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Hugh of St Victor

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Title: Hugh of St Victor  
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Subject: Allegory, Pseudo-Dionysius the Areopagite, Richard of Saint Victor, 11th century, 1141, Bonaventure, Hugh, Adam of Saint Victor, Barthélemy Hauréau, History of theology
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Hugh of St Victor

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.


Hugh was possibly born in the Duchy of Saxony, some sources saying that his birth occurred in the Harz district, being the eldest son of Baron Conrad of Blankenburg. 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.[1]

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 sometime around 1115-18. He spent his adult life there, advancing to head the school where his uncle had studied.[1]


Hugh wrote many works from the 1120s onwards (Migne, Patrologia Latina contains 46 works by Hugh, and this is not a full collection), including works of theology, mysticism, philosophy and the arts.[2] Hugh was influenced by many people, but chiefly by Saint Augustine, especially in holding that the arts and philosophy can serve theology. The very survival of these works in hundreds of libraries all across Europe shows how influential Hugh's writing was.

One particularly significant work is De sacramentis christianae fidei (On the Mysteries of the Christian Faith/On the Sacraments of the Christian Faith)[3] 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.

A second is the Didascalicon de studio legendi (Didascalion, or, On the Study of Reading).[4] 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.

A third significant work is In Hierarchiam celeste commentaria (Commentary on the Celestial Hierarchy), a commentary on the work by pseudo-Dionysius, perhaps begun around 1125.[5] After Eriugena's translation of Dionysius in the ninth century, there is almost no interest shown in Dionysius until Hugh's commentary.[6] 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.[7]

Other works by Hugh of St Victor include:

  • In Salomonis Ecclesiasten (Commentary on Ecclesiastes).[8]
  • In 1125-30, Hugh wrote three treatises structured around Noah's ark: De arca Noe morali (Noah’s Moral Ark/On the Moral Interpretation of the Ark of Noah), De arca Noe mystica (Noah’s Mystical Ark/On the Mystic Interpretation of the Ark of Noah), and De vanitate mundi (The World’s Vanity).[9] De arca Noe morali and De arca Noe mystica reflect Hugh's fascination with both mysticism and the book of Genesis.
  • De tribus diebus (On the Three Days).[10]
  • De sapientia animae Christi.[11]
  • De unione corporis et spiritus (The Union of the Body and the Spirit).[12]
  • Epitome Dindimi in philosophiam (Epitome of Dindimus on Philosophy).[13]
  • Practica Geometriae (The Practice of Geometry).[13]
  • De Grammatica (On Grammar).[13]
  • Soliloquium de Arrha Animae (The Soliloquy on the Earnest Money of the Soul).[14]
  • On Contemplation and its Forms. This is one of the earliest works devoted to contemplation. It appears not to be composed directly by Hugh, but to have been composed by students of Hugh of St Victor, possibly from classnotes based on his teaching.[15]
  • On Sacred Scripture and its Authors.[16]
  • Various other treatises exist whose authorship by Hugh is uncertain. Six of these are reprinted, in Latin in Roger Baron, ed, Hugues de Saint-Victor: Six Opuscules Spirituels, Sources chrétiennes 155, (Paris, 1969). They are: De meditatione,[17] De verbo Dei, De substantia dilectionis, Quid vere diligendus est, De quinque septenis ,[18] and De septem donis Spiritus sancti[19]
  • De anima is a treatise of the soul: the text will be found in the edition of Hugh's works in the Patrologia Latina of J. P. Migne. Part of it was paraphrased in the West Mercian dialect of Middle English by the author of the Katherine Group.[20]

A new edition of Hugh's works has been started. The first publication is: Hugonis de Sancto Victore De sacramentis Christiane fidei, ed. Rainer Berndt, Münster: Aschendorff, 2008.

Philosophy and theology

The early Didascalicon was an elementary, encyclopedic approach to God and Christ, in which Hugh avoided controversial subjects and focused on what he took to be commonplaces of Catholic Christianity. In it he outlined three types of philosophy or "science" [scientia] that can help mortals improve themselves and advance toward God: theoretical philosophy (theology, mathematics, physics) provides them with truth, practical philosophy (ethics, economics, politics) aids them in becoming virtuous and prudent, and "mechanical" or "illiberal" philosophy (e.g., carpentry, agriculture, medicine) yields physical benefits. A fourth philosophy, logic, is preparatory to the others and exists to ensure clear and proper conclusions in them. Hugh's deeply mystical bent did not prevent him from seeing philosophy as a useful tool for understanding the divine, or from using it to argue on behalf of faith.

