12.04.08, Coolman, The Theology of Hugh of St. Victor

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Björn Gebert Anette Löffler

The Medieval Review 12.04.08

Coolman, Boyd Taylor. The Theology of Hugh of St. Victor: An Interpretation. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2010. Pp. x, 247. ISBN: 978-0-521-88625-3.

Reviewed by:
Björn Anette Gebert
Sankt Georgen Graduate School of Philosophy and Theology
Sankt Georgen Graduate School of Philosophy and Theology

Hugh of St. Victor (ca. 1096-1141) is, along with Peter Abelard, Peter Lombard and others, certainly one of the most significant and influential authors of the twelfth century, and his work De sacramentis christiane fidei is frequently considered to be an early theological summa. [1] A rich manuscript tradition of Hugh's numerous works has inspired a huge amount of scholarly publications. But, of course, there are some desiderata, some gaps to fill. One of those, as Boyd Taylor Coolman points out (5), is the exploration of the theme of reform in Hugh's theology, although this topic seems to be a matter of course, for Hugh was a canon regular of St. Victor in Paris, one of the centres of the reform of canons in the eleventh and twelfth centuries. It is the author's goal to remedy this situation. He argues that "in crucial, under-appreciated ways, Hugh's is a theology of 'reformation'" (29).

The book is divided into three parts with three chapters each, accompanied by an introduction and a conclusion and supplemented by a (surprisingly) short bibliography and an index. Coolman first outlines his program and describes the situation in twelfth-century Paris, the contemporary political and religious context in which Hugh writes. He identifies reformare as a "leitmotif running through Hugh's oeuvre" (11) and at the end of the introduction (1-29) states that the Victorine understands reformatio as "the work of restoration [of the forma lost in the Fall]" and also as a reformatio in melius with the rational creature exceeding the original form once given to it at Creation (28).

"Formation in Wisdom" is the title of the first part of the book. The first chapter (33-46) deals mainly with Hugh's conception of Genesis. According to Coolman, Hugh interprets Creation as formatio, a process accomplished by God "through the very Forma of divine Wisdom, the second Person of the Trinity," and as Formata as well as Formosa in the result (46). The subject of the second chapter (47-59) is the rational creation in particular. Coolman emphasizes that after the "first perfection" in which man was created "in the image and likeness of God," (50) a continuing active human formation in melius was intended for the rational creature to become a "dwelling place of God" (58-59). But impatience and greed caused the Fall--the topic of the third chapter (60-78)--with the result that the rational creature had to face the consequences of its original sin: ignorance and disintegration, a corruption of the body and a malformation of the soul (68-69, 76). Alienated from God, unsusceptible to divine indwelling, deformed, the sinful soul must first recognize its disorder and then reform itself, which can only be achieved by a "re-formation in wisdom" (77-79), the topic of the second part of Coolman's book.

Arguing in his fourth chapter (83-102) that Christ is "the Form of Wisdom," Wisdom Himself through which God acted in the Creation and, with Hugh's "sapiential conception of the divine nature" (85), Coolman can point out that the necessary reformation of the soul is actually "Christification" (84). Therefore Christ is, according to the author, "the formal/structural center of salvation history," (93) as well as of the soul, being a mirror of that history (98). So Coolman sees Hugh combining salvation with reformation and Christ emerges as the foundation of this reform (102). In Chapters Five (103-123) and Six (124-137) the author demonstrates that Hugh interprets Scripture and the church as mutually related derivates from Christ and therefore as incorporated actualities in the work of restoration (102). In doing so, Coolman describes and emphasizes the Victorine's architectural take on both. According to him the author states that the ecclesial edifice has its parallels "in the individual psyche as well as the corporate ecclesial body" (110) and he addresses the "scriptural edifice [as a] structure that the exegete replicates within himself" (135). So, Coolman concludes, exegesis can become a practice of reformation. This subject comprises the third part of his book.

