The Medieval Review 10.09.07

Hobbins, Daniel. Authorship and Publicity Before Print: Jean Gerson and the Transformation of Late Medieval Learning. Middle Ages Series. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2009. Pp. 320. $49.95 978-0-8122-4155-6. .

Reviewed by:

Michael A. Ryan
Purdue University

Every once in a while, a work of scholarship appears that is simply breathtaking. It is the type of investigation that forces the reader to pause and reflect deeply, often multiple times, over what he or she has just finished reading. It encourages him or her to savor the thesis put forward by the author, to admire how deftly the author weaves said thesis throughout the entirety of the work, and to marvel at the author's masterful marshalling of the evidence at hand to support their argument. Such research ultimately leaves the reader wanting to read further and Daniel Hobbins' monograph, Authorship and Publicity Before Print: Jean Gerson and the Transformation of Late Medieval Learning, is a prime example of just this type of scholarship.

Hobbins' name may already be familiar to medievalists. Of his many works perhaps his best known one, "The Schoolman as Public Intellectual: Jean Gerson and the Late Medieval Tract," published by the American Historical Review in 2003, established Hobbins' reputation early as one of the foremost scholars of the later Middle Ages. At the center of much of Hobbins' scholarship, and of this particular book, stands the figure of Jean Gerson (b. 1369-d. 1429), one of the most important figures of the later Middle Ages. Beginning his career as an influential preacher, by 1391 Gerson circulated within the court of Charles VI of France and tackled what he saw as the most pressing issues of the day; that same year, he exhorted the French sovereign to resolve the crisis engendered by the Great Western Schism. A student of Pierre d'Ailly, Gerson would eventually rise to become chancellor of Notre Dame and take a commanding role within the intellectual center of medieval Europe. Although Gerson briefly abandoned that academic position in 1400, he nevertheless soon returned and increased his literary output significantly. By 1414, and the beginning of the Council of Constance, Gerson's many writings already cemented his reputation as a premier theological authority. As a result he was able to use the international platform provided by Constance to preach sermons to denounce the Czech reformer, Jan Hus, as well as to argue for the establishment of conciliar theory as the superior mode of governance over clerical matters. Despite his successes at Constance, things rapidly turned dire for Gerson, as the Anglo-Burgundian massacres that took place in Paris in 1418 forced him to seek refuge as an exile. He moved to Lyon, where his brother, Jean the Celestine, resided, and there wrote ceaselessly for the French royal cause. The victory of Joan of Arc at the siege of Orléans in 1429, and her support of the dauphin Charles encouraged Gerson so much that that he threw his support, and the full weight of his authorial prowess, behind Joan, and died only a couple of months after Joan's military triumph. By the time of his death, Gerson was widely recognized as one of the most respected, and influential, theological authorities of the day.

Yet Hobbins does not provide a mere scholarly biography of Gerson. Instead, Hobbins uses the figure of Gerson and his life, his career, his massive body of written works and, crucially, Gerson's own understanding of his role as a writer, publisher, and an ecclesiastical authority, as a locus for a much larger and impressive analysis of changing patterns in reading, writing, and the consumption of the written word in the fifteenth century. In understanding the nuances surrounding Gerson and his centrality to late medieval culture, an individual who stood at "the intersection of nearly every major intellectual, spiritual, and social current of the time" (5), Hobbins argues that modern scholars are better able to understand a vital intellectual and social development of the later Middle Ages, one that would have profound ramifications on larger patterns of European thought and culture in the early modern era and beyond. For Hobbins, Gerson's "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" (1), provides a vitally important focus for late medieval culture, and one that had been relatively understudied.

Gerson's impact upon late medieval culture can hardly be overstated. Using the tract, a new genre of writing that permitted the author to write and disseminate rapidly about a topic of his choosing to a large audience, Gerson offered his theological opinion on many issues of the day, including practices that were widespread among members of all levels of medieval society. Frequently these were quite controversial and they included, among others, the place of astrology and magic within society, claims for the discernment of spirits, the veneration of particular saints' cults, and the support of the doctrine of the Immaculate Conception. More than any other contemporary author, Gerson used the genre of the tract to weigh in on these topics and to ensure that his message would find wider ground, making him, in Hobbins' words, a "schoolman as 'public intellectual'" (129).

In addition to his being a relevant author whose opinions granted him significant authority in subsequent writers' works, Gerson was prolific and penned more than five hundred pieces. Indeed, one of the biggest obstacles in studying Gerson is grappling with the sheer volume of his literary output. Over the course of thirteen years, for example, Palémon Glorieux compiled and published Gerson's 540 writings in a collection that spans eleven volumes. Although it is nigh impossible to have familiarity with every single one of those writings, Hobbins nevertheless displays an impressive and masterful grasp of many of Gerson's writings and deftly uses his sermons (both Latin and vernacular), epistles, tracts, and even some of his lesser known literary works, such as his poetry, to understand better Gerson's broad place within fifteenth-century culture.

