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 suffered a great famine of worthy and eloquent historians and poets.'' Distinguished by its warriors and its wise men, France has yet lacked writers to record their accomplishments. What gave such fame to Greece, Rome, and Troy, even in ruin, if not the eloquence of their writers? Even as their walls crumbled, these cities escaped oblivion through the power of writing: ''So writings live and endure longer than cities.''2 Gilbert Ouy has pointed to the key word in this passage: ''hitherto'' (hactenus). As if to say, the famine will end as I and others at the University of Paris bring glory to France through our writings.3 ''Long consideration of these matters,'' Gerson continues, ''has moved me to write as truly as possible for the cause of faith that the University of Paris pursues now and of old.''4
Ouy has seen this text—a tract against the Dominican Juan de Monzon on the Immaculate Conception—as evidence for the early humanist spirit in France.5 I would like to reorient the discussion toward the real subject of the passage: writing, with its power to foil oblivion and to preserve truth for future ages. This point is so crucial that I could reduce the primary argument of this book to one sentence: the best way to understand Gerson within the context of late medieval culture is to focus on his conviction that the day's pressing need was for people who were self-conscious about the task of writing and skilled in putting it to good use.
Scholars do not usually describe the schoolmen in such terms. Converging on the thirteenth century, they privilege intellectual categories: modes of analysis and logical abstractions in the service of a grand metaphysical program of reconciling authorities. What does any of this have to do with good writing? Alain Boureau recently asked if one can even speak of ''scholastic authors.''6 Schoolmen such as Thomas Aquinas, Bonaventure, John Duns Scotus, and William of Ockham may have been authors in the sense that they possessed authority and were known and recognized. But if authorship means more than this, something like individual creation and ownership of texts, then perhaps authorship is not the right word for their activity. When Alexander of Hales died in 1245 leaving unfinished his great summa, the Franciscans commissioned a group of theologians to complete it.7 Likewise, when Aquinas died in 1274 leaving unfinished works, the Dominicans patched them up with fragments of odd treatises and even memories of his teaching. The true author, says Boureau, is not the person who died in 1274 but the ''mind of Thomas'' that inspired these works and their continuations.8
The opening passage of Gerson's tract communicates a very different sense of authorship from what we see in these examples. Gerson associates authorship with history and poetry, strange pursuits for a schoolman, yet undertaken in the service of something more familiar, ''the cause of faith'' at Paris. He stresses the need for eloquence in this cause. He imagines writings that outlast empires and bring glory to their native lands. The grave threat is oblivion. France's accomplishments were forgotten because no one wrote them down. Eloquent writing can and will endure; it has permanence (duratio); it is ''longer-lived'' (longaevior) than cities. We see here a longing for literary fame that has no dependence upon print.9
These comments mark the beginning of a theme that preoccupied Gerson throughout his career. He talked constantly about writing: whether or not to write, the guilt he felt about writing, books that he had written or would write, how to write clearly and how not to, why to write at all. He talked about other authors and their books—stirring books that he had read in a single day, ''altogether lovely'' books, dangerous and harmful books, books both beautiful and dangerous. And then there is reading: he taught theology students how to read, deplored contemporary reading habits, and compiled reading lists. We can add publishing: he carefully considered the best way to deliver texts to entire categories of people and took advantage of large gatherings to distribute his works. With all this talk about writing and books and reading, no wonder that he wrote the first independent work on scribal practice, In Praise of Scribes of Healthy Doctrine.10 No books without copyists!
We can begin by acknowledging this much as a point of departure: Gerson occupies a more complicated historical space than thirteenth century schoolmen. His leading role in the great issues of his time once led E' tienne Delaruelle to call this period ''the century of Gerson''; Gerson was a ''mirror of his time.''11 Delaruelle staked his claim on Gerson's wide interests as a theologian. The claim must now go further. Gerson mirrors his world in many ways that Delaruelle did not investigate, and each one requires demonstration. Scholarship on Gerson has become a minor industry. We now have recent studies on many different aspects of his activity and his literary corpus, and Brian Patrick McGuire has provided a helpful biography that combs through much of the literature and organizes the many details of his life around his reforming efforts.12 Close studies of texts and manuscripts remain essential to moving the field forward. At the same time, such studies tend to look more inside Gerson than outside at the world around him and cannot demonstrate his broad representative value for an understanding of late medieval culture— which is indeed the larger, secondary argument of this book.
Yet an overview of his career shows that Gerson offers nothing less. Born in 1363 in the region of Champagne to a family of modest means, he was granted a fellowship at the College of Navarre, where humanist learning in some form had taken root. He gained early fame as a preacher. By at least 1391, at the age of twenty-seven, he was preaching at court before Charles VI, the year before the king's descent into madness. Gerson's sermons surpassed mere rhetorical display meant to gratify a royal audience and instead tackled the great public issues of the day. In his first published sermon, in January 1391, he called on the king to take a role in ending the Great Schism.13 For the generation of theologians following the Black Death, the Schism presented the most intractable and pressing problem of the age. Gerson preached and wrote frequently on the subject. When opportunities arose, he cajoled and bullied kings, emperors, and popes to end the breach. He could also sway large crowds. Continuing a tradition going back to the thirteenth century, he preached at Paris churches to ordinary citizens.14 Sensing that earlier schoolmen had overlooked this important audience, he battered down the wall of prejudice that kept university masters from writing original works in the vernacular.15