholly set on heavenly things. With possessions and power came avarice and ambition, pride and luxury. The popes themselves were guilty of pride in exalting their authority above that of the empire and by asserting for themselves the right of appointing all prelates, yea of filling all the benefices of Christendom. The evils arising from annates and expectances surpass the power of statement. The cardinals followed the popes in their greed and pride, single cardinals having as many as 500 livings. In order to perpetuate their “tyranny,” pope and curia had entered into league with princes, which Clamanges pronounces an abominable fornication. Many of the bishops drew large incomes from their sees which they administered through others, never visiting them themselves. Canons and vicars followed the same course and divided their time between idleness and sensual pleasure. The mendicant monks corresponded to the Pharisees of the synagogue. Scarcely one cleric out of a thousand did what his profession demanded. They were steeped in ignorance and given to brawling, drinking, playing with dice and fornication. Priests bought the privilege of keeping concubines. As for the nuns, Clamanges said, he dared not speak of them. Nunneries were not the sanctuaries of God, but shameful brothels of Venus, resorts of unchaste and wanton youth for the sating of their passions, and for a girl to put on the veil was virtually to submit herself to prostitution. The Church was drunken with the lust of power, glory and pleasures. Judgment was sure to come, and men should bow humbly before God who alone could rectify the evils and put an end to the schism. Descriptions such as these must be used with discrimination, and it would be wrong to deduce from them that the entire clerical body was corrupt. The diseases, however, must have been deep-seated to call forth such a lament from a man of Clamanges’ position.

The author did not call to open battle like the German Reformer at a later time, but suggested as a remedy prayers, processions and fasts. His watchword was that the Church must humble itself before it can be rebuilt. It was, however, a bold utterance and forms an important part of that body of literature which so powerfully moulded opinion at the time of the Reformatory councils.

The loud complaints against the state of morals at the papal court and beyond during the Avignon period increased, if possible, in strength during the time of the schism. The list of abuses to be corrected which the Council of Constance issued, Oct. 30, 1417, includes the official offences of the curia, such as reservations, annates, the sale of indulgences and the unrestricted right of appeals to the papal court. The subject of chastity it remained for individual writers to press. In describing the third Babylon, Petrarch was even more severe than Clamanges who wrote of conditions as they existed nearly a century later and accused the papal household of practising adultery, rape and all manners of fornication. Clamanges declared that many parishes insisted upon the priests keeping concubines as a precaution in defence of their own families. Against all canonical rules John XXIII. gave a dispensation to the illegitimate son of Henry IV. of England, who was only ten years old, to enter orders. The case of John XXIII. was an extreme one, but it must be remembered, that in Bologna where he was sent as cardinal-legate, his biographer, Dietrich of Nieheim, says that two hundred matrons and maidens, including some nuns, fell victims to the future pontiff’s amours. Dietrich Vrie in his History of the Council of Constance said: “The supreme pontiffs, as I know, are elected through avarice and simony and likewise the other bishops are ordained for gold. The old proverb; ‘Freely give, for freely ye have received’ is now most vilely perverted and runs ‘Freely I have not received and freely I will not give, for I have bought my bishopric with a great price and must indemnify myself impiously for my outlay.’ … If Simon Magus were now alive he might buy with money not only the Holy Ghost but God the Father and Me, God the Son.” But bad as was the moral condition of the hierarchy and papacy at the time of the schism, it was not so bad as during the last half century of the Middle Ages. The Reformatory councils are the best, though by no means the only, proof that a deep moral vitality existed in the Church. Their very summons and assembling were a protest against clerical corruption and hypocrisy “in head and members,” — from the pope down to the most obscure priest, — and at the same time a most hopeful sign of future betterment.


25. Nicolas of Cusa, Scholar and Churchman

Of the theologians of the generation following Gerson and D’Ailly none occupies a more conspicuous place than the German Nicolas of Cusa, 1401-1464. After taking a prominent part in the Basel council in its earlier history, he went into the service of Eugenius IV. and distinguished himself by practical efforts at Church reform and by writings in theology and other departments of human learning.