Hobbins' monograph serves, in some ways, as a response to Elizabeth Eisenstein's 1979 work, The Printing Press as an Agent of Change. For Hobbins, the time of writing and publishing before the arrival of the printing press in the fifteenth century merits closer analysis, as only by investigating that era can scholars have a greater understanding of, and appreciation for, the changes wrought by the arrival of print. Hobbins thus depicts Gerson as a singularly unique individual who both represents this important transitional period and foreshadows the changes that were to be wrought with the arrival of printing, an argument that he develops over the course of seven chapters. In chapter one, Hobbins investigates Gerson's role as a connoisseur of books and argues that he read books in a markedly different way than his contemporaries. For Hobbins, Gerson endorsed particular books and authors to form a particular late medieval literary canon. This canon, in Gerson's estimation, was part of a much longer literary tradition that was, at its heart, "a collection of writings rather than arguments" (21), one that would ensure the transmission and reception of what Gerson believed constituted correct and safe theological principles. In chapter two, Hobbins tackles the issue of Gerson's new reckoning of both his position as an author and his indebtedness to older theological authorities. By focusing on some of Gerson's lesser-known written works, Hobbins positions Gerson as both a new type of author and publisher. In order to address what he saw as the pressing theological needs of his day, Gerson "diagnoses new moral diseases in the same way that the medical master diagnoses physical diseases" (53). For Gerson, the old speculative methods of the canon lawyers and the quodlibets used by the theologians of earlier generations were no longer practical for the changing times in which he dwelled. Instead, Gerson would see the new genre of the tract as the most useful vehicle for spreading his arguments. In his third chapter, Hobbins develops the theme of Gerson as a unique type of author by investigating his later works, some of which he composed while in exile at Lyon. One distinctive work that Hobbins studies is Gerson's poetic Josephina, an epic about the Holy Family that comes close to three thousand lines, and which Hobbins uses to support his argument that Gerson was a different type of schoolman, one who appreciated and used poetry in the service of theology (93).

From studying the methods and ways Gerson justified authorship in general, Hobbins moves, in chapter four, to Gerson's approach to the act of writing itself. For the theologian, a growing awareness of a larger audience of readers encouraged him to place stronger emphasis on the rhetorical styles and literary expressions that authors were to use in their craft. Although Gerson was fascinated with the logic used by earlier schoolmen he used new organizational devices for his writing, streamlined his prose by stepping away from the traditional act of heaping scholarly authorities en masse, and fashioned the end purpose of his writings as if they represented a quest for truth, thus defining him against the style and methods used by earlier clerical authors. Chapter five, which originally appeared as the aforementioned article in the American Historical Review, focuses on Gerson's use of the tract, which Hobbins calls "the most important genre to appear in this later period" (136), and its advantage of speed, to construct himself and emerge as the first medieval public intellectual.

Hobbins' final chapters focus on the world of publishing and circulating texts. In chapter six, he focuses on Gerson's decision to write for larger audiences. Gerson took an active role in the composition and preparation, as well as the reading and revision, of his work, demonstrated best in his 1429 tract on Joan of Arc, On the Feat of the Maid and the Trust That Should Be Placed in Her. In this late medieval world of authorship, both the author and the reader alike had active roles in shaping the text that was to be circulated. The seventh, and final, chapter fixes on three distribution circles that helped Gerson's writings gain wide circulation and reception: the Council of Constance (1414-1418) at which Gerson had been present; the network of Carthusian religious houses, an order that achieved a reputation for being closely linked with book production and collection, as well as those Celestine houses that were allied with the Carthusian distribution network; and the Council of Basel (1432-1443), which began two years after Gerson's death, distributed all sorts of late medieval texts, and permitted collectors to group Gerson's works "into single volumes and to gather them into institutional libraries" (203).

Although Hobbins' work is impressive and inspiring, it is not without its flaws. As Jean Gerson prized clarity and exactitude in writing and in establishing definitions (44 and 123), I found it strange when Hobbins did not follow that law to the letter, as in his appellation of the late medieval Catalan mystic, Ramon Llull (who is omitted from the index), as "Spanish" (47). Iberian would have been better, Mallorquí more so. This may seem a quibble to some, but it strikes me as illustrative of a larger issue surrounding Hobbins' investigation of Mediterranean matters and his claim that Gerson's writings did not resonate within the Mediterranean basin (or in England). Hobbins seems to give the Mediterranean short shrift and instead focuses the bulk of his scholarly energies on France and Central Europe. He argues that the uneven distribution and reception of Gerson's works were due to the inherent imbalances surrounding the medieval book trade, book production, and a growing sense of regionalism. Yet more investigation is certainly warranted. It would be interesting, for instance, to understand the thoughts of Mediterranean prelates, whom Hobbins recognizes attended both the great ecumenical councils of Constance and Basel (214), and how they reacted exactly to Gerson's various theological positions. Hobbins' book should thus encourage scholars to study exactly why these Iberian and Italian intellectuals rejected Gerson's messages, and to see if they were, as Hobbins suggests, perhaps more influenced and inspired by humanist currents.

My criticisms, however, do not diminish the overall excellence and importance of Daniel Hobbins' work. He has written a book that is simply extraordinary and a most welcome addition to the bibliography of late medieval cultural and intellectual history. In his opening sentence, Hobbins writes "Centuries from now, historians of the written word will surely describe this present age as a moment of transition" (xi). I predict that scholars of the history of the book and of authorship, of the reception of the written and published word and of patterns of reading consumption, and, of course, of Jean Gerson himself, will find Hobbins' investigation required reading. And although those particular scholars will consider his work most germane, Hobbins has written a book that merits, and certainly will achieve, wider circulation within, and create a larger impact upon, the broader community of medievalists. I would go so far as to say that scholars of the medieval and early modern past will be reading, reacting, and responding to Hobbins' thoroughly researched, brilliantly organized, beautifully written, and compellingly argued study certainly for years, and perhaps even decades, to come.