Reformation is a co-operative act accomplished by God and man together and thus different from Creation where God acts on His own (141-142). For Hugh, again using an architectural metaphor, the rational creature constructs a home for God within his soul. This can be achieved by three practices: memoria, meditatio, and moralia (145-146). In Chapter Seven (148-162) Coolman first shows with Mary Carruthers that for Hugh memory is the deeper meaning of lectio; reading in the narrower sense is just the beginning since understanding and memorization have to follow (148-149). After demonstrating that Hugh links memory to the historical/literal sense of Scripture and after describing his strategies for memorization, "reading-for-memory" emerges as the foundation and the first practice of reformation (152-162). Meditative allegoresis, the topic of Chapter Eight (163-191), is next. Hugh's concept of meditation is especially evident in his work De archa Noe, according to Coolman, who observes three different kinds: meditation on created things in and of themselves, on the divine nature and beauty reflected within the created things, and on morals. The aim of meditatio is to recover intimate, contemplative knowledge of God, in order to remedy the alienation from Him due to the Fall. Strongly linked to the tropological sense of Scripture, the cultivation of morals is the third and final practice of reformation (Chapter Nine, 192-224). When Coolman points out that Hugh prefers justice to lore, he emphasizes the high value of morals for the Victorine (192-193). Referring particularly to Hugh's understanding of morals, compared to the modern meaning, the author describes this as a disciplined and virtuous way of life. He notes that both moral scientia from exposing the tropological sense of Scripture and exterior disciplina by learning, imitating and practicing good behaviour "facilitate the formation of interior bonitas, goodness within the soul" (204). Virtuous and beautified, the human soul recovers its lost integrity and corrects its deformation (210-219). It is now ready to become a dwelling place for God and the rational creature is capable of the ultimate practice: contemplatio (223-4). Concluding his study, Coolman sums up Hugh's opus restaurationis and the character of his "theology of reformation" by marking differences between Hugh and Augustine or (pseudo)-Dionysius. He emphasizes that the meaning of reform was not a simple return to the forma lost in the Fall; the work of restoration is, for Hugh, a reformatio in melius.

The author succeeds. Through his analysis of Hugh's works Coolman demonstrates clearly the importance of reform in Hugh's thinking and the notion of a "reform for the better." Yet there are a few things to note. Within Coolman's extensive introduction, an irritating inaccuracy occurs. In equating canons regular with "Augustinian canons" (8)--the second term should not be used for the Middle Ages without great care anyway-- he disregards that communities of regular canons did not necessarily follow the rule of St. Augustine from their beginnings. It is not until 1125, several years after Hugh joined St. Victor in Paris, that the observance of the rule in the abbey can be proved. [2] Furthermore, Coolman observes a number of architectural analogies in Hugh's works, but this is not an entirely new discovery. Already in 1994 Rainer Berndt pointed out that architectural metaphors can be found in numerous theological writings of the Middle Ages and goes into detail regarding authors from Hugh of St. Victor to Thomas Aquinas. [3] Finally, it seems a bit astonishing that, in an analysis of Hugh's concept of Creation (Chapter One) Coolman refers only two times to Hugh's Notulae in Genesim, part of the Adnotatiunculae elucidatoriae in Pentateuchum. He actually seems to ignore a couple of Hugh's genuine and probably genuine works. [4] Moreover, he disregards important secondary works on the writings of the Victorine. [5] These omissions might confuse the reader of a book entitled "The Theology of Hugh of St. Victor." So, when Coolman states in his introduction that he is not attempting to write a comprehensive overview of Hugh's theology, why does his study bear that misleading title? But given the works of Hugh analyzed in this study, the argument of the author is convincing. The present study can thus be strongly recommended.



1. For the most recent critical edition, see Hugonis de Sancto Victore De sacramentis Christiane fidei, ed. Rainer Berndt, Corpus Victorinum, Textus historici 1 (Aschendorff, 2008).

2. See the following confirmation charter by Pope Honorius II: Ad hoc universalis, in Papsturkunden in Frankreich. N. F. Bd. 8. Diözese Paris I. Urkunden und Briefsammlungen der Abteien Sainte-Geneviève und Saint-Victor, ed. Dietrich Lohrmann (Göttingen, 1989), p. 145, no. 3. Cf. Rainer Berndt, "Scriptura sacra magistra fidei: Zur Augustinus-Rezeption und der Einführung der vita regularis in Sankt Viktor zu Paris," in Regula Sancti Augustini: Normative Grundlage differenter Verbände im Mittelalter, ed. Gert Melville and Anne Müller, Publikationen der Akademie der Augustiner-Chorherren von Windesheim 3 (Paring, 2002), pp. 105-125, at pp. 114-116.

3. Cf. Rainer Berndt, "La Thologie comme système du monde: Sur l'volution de la structure des sommes de thologie de Hugues de Saint-Victor saint Thomas," Revue des sciences philosophiques et thologiques 78 (1994): 555-572.

4. For example, Epitome Dindimi in philosophiam, Adnotatiunculae elucidatoriae in librum Iudicum, Adnotatiuncula una in librum Ruth, Adnotatiunculae elucidatoriae in quosdam psalmos David, Institutiones in Decalogum legis dominicae, Super orationem dominicam, De Trinitate et de reparatione hominis, Confessio ad abbatem.

5. Most important among them is probably Rudolf Goy, Die überlieferung der Werke Hugos von St. Viktor: Ein Beitrag zur Kommunikationsgeschichte des Mittelalters Monographien zur Geschichte des Mittelalters 14 (Stuttgart, 1976).

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Author Biographies

Björn Gebert

Sankt Georgen Graduate School of Philosophy and Theology

Anette Löffler

Sankt Georgen Graduate School of Philosophy and Theology