Born at Cues near Treves, the son of a boatman, he left the parental home on account of harsh treatment. Coming under the patronage of the count of Manderscheid, he went to Deventer, where he received training in the school conducted by the Brothers of the Common Life. He studied law in Padua, and reached the doctorate, but exchanged law for theology because, to follow the statement of his opponent, George of Heimburg, he had failed in his first case. At Padua he had for one of his teachers Cesarini, afterwards cardinal and a prominent figure in the Council of Basel.

In 1432 he appeared in Basel as the representative of Ulrich of Manderscheid, archbishop-elect of Treves, to advocate Ulrich’s cause against his rivals Rabanus of Helmstatt, bishop of Spires, whom the pope had appointed archbishop of the Treves diocese. Identifying himself closely with the conciliar body, Nicolas had a leading part in the proceedings with the Hussites and went with the majority in advocating the superiority of the council over the pope. His work on Catholic Unity, — De concordantia catholica, — embodying his views on this question and dedicated to the council 1433, followed the earlier treatments of Langenstein, Nieheim and Gerson. A general council, being inspired by the Holy Spirit, speaks truly and infallibly. The Church is the body of the faithful — unitas fidelium — and is represented in a general council. The pope derives his authority from the consent of the Church, a council has power to dethrone him for heresy and other causes and may not be prorogued or adjourned without its own consent. Peter received no more authority from Christ than the other Apostles. Whatever was said to Peter was likewise said to the others. All bishops are of equal authority and dignity, whether their jurisdiction be episcopal, archiepiscopal, patriarchal or papal, just as all presbyters are equal.

In spite of these views, when the question arose as to the place of meeting the Greeks, Nicolas sided with the minority in favor of an Italian city, and was a member of the delegations appointed by the minority which visited Eugenius IV. at Bologna and went to Constantinople. This was in 1437 and from that time forward he was a ready servant of Eugenius and his two successors. Aeneas Sylvius, afterwards Pius II., called him the Hercules of the Eugenians. Aeneas also pronounced him a man notable for learning in all branches of knowledge and on account of his godly life.

Eugenius employed his new supporter as legate to arrange terms of peace with the German Church and princes, an end he saw accomplished in the concordat of Vienna, 1447. He was rewarded by promotion to the college of cardinals, and in 1452 was made bishop of Brixen in the Tyrol. Here he sought to introduce Church reforms, and he travelled as the papal legate in the same interest throughout the larger part of Germany.

By attempting to assert all the mediaeval feoffal rights of his diocese, the bishop came into sharp conflict with Siegmund, duke of Austria. Even the interdict pronounced by two popes did not bring the duke to terms. He declared war against the bishop and, taking him prisoner, forced from him a promise to renounce the old rights which his predecessors for many years had not asserted. Once released, the bishop treated his oath as null, on the ground that it had been forced from him, and in this he was supported by Pius II. In 1460 he went to Rome and died at Todi, Umbria, a few years later.

Nicolas of Cusa knew Greek and Hebrew, and perhaps has claim to being the most universal scholar of Germany up to his day since Albertus Magnus. He was interested in astronomy, mathematics and botany, and, as D’Ailly had done before, he urged, at the Council of Basel, the correction of the calendar. The literary production on which he spent most labor was a discussion of the problems of theology — De docta ignorantia. Here he attacked the scholastic method and showed the influence upon his mind of mysticism, the atmosphere of which he breathed at Deventer. He laid stress upon the limitations of the human mind and the inability of the reason to find out God exhaustively. Faith, which he defined as a state of the soul given of God’s grace, finds out truths the intellect cannot attain to. His views had an influence upon Faber Stapulensis who edited the Cusan’s works and was himself a French forerunner of Luther in the doctrine of justification by faith.

