The Abbey of St. Victor, Paris

The Abbey of St. Victor in Paris was founded around 1108. It began as an Augustinian community, and a number of very famous medieval people made their way through the abbey. Thomas Becket studied there. He was murdered in Canterbury Cathedral, so that’s a fascinating story. Peter Lombard spent some time there. He would come to be the author of the Four Books of Sentences, a standard medieval textbook on theology. It was the book that Martin Luther had to study and master. We’re going to look at three key figures who had a long association with the abbey. They’re all from the 1100s, and they are Hugh of St. Victor, Richard of St. Victor, and Adam of St. Victor.

Hugh was born around 1096 in Saxony. He made his way to Paris and died there in 1141. From 1120 through 1140, he was master of the school at St. Victor. He gets credit for books he likely didn’t write; they were probably written anonymously by others in the abbey and were later attributed to him. But one book that we know he did write was his book on the sacraments. In this book, he starts by talking about why we need the sacraments. The first line says, “Man’s first sin was pride.” From that first sin came three consequences—death, depravity of the flesh, and depravity of the mind. So far, Hugh of St. Victor is rather Augustinian in his outlook, and when he turns to Christ, he remains Augustinian. This is what he says:

From our nature he took a victim for our nature that the whole burnt offering to be offered up for us might come from that which is ours. In other words, this Redeemer, Christ, had to be us; had to be flesh; had to be truly human. This he did in order that the redemption might have to do with us by this very fact that the offering had to be taken from that which is ours. We are truly made partakers of this redemption if we, through faith, are united to the Redeemer Himself who, through the flesh, entered into fellowship with us.

We also have Richard of St. Victor. Richard was born in Scotland and also made his way to Paris. From 1162 until 1173, he was head of the abbey at St. Victor. He died there in 1173. He is classified as a mystic, but he also wanted to systematize and bring a structure to mysticism. Among his many books was a book on the Trinity. He opens that book by talking about the three ways we have of knowing: by experience, by reason, and by believing. He continues, “The main things we know, or the main reason we can know, is by faith, by believing. That is first.”

Finally, there is Adam of St. Victor. He was a theologian too, but he was also a poet. Let’s just end with a stanza from one of his poems. “Here the world’s perpetual warfare holds from heaven the soul apart; Legioned foes in shadowy terror vex the Sabbath of the heart. O how happy that estate where delight doth not abate! For that home the spirit yearneth where none languisheth nor mourneth.”

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