Humans are given to easy answers, especially when confronted with the dizzying intricacy of the world we inhabit. It is far simpler to attempt to account for complex causes with simple explanations, or to distill sophisticated historical and theological arguments into easily digested bits. Too often it seems that people think that St. Dominic swung his axe at Aristotle’s head and, like Aphrodite, Thomas Aquinas sprang forth fully-formed and in complete possession of his considerable powers. What many don’t take into account was the numerous movements that flowed into the age of mature scholasticism, as well as the hundreds of patient academic efforts that preceded, accompanied, and undergirded the theological virtuosity of the Common Doctor.
Of all the individuals who contributed to the brilliant intellectual climate of the thirteenth century none was perhaps so comprehensively important as Hugh of St. Cher (ca. 1195-1263), the 750th anniversary of whose passing we mark this March 19th. In many ways, it is correct to say that Hugh was the sine qua non of academic achievement in the high middle ages, yet disappointingly few know of him. His influence spread far beyond the academic world, and he became one of the pivotal figures of the thirteenth century Church.
A professor equally comfortable teaching philosophy, theology, and law, Hugh—like many other brilliant men—heard the siren call of the Dominicans. Already a Parisian Master at the time of his reception into the order in 1225, he quickly rose through the ranks, becoming provincial prior of France by 1227 and prior of the great convent of St. Jacques in Paris from 1233 to 1236. His fame spread quickly. Gregory IX made him legate to Constantinople in 1233 and Pope Innocent IV promoted him to Cardinal-Priest of Santa Sabina in 1244, becoming the first Dominican to bear that title. He distinguished himself in this exalted office, helping to coordinate the First Council of Lyons, sponsoring the elevation of the feast of Corpus Christi, and serving as papal advisor on University matters. His stature and achievements were such that he was sent to Germany after the papal victory over Frederick II to supervise a new imperial election. In 1256 Pope Alexander IV named him Apostolic Penitentiary, with competency to decide on issues of the forgiveness of sins and excommunications. Near the end of his life he became Cardinal-Bishop of Ostia, the highest ranking cardinal in the Church. He had truly become one of the most loyal and trusted of papal servants by the time of his death in 1263.
Yet administration was not Hugh’s primary calling, for only reluctantly was he lured from the academic life of Paris. Hugh was one of the founders of the scholastic format that involved bringing forward conflicting authorities that were then reconciled by argument, a style so familiar to Thomas’ readers. In addition, he was one of the most comprehensive scriptural scholars of the middle ages, producing no fewer than three paramount works. His Postillae are commentaries on the whole of scripture, one of the first works to include both patristic sources coupled with contemporary theological speculations. The work is a tour de force, commenting on the whole of the Bible using the four traditional senses of scripture. Confronted with a barrage of divergent readings of the scriptural text (the bane of a literary culture transmitted by handwriting), Hugh spearheaded the creation of a Correctorium which was an attempt to record variant readings and create a more faithful edition of the Vulgate from ancient manuscripts. His work became the predecessor to the critical editions of the sixteenth century, and the eventual establishment of the Clementine Vulgate. Because Hugh was also concerned for the quality of preaching, he compiled his Concordantia which was the first verbal concordance of scripture. With these efforts Hugh had forged the tools for the vast expansion of theological efforts that would characterize the next 100 years. Nor was Hugh merely a compiler, his theology of the Hypostatic union was widely respected, his commentaries on the Sentence of Peter Lombard and the Historia Scholastica of Peter Comestor proved quite popular, and we still possess hundreds of Hugh’s sermons carrying the fruits of his contemplation to others.
Hugh’s position also made him critical to liturgical reform the mid-13th century. He helped to rewrite the Carmelite rule and liturgy and played no small part in the codification of the Dominican rite. He wrote a brief introduction to the ritual of the Roman mass between the late 1230s and early 1240s called the Speculum Ecclesiae. This immensely popular work, probably undertaken for the instruction of parish priests, can still be found in over 140 manuscripts throughout European libraries. (An associate and I currently are working on an edition and translation of this significant text). In it one will find copious evidence of Hugh’s stunning mastery of scripture, as well as some of the fanciful mystical interpretations of the Mass so popular in the medieval period. The piece is a testament to the durability of the Roman Rite, as well as to the creative interactions of various medieval practices within it. Such a work was surely used in teaching and sermons and was broadly applicable through various liturgical families under the umbrella of the Latin Rite. It evinces a concern for liturgical catechesis that is unexpected in the middle ages.
In the final analysis, Hugh was one of the midwives of the high medieval Church. By his strenuous academic and administrative efforts he laid the foundations for much that was to come in the future. By patient toil Hugh and his Parisian students made the word of God accessible, presenting it in a variety of ways and in such a manner as to stimulate theological investigation. Hugh was an exceptionally rare man, not only a first-rate academic, but an adept politician. While his position as a powerful Dominican Cardinal could have led to his interference in the internal governance of the order, there is very little evidence that Hugh allowed his office unduly to influence the Preachers. His quiet, steady sponsorship allowed the order to grow and prosper during its first generation, laying the groundwork for its assumption of the role of defenders of orthodoxy, without having to undergo convulsions similar to those experienced by the Franciscans. Hugh was simply one of those brilliant and competent people who quietly went about their historical vocation, leaving in their wake order, reason, and charity.