Hugh of Saint Victor, C.R.S.A. (c. 1096 – 11 February 1141), was a Saxon canon regular and a leading theologian and writer on mystical theology. He was the leader of the great mystical movement of which the School of St. Victor became the centre, and he formulated, as it were, a code of the laws governing the soul’s progress to union with God. The gist of his teaching is that mere knowledge is not an end in itself, it ought to be but the stepping-stone to the mystical life — through thought, meditation, and contemplation. Thought seeks God in the material world, meditation discovers Him within ourselves, contemplation knows Him supernaturally and intuitively. Such are the “three eyes” of the rational soul. Hugh’s mystical teaching was amplified by Richard of St. Victor, whose proud disdain for philosophy has been wrongly attributed to Hugh.
Long before St. Thomas Aquinas described teaching as the “handing on of things contemplated,” Hugh epitomized the ideal. Reflecting deeply on the latest advances in knowledge, he sought their meaning sub specie aeternitatis, on the path to true wisdom. His efforts were still bearing fruit over a century later: St. Bonaventure declared Hugh the master in every area of theology.
As with many medieval figures, little is known about Hugh’s early life. He was probably born in the 1090s. His homeland may have been Lorraine, Ypres in Flanders, or the Duchy of Saxony. Over the protests of his family, he entered the Priory of St. Pancras, a community of canons regular, where he had studied, located at Hamerleve, near Halberstadt. Due to civil unrest shortly after his entry to the priory, Hugh’s uncle, Reinhard of Blankenburg, who was the local bishop, advised him to transfer to the Abbey of Saint Victor in Paris, where he himself had studied theology. He accepted his uncle’s advice and made the move at a date which is unclear, possibly 1115-18 or around 1120. He spent the rest of his life there, advancing to head the school where his uncle had studied.
Paris was already then a center of great activity: it was rapidly becoming the center of an intellectual and cultural revival that would spread across Europe. Scholars rushed to it to study with quick and piercing minds like Abelard’s, even as others were rushing out of it just as quickly to heed the urgent call of monastic reform led by St. Bernard. Hugh’s life at the Abbey of St. Victor was an attempt to reconcile these two great forces: on the one hand, the intellectual energies of students and schools which were soon to coalesce into one of the world’s first universities, and on the other, the spiritual urge to return to the simplicity of the apostolic life in austere Cistercian monasteries and later in the mendicant orders. Hugh took his stand on the outskirts of that rising center of Latin Christendom—in Paris but not of it—and set about building foundations of his own, shaping both minds and hearts.
At St. Victor, both scholastic and monastic theology found a place, both the desire to understand the world and God through reason and theological scrutiny, and the desire to turn inward to experience the deep mysteries of Scripture and prayer. The canons of St. Victor ordered their daily lives around a rule yet were simultaneously dedicated to scholarship, to running a rigorous school both for their novices and for any other student in the city who might choose to attend. For over twenty years Hugh taught at and then governed their school, where many of Europe’s best minds came to learn.
As new translations of ancient works flooded into the city and the boundaries of knowledge expanded, what students learned became increasingly fragmented and channeled into mutually unintelligible specializations. At the same time, ambitious professional advancement rather than wisdom was too often the goal, so that the pious preferred rather to shun the academic world than be corrupted by it. Faced with this culture, Hugh sought to introduce a capacious unity grounded on the permanent things.
Hugh laid out in his Didascalicon (On the Study of Reading) a program of Christian learning, in which he boldly stated, “Learn everything; you will see afterwards that nothing is superfluous” (Omnia disce, postea videbis nihil esse superfluum). Hugh did not intend thus to validate an insatiable appetite for consuming whatever came along, as if indulging in the latest ephemera were equivalent to reading Scripture. Instead, “Learn everything” was above all an affirmation that our desire for truth is legitimate, because it points us to the Truth that is the source of all truths. Yet at the beginning of the whole endeavor, Hugh insisted, lies humility, a willingness to proceed step-by-step, from the lowest to the highest. Do not be ashamed to descend, he says; from there, one rises. Hugh’s humility sprang from a great openness to Creation and to creatures: “Learn gladly from everyone what you do not know… You will be wiser than all if you are willing to learn from all.” Even subjects dismissed by contemporaries as unworthy of scholarly attention, he embraced: fabric-making, hunting, and theater, among other arts received a place in his pedagogical program. These activities of daily life help clothe us, feed us, refresh us with entertainment, and so they are all indispensable elements in our pursuit of wisdom.
