Hugh of St. Victor:
The Renaissance Before the Renaissance

By Gabriel Blanchard

Little known today, the flowering of learning over which Hugh of St. Victor presided was one of the most influential in history.

For the past three centuries or so, the twelfth century has been suffering from a bad case of what is colloquially known as “fake news.” The era tends to be imagined in one of two ways: either as a dreary, violent, and backward world in which the chief available pastimes were making large piles of mud, dying of Plague, and being tortured by the (strangely omnipresent) Spanish Inquisition; or as the Age of Chivalry, populated entirely by racially homogeneous* Catholics who filled the roles of “valiant Crusader in plate armor,” “golden-haired princess in flowing gown,” “unimpeachably holy monk,” and “peasant who is inordinately content with his lot”—with cameos from “Medieval Jew who can’t have been all that badly treated, surely.” Neither picture is true, of course.

The real Medieval histories of science, heresy, nationality, and so on are all fascinating in their own right; the twelfth century in particular witnessed a revolution in nearly every area of culture, such as Western Europe had not seen since the collapse of Rome. Engineering, law, literature, philosophy, astronomy, and music were especially affected, producing many innovations we now vaguely associate with the whole Medieval era—think of the castle, the allegorical poem, or polyphony. Thanks to contact with Islamic scholarship in both the Levant and Iberia,** a huge trove of classical Greek thought reappeared (along with Greek-speaking scholars who could teach people to read it), of which Aristotle was the most shining—and controversial—treasure. The spires and pointed windows of the new Gothic architecture soared above students of the University of Paris, their bickering and speculation laying the foundation of what we now call Scholasticism. Or rather, they were not students of the University of Paris, not yet: at the time, no such institution existed. But its seeds were beginning to sprout, of which one of the most important was the school run by the Abbey of St. Victor. Founded in the early years of the century by a retired Archdeacon of Paris, St. Victor became one of the most illustrious schools in Europe, nursing the brilliance and sanctity of men like Peter Abelard, Peter Lombard, and St. Thomas à Becket. The Archdeacon’s successor as its head (from 1133 until his death in 1141) was a Saxon monk, who had arrived there some time in the late 1110s, called Hugh.

Given he spent much of his career as the headmaster of a Medieval school, a number of Hugh’s surviving works are straightforward pieces of liberal arts coursework; even those of us who are innocent of Latin can guess at the subjects of titles like Practica Geometriæ and De Grammatica. One of his principal works, the Didascalicon—subtitled De Studio Legendi, which we might with a little flippancy render as the equivalent of Mortimer Adler’s ironic title How to Read a Book—brings together philosophic, literary, and rhetorical tools of interpretation to introduce his students to theology and Scriptural hermeneutics, as St. Augustine had done seven hundred years before in De Doctrina Christiana. His most celebrated work is again an introduction to Catholic theology, De Sacramentis Christianæ Fidei or “On the Sacraments of the Christian Faith,” which does not limit itself to the discussion of the seven sacraments alone but provides a complete synthesis of what we might call “mere Catholicism”† as it was then defined.

Therefore I beg you, reader, not to rejoice too greatly if you have read much, but if you have understood much; nor that you have understood much, but that you have been able to retain it.

Hugh of St. Victor, Didascalicon

But Hugh’s genius was of a wider scope than teaching alone. Since the time of Ambrose and Jerome, if not earlier, Christian theology in the European tradition has formed a complex with philosophy, and from the late imperial era down to the twelfth century, that complex was strongly Neoplatonist. Hugh of St. Victor epitomized this. He was one of the first, if not the very first, Medieval scholars to show any interest in pseudo-Dionysius since Eriugena had translated the corpus into Latin during the Carolingian period: he wrote a commentary on The Celestial Hierarchy, a book on the nature of angels, helping to inaugurate a Medieval fascination with and reverence for the work of this anonymous master of Christian mysticism (whose theory of the different choirs of angels and their rankings would be championed by St. Thomas). Hugh’s innovations included a new taxonomy of kinds of knowledge, introduced in his Eruditionis Didascaliæ: “Philosophy is divided into the theoretic, the practical, the mechanical, and the logical.” This fourth, logic, was essentially a preliminary to and tool for the rest, ensuring sound reasoning in them. As for the other three: theoretical knowledge was what we might call the strictly academic (such as mathematics), which provides truth for its own sake; practical studies covered topics like ethics and political science, the sphere of lived virtue; and mechanical knowledge indicated trades and crafts like medicine or carpentry, the “illiberal” branch of knowledge.

Lastly, Hugh was one of a group of mystics, the Victorines, named after the school they hailed from,‡ and who (along with St. Thomas) were an important influence on Dante’s theology. Hugh wrote a great deal about the book of Genesis in particular, including multiple volumes on Noah’s Ark; his approach to the book, under Augustine’s influence, was heavily allegorical, pursuing spiritual meanings under the forms of history. The Neoplatonic texture of these reflections is strong, as in the following selection:

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.

*Race in the Middle Ages is a curiously misunderstood subject, due in part to flawed—and sometimes deeply racist—portrayals of the period created in the nineteenth century. This interview with medievalists Amy Kaufman and Paul Sturtevant introduces the topic fairly well.
**Much of this contact came in the form of the Crusades. In themselves, wars (especially religious wars) are not known for preserving learning; however, there were always intervals of peace during which diplomatic and trade relations were maintained.
†I.e., in the sense in which C. S. Lewis intended the phrase “mere Christianity”: Christianity as such, without denying the importance of any communion’s distinctives but without exploring them either. It is interesting to note that in this work, Hugh assiduously avoids the topic of universals and particulars, one of the most fashionable and hotly debated subjects of the day.
‡Note that “the Victorines” normally means only a handful of the writers from this school, all dating to the early or mid-twelfth century; from 1173 to 1180, the school was led by Walter of St. Victor, whose indignant opposition to the dialectic study of theology permanently extinguished the Victorines.

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Gabriel Blanchard is CLT’s editor at large. He lives in Baltimore.

If you enjoyed this piece, check out our series on the Great Conversation, covering topics from causality to evolution to time. Thank you for reading the Journal.

Published on 3rd April, 2023.

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