His last labors, in connection with the crusade against the Turks pushed by Pius II., led him to studies in the Koran and the preparation of a tract, — De cribatione Alcoran, — in which he declared that false religions have the true religion as their basis.

It is as an ecclesiastical mediator, and as a reformer of clerical and conventual abuses that the cardinal has his chief place in history. He preached in the vernacular. In Bamberg he secured the prohibition of new brotherhoods, in Magdeburg the condemnation of the sale of indulgences for money. In Salzburg and other places he introduced reforms in convents, and in connection with other members of his family he founded the hospital at Cues with beds for 33 patients. He showed his interest in studies by providing for the training of 20 boys in Deventer. He dwelt upon the rotation of the earth on its axis nearly a century before Copernicus. He gave reasons for regarding the donation of Constantine spurious, and he also called in question the genuineness of other parts of the Isidorian Decretals.

On the other hand, the cardinal was a thorough churchman and obedient child of the Church. As the agent of Nicolas V. he travelled in Germany announcing the indulgence of the Jubilee Year, and through him, it is said, indulgences to the value of 200,000 gulden were sold for the repair of St. Peter’s.

This noble and many-sided man has been coupled together with Gutenberg by Janssen, — the able and learned apologist of the Catholic Church in the closing years of the Middle Ages, — the one as the champion of clerical and Church discipline, the other the inventor of the printing-press. It is no disparagement of the impulses and work of Nicolas to say that he had not the mission of the herald of a new age in thought and religion as it was given to Gutenberg to promote culture and civilization by his invention. He did not possess the gift of moral and doctrinal conviction and foresight which made the monk of Wittenberg the exponent and the herald of a radical, religious reformation whose permanent benefits are borne witness to by a large section of Christendom.


26. Popular Preachers

During the century and a half closing with 1450, there were local groups of preachers as well as isolated pulpit orators who exercised a deep influence upon congregations. The German mystics with Eckart and John Tauler at their head preached in Strassburg, Cologne and along the Rhine. D’Ailly and Gerson stood before select audiences, and give lustre to the French pulpit. Wyclif, at Oxford, and John Huss in Bohemia, attracted great attention by their sermons and brought down upon themselves ecclesiastical condemnation. Huss was one of a number of Bohemian preachers of eminence. Wyclif sought to promote preaching by sending out a special class of men, his “pore preachers.”

The popular preachers constitute another group, though the period does not furnish one who can be brought into comparison with the field-preacher, Berthold of Regensburg, the Whitefield of his century, d. 1272. Among the popular preachers of the time the most famous were Bernardino and John of Capistrano, both Italians, and members of the Observant wing of the Franciscan order, and the Spanish Dominican, Vincent Ferrer. To a later age belong those bright pulpit luminaries, Savonarola of Florence and Geiler of Strassburg.

Bernardino of Siena, 1380-1444, was praised by Pius II. as a second Paul. He made a marked impression upon Italian audiences and was a favorite with pope Martin V. His voice, weak and indistinct at first, was said to have been made strong and clear through the grace of Mary, to whom he turned for help. He was the first vicar-general of the Observants, who numbered only a few congregations in Italy when he joined them, but increased greatly under his administration. In 1424 he was in Rome and, as Infessura the Roman diarist reports, so influenced the people that they brought their games and articles of adornment to the Capitol and made a bonfire of them. Wherever he went to preach, a banner was carried before him containing the monogram of Christ, IHS, with twelve rays centring in the letters. He urged priests to put the monogram on the walls of churches and public buildings, and such a monogram may still be seen on the city building of Siena. The Augustinians and Dominicans and also Poggio attacked him for this practice. In 1427, he appeared in Rome to answer the charges. He was acquitted by Martin V., who gave him permission to preach everywhere, and instructed him to hold an eighty-days’ mission in the papal city itself. In 1419, he appeared in the Lombard cities, where the people were carried away by his exhortations to repentance, and often burned their trinkets and games in the public squares. His body lies in Aquila, and he was canonized by Nicolas V., 1450.