At the heart of all Hugh’s thinking is a deep sacramental awareness: the humble elements of Creation bear within them the healing presence of the divine, the seeds of spiritual renewal. Christ revealed this, not only when he made bread and water vehicles for God’s grace in the Eucharist and Baptism, but also, Hugh wrote elsewhere, when he used mud to heal: “by that mud which is beaten under your feet, the eye of the blind man is illumined for sight.” The visible, the real, is the path to the invisible. Hugh expressed disdain for those who wanted to leap too quickly into great spiritual ecstasies, or who sought the creator without proper awareness of the creation. For Hugh, all Creation was a sacrament: even the birds and fishes were worthy of the name. Hugh certainly understood the term “sacrament” in our modern, liturgical sense, but his expansive use of it was a salutary affirmation that the world is enchanted, that the wondrous mysteries of God are visible signs everywhere. And Hugh believed they were efficacious signs: Creation itself heals us as we observe it, study it, meditate upon it. It re-educates our eyes to see divine Wisdom at the root of things.
This is certainly the point of Scripture, Hugh says: even its lowliest events are signs of the divine. Reading of them teaches us and heals us at the same time. But for Hugh, this was true of all that we learn: everything, properly considered, is a sacrament. Josef Pieper summarized Hugh’s approach to study: “the knowledge of reality was the prerequisite for contemplation … No kind of science exists which is not destined to be turned into contemplation.” That contemplation, Hugh believed, would lead in turn to the growth of love and virtue within the learner.
This sort of study and contemplation is a bulwark against what Hugh considered a very real spiritual danger—and one with which our own age is all too familiar—the “scattered self.” In his sermons, Hugh evoked the strong pull of distraction; he must have been particularly attuned to this weakness, looking upon the faces of students eager to keep up with the latest developments or to encounter the frenetic energies of Paris. Against such distractions, Hugh insists, we must learn to be with ourselves in a new way, to see again. To unify the scattered self and find rest for our restless hearts, he writes, you must build “the ark of your heart” out of your learning. This ark will carry you safely across the fluctuations of life or its disordered concatenations. The ark of our hearts touches the floodwaters; it must, for we are creatures in the world and we must encounter reality. But, it also floats above those waters, with its central pillar stretching up to the heavens. Looking out safely from the ark upon the waves, we can contemplate the world and engage with it lovingly.
Hugh’s program of reading and study at St. Victor did not separate the intellectual life from the life of contemplation and of charity. He united all of them—in St. Benedict’s words—in a true “school for the Lord’s service.”
Hugh wrote many works from the 1120s until his death, including works of theology (both treatises and sententiae), commentaries (mostly on the Bible but also including one of pseudo-Dionysius’ Celestial Hierarchies), mysticism, philosophy and the arts, and a number of letters and sermons. Hugh was influenced by many people, but chiefly by Saint Augustine, especially in holding that the arts and philosophy can serve theology.
Hugh’s most significant works include:
De sacramentis christianae fidei (On the Mysteries of the Christian Faith/On the Sacraments of the Christian Faith). It is Hugh’s most celebrated masterpiece and presents the bulk of Hugh’s thoughts on theological and mystical ideas, ranging from God and angels to natural laws.
Didascalicon de studio legendi (Didascalion, or, On the Study of Reading). The Didascalicon is written as an introductory guide to Christianity, reflecting Hugh’s desire to be an elementary teacher of Christianity. The Didascalicon reveals a very philosophical side of Hugh, in which he reflects on what basic elements of learning a Christian should focus on.
In Hierarchiam celestem commentaria (Commentary on the Celestial Hierarchy), a commentary on the work by pseudo-Dionysius, perhaps begun around 1125. After Eriugena’s translation of Dionysius in the ninth century, there is almost no interest shown in Dionysius until Hugh’s commentary. It is possible that Hugh may have decided to produce the commentary (which perhaps originated in lectures to students) because of the continuing (incorrect) belief that the patron saint of the Abbey of Saint Denis, Saint Denis, was to be identified with pseudo-Dionysius. Dionysian thought did not form an important influence on the rest of Hugh’s work. Hugh’s commentary, however, became a major part of the twelfth and thirteenth-century surge in interest in Dionysius; his and Eriugena’s commentaries were often attached to the Dionysian corpus in manuscripts, such that his thought had great influence on later interpretation of Dionysius by Richard of St Victor, Thomas Gallus, Hugh of Balma, Bonaventure and others.