John of Capistrano, 1386-1456, a lawyer, and at an early age intrusted with the administration of Perugia, joined the Observants in 1416 and became a pupil of Bernardino. He made a reputation as an inquisitor in Northern Italy, converting and burning heretics and Jews. No one could have excelled him in the ferocity of his zeal against heresy. His first appointment as inquisitor was made in 1426, and his fourth appointment 23 years later in 1449.

As a leader of his order, he defended Bernardino in 1427, and was made vicar-general in 1443. He extended his preaching to Vienna and far up into Germany, from Nürnberg to Dresden, Leipzig, Magdeburg and Breslau, making everywhere a tremendous sensation. He used the Latin or Italian, which had to be interpreted to his audiences. These are reported to have numbered as many as thirty thousand. He carried relics of Bernardino with him, and through them and his own instrumentality many miracles were said to have been performed. His attendants made a note of the wonderful works on the spot. The spell of his preaching was shown by the burning of pointed shoes, games of cards, dice and other articles of pleasure or vanity. Thousands of heretics are also reported to have yielded to his persuasions. He was called by Pius II. to preach against the Hussites, and later against the Turks. He was present at the siege of Belgrade, and contributed to the successful defence of the city and the defeat of Mohammed II. He was canonized in 1690.

The life of Vincent Ferrer, d. 1419, the greatest of Spanish preachers, fell during the period of the papal schism, and he was intimately identified with the controversies it called forth. His name is also associated with the gift of tongues and with the sect of the Flagellants. This devoted missionary, born in Valencia, joined the Dominican order, and pursued his studies in the universities of Barcelona and Lerida. He won the doctorate of theology by his tract on the Modern Schism in the Church — De moderno ecclesiae schismate. Returning to Valencia, he gained fame as a preacher, and was appointed confessor to the queen of Aragon, Iolanthe, and counsellor to her husband, John I. In 1395, Benedict XIII. called him to be chief penitentiary in Avignon and master of the papal palace. Two years later he returned to Valencia with the title of papal legate. He at first defended the Avignon obedience with great warmth, but later, persuaded that Benedict was not sincere in his professions looking to the healing of the schism, withdrew from him his support and supported the Council of Constance.

Ferrer’s apostolic labors began in 1399. He itinerated through Spain, Northern Italy and France, preaching two and three times a day on the great themes of repentance and the nearness of the judgment. He has the reputation of being the most successful of missionaries among the Jews and Mohammedans. Twenty-five thousand Jews and eight thousand Mohammedans are said to have yielded to his persuasions. Able to speak only Spanish, his sermons, though they were not interpreted, are reported to have been understood in France and Italy. The gift of tongues was ascribed to him by his contemporaries as well as the gift of miracles. Priests and singers accompanied him on his tours, and some of the hymns sung were Vincent’s own compositions. His audiences are given as high as 70,000, an incredible number, and he is said to have preached twenty thousand times. He also preached to the Waldenses in their valleys and to the remnant of the Cathari, and is said to have made numerous converts. He himself was not above the suspicion of heresy, and Eymerich made the charge against him of declaring that Judas Iscariot hanged himself because the people would not permit him to live, and that he found pardon with God. He was canonized by Calixtus III., 1455. The tale is that Ferrer noticed this member of the Borgia family as a young priest in Valencia, and made the prediction that one day he would reach the highest office open to mortal man.

On his itineraries Ferrer was also accompanied by bands of Flagellants. He himself joined in the flagellations, and the scourge with which he scourged himself daily, consisting of six thongs, is said still to be preserved in the Carthusian convent of Catalonia, scala coeli. Both Gerson and D’Ailly attacked Ferrer for his adoption of the Flagellant delusion. In a letter addressed to the Spanish preacher, written during the sessions of the Council of Constance, Gerson took the ground that both the Old Testament and the New Testament forbid violence done to the body, quoting in proof Deu_14:1, “Ye shall not cut yourselves.” He invited him to come to Constance, but the invitation was not accepted.