Hugh’s legacy is rather impressive. Within the Abbey of St Victor, his influence is apparent from the fact that the many scholars who followed him are often known as the ‘School of St Victor’. Both Achard and Andrew of St Victor appear to have been direct disciples of Hugh. Others, who probably entered the community too late to be directly educated by Hugh, include Richard of Saint Victor and Godfrey. One of Hugh’s ideals that did not take root in St Victor, however, was his embrace of science and philosophy as tools for approaching God.
The very survival of his works in hundreds of libraries all across Europe shows how influential Hugh’s writing was. He is quoted in many other publications after his death, and Bonaventure praises him in De reductione artium ad theologiam.
He was also a major influence on the critic Edward Said, who cited this passage from Hugh of St Victor in numerous published works:
“It is therefore, a source of great virtue for the practiced mind to learn, bit by bit, first to change about in visible and transitory things, so that afterwards it may be able to leave them behind altogether. The person who finds his homeland sweet is a tender beginner; he to whom every soil is as his native one is already strong; but he is perfect to whom the entire world is as a foreign place. The tender soul has fixed his love on one spot in the world; the strong person has extended his love to all places; the perfect man has extinguished his.”
Richard of Saint Victor, C.R.S.A., (died 1173) is known today as one of the most influential religious thinkers of his time. He was a prominent mystical theologian, and was prior of the famous Augustinian Abbey of Saint Victor in Paris from 1162 until his death in 1173.
Very little is known about the origins and upbringing of Richard of Saint Victor. John of Toulouse wrote a short Vita of Richard in the seventeenth century. He said that Richard came from Scotland. John added that Richard was received into the Abbey of St Victor by Abbot Gilduin (1114–1155) and was a student under Hugh of St Victor, the most influential of all Victorine teachers (implying that Richard entered the community before Hugh’s death in 1141). This account of Richard’s early life is not accepted by all modern scholars, however, and some have suggested that Richard entered the abbey after Hugh’s death in 1141.
All scholarship agrees, however, that Richard was a magister during the 1150s, and was then promoted to subprior in 1159 (as stated by a document found at the abbey). He served under Achard of St. Victor’s elected successor Ernisius, who was unworthy of the position. Richard’s life was then burdened by the frustrations of working under a man who was ill-suited for his responsibilities. Ernisius wasted the abbey’s resources on overly ambitious building projects and persecuted those who attempted to resist him. Richard was allowed to keep his office but his influence was restricted. Things became so unbearable that an appeal was made to the Pope, who then visited Saint Victor in 1162. Through a multitude of transactions, Ernisius was eventually removed from his position and the Pope commended Richard for his continued involvement in the matter. Letters from England written to Richard show that he was in constant touch with English affairs and give evidence of the international character of intellectual life at this time. He was then promoted to prior in 1162, a position he held until his death on 10 March 1173.
Richard wrote extensively (Migne’s Patrologia Latina contains 34 works attributed to him, and this is not Richard’s full corpus). There are some problems with establishing the chronology of Richard’s works. The earliest ones come before 1153, and the latest were written one or two years before his death. His earlier works are similar to the general teaching and writing of the period. His writing develops from basic exegesis, theology and philosophy to more of a study of purely spiritual questions. In his early writings he relies on the moral interpretations of previous theologians such as Augustine of Hippo, Bede, Pope Gregory I and Hugh. He later became more independent and strayed from Hugh’s influence. There is some debate between historians about which of Richard’s texts are the most influential and important. Because Richard’s work covers many spheres of thought it is somewhat difficult to categorise his work.
The Book of the Twelve Patriarchs, sometimes titled Benjamin Minor, is one of Richard of Saint Victor’s great works on contemplation. It is not exactly known when it was written, but it would seem to date before 1162. Richard specifies that this work is not a treatise on contemplation but rather prepares the mind for contemplation.
The Mystical Ark, sometimes called Benjamin Major or The Grace of Contemplation completes this with the study of the mind in relation to prayer. However, in the last chapters of Benjamin Major, written later than the Minor, Richard almost abandons his topic and the discussion of the teaching of mystical theology takes up a good portion of every remaining chapter. He is still attempting to instruct his followers on a text but he has also engaged himself in creating a system of mystical theology.
One of Richard’s greatest works was the De Trinitate which was probably written while Richard was prior, between 1162 and 1173. This is known because it incorporates pieces of theological text which editors are now finding in earlier works. De Trinitate is Richard’s most independent and original study on dogmatic theology. It stems from the desire to show that dogmatic truths of Christian revelation are ultimately not against reason. Richard’s theological approach stems from a profoundly mystical life of prayer, which in the Spirit seeks to involve the mind, in continuation with the Augustinian and Anselmian tradition.
Owing to the fact that until recently this masterpiece has not been available in any English translation, its diffusion has been limited and its influence has seldom gone beyond ‘Book III’, condemning serious enquiry to an understanding of Richard’s argument that is only partial. Finally, in 2011, through the efforts of Ruben Angelici’s scholarship, the first, full translation of Richard’s ‘De Trinitate‘ has been released for publication in English and now this scholastic masterpiece is readily available to a wider audience to be appreciated in its entirety.
Richard wrote a massive handbook of biblical education entitled Liber Exceptionum (Book of Selections/Book of Notes), important scriptural commentaries, and many treatises. The Four Degrees of Violent Charity, composed about 1170, with its description of how vehement love leads to union with God and more perfect service of neighbour, has been of particular interest to writers of Christian mysticism.
Richard’s other treatises are a number of short works which mainly deal with textual difficulties and theological issues. Many of them can be grouped together with larger works. Some of them are correspondence between Richard and his students while others seem to have been written at the request of friends. Although short, they are often interesting because they allow the modern reader to see the mentality of the students and the discussions and issues of the time.
Richard of Saint Victor’s Commentary on Ezekiel is of special interest in the field of art history because they explanations laid out by the author are accompanied by illustrations. A number of copies have come down to us, none of which are dated, but they are written in a style attributable to the second half of the twelfth century.
What makes Richard of Saint-Victor stand out from other theologians of his time is that he approaches theological problems as more of a psychologist, contributing to a careful analysis of contemplative experiences.
Quotes from Richard of Saint Victor:
“Indeed many things which we shall not be able to discover either by the experiment of works or by the investigations of reason we shall deserve to be taught by importunate prayer, by the revelation of divine inspiration.”
“For the outer sense alone perceives visible things and the eye of the heart alone sees the invisible.”
“The high peak of knowledge is perfect self-knowledge.”
“This gift is from God and not of man’s deserving. But certainly no one ever receives such a great grace without tremendous labor and burning desire.”
“That love must be mutual is required by the fact that supreme happiness cannot exist without the mutuality of love… a further analysis of the nature of true charity reveals that three persons, not two, are necessary. For charity to be excellent, as well as perfect, it must desire that the love it experiences be a love shared with another… Thus charity is not only mutual love between two; it is fully shared love among three. When one person gives love to another and he alone loves only the other, there certainly is love (dilectio) but it is not a shared love (condilectio). When two love each other mutually and give to each other the affection of supreme longing; when the affection of the first goes out to the second and the affection of the second goes out to the first and tends as it were in diverse ways– in this case there certainly is love (dilectio) on both sides, but it is not shared love (condilectio). Shared love (condilectio) is properly said to exist when a third person is loved by two persons harmoniously and in community, and the affection of the two persons is fused into one affection by the flame of love for a third. From these things it is evident that shared love (condilectio) would have no place in Divinity itself if a third person were lacking to the other two persons. Therefore it is necessary that each of those loved supremely and loving supremely should search with equal desire for someone who would be mutually loved and with equal concord willingly possess him. Thus you see how the perfection of charity requires a Trinity of persons… [and] so also true Trinity cannot be lacking where everything that is, is altogether perfect.”
“What is the Holy Spirit’s gift or mission if not that of infusing due love? The Holy Spirit, then, is given by God to man when due love residing in the divinity is inspired into the human soul. In fact, when this Spirit enters the rational soul, he inflames its sentiments with divine ardour and transforms it by communicating to it a character similar to his own, in order [to enable] it to express back to its own Creator the love it owes him.
Actually, what is the Holy Spirit if not a divine fire? After all, every love is a fire, though a spiritual fire. That which material fire does with iron, this fire of which we are talking does with a sordid, icy and hard heart. In fact, as soon as this fire enters, the human soul gradually puts away every darkness, every coolness, every hardness, and it becomes similar in every way to him by whom it is inflamed. By the effect of the flame of divine fire, [the human soul] burns up everything, blazes and is melted in God’s love, according to the apostle’s words: God’s charity has been infused in our hearts by the Holy Spirit’s work who has been given to us.”
“And in authentic charity-love, the greatest excellence seems to be this: to will that someone else be loved just as we are. Actually, nothing is more precious and more admirable in reciprocal, burning love than one’s desire for someone else to be loved in the same fashion by him who is supremely loved, and by whom one is supremely loved. Therefore, the witness of perfect charity-love consists in desiring to share (with someone else) that love of which one is the object.”