Hugh was heavily influenced by Augustine's exegesis of Genesis. Divine Wisdom was the archetypal form of creation. The creation of the world in six days was a mystery for man to contemplate, perhaps even a sacrament. God's forming order from chaos to make the world was a message to humans to rise up from their own chaos of ignorance and become creatures of Wisdom and therefore beauty. This kind of mystical-ethical interpretation was typical for Hugh, who tended to find Genesis interesting for its moral lessons rather than as a literal account of events.

Along with Jesus, the sacraments were divine gifts that God gave man to redeem himself, though God could have used other means. Hugh separated everything along the lines of opus creationis and opus restaurationis. Opus Creationis was the works of the creation, referring to the works of man, while opus restaurationis was that which dealt with the reasons for God sending Jesus and the consequences of that. Hugh believed that God did not have to send Jesus and that He had other options open to Him. Why he chose to send Jesus is a mystery we are to meditate on and is to be learned through revelation, with the aid of philosophy to facilitate understanding.


Hugh's legacy is rather impressive. He is quoted in many other publications after his death, and Bonaventure praises him in De reductione artium ad theologiam. Hugh taught his ideas of mysticism to the influential Andrew and Richard of Saint Victor, and was a founding member of the Victorine movement. One of Hugh's ideals that did not take root in there, however, was his embrace of science and philosophy as tools for approaching God.

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.

See also



  • Hugh of St Victor, Explanation of the Rule of St. Augustine, translated by Aloysius Smith, (London, 1911)
  • Hugh of St Victor, The Soul's Betrothal-Gift, translated by FS Taylor, (London, 1945) [translation of De Arrha Animae]
  • Hugh of St Victor, On the sacraments of the Christian faith: (De sacramentis), translated by Roy J Deferrari, (Cambridge, MA: Mediaeval Academy of America, 1951)
  • Hugh of Saint-Victor: selected spiritual writings, translated by a religious of C.S.M.V.; with an introduction by Aelred Squire. (London: Faber, 1962) [reprinted in Eugene, Oregon: Wipf & Stock Publishers, 2009] [contains a translation of the first four books of De arca Noe morali and the first two (of four) books of De vanitate mundi].
  • The Didascalicon of Hugh of St. Victor, translated by Jerome Taylor, (New York and London: Columbia U. P., 1961) [reprinted 1991] [translation of the Didascalion]
  • Soliloquy on the Earnest Money of the Soul, trans Kevin Herbert, (Milwaukee, WI: Marquette University Press, 1984) [translation of Soliloquium de Arrha Animae]
  • Hugh of St Victor, Practica Geometriae, trans. Frederick A Homann (Milwaukee: Marquette University Press, 1991)
  • Hugh of St Victor, extracts from Introductory Notes on the Scriptures and on the Scriptural Writers, trans Denys Turner, in Denys Turner, Eros and Allegory: Medieval Exegesis of the Song of Songs, (Kalamazoo, MI: Cistercian Publications, 1995), 265-274
  • Hugh of Saint Victor on the Sacraments of the Christian Faith, trans Roy Deferrari, (Eugene, Oregon: Wipf & Stock Publishers, 2007) [translation of De Sacramentis Christianae Fidei]
  • Boyd Taylor Coolman and Dale M Coulter, eds, Trinity and creation: a selection of works of Hugh, Richard and Adam of St Victor, (Turnhout: Brepols, 2010) [includes translation of Hugh of St Victor, On the Three Days and Sentences on Divinity]
  • Hugh Feiss, ed, On love: a selection of works of Hugh, Adam, Achard, Richard and Godfrey of St Victor, (Turnhout: Brepols, 2011) [includes translations of The Praise of the Bridegroom, On the Substance of Love, On the Praise of Charity, What Truly Should be Loved?, and Soliloquy on the Betrothal-Gift of the Soul]
  • Franklin T. Harkins and Frans van Liere, eds, Interpretation of scripture: theory. A selection of works of Hugh, Andrew, Richard and Godfrey of St Victor, and of Robert of Melun, (Turnhout, Belgium: Brepols, 2012) [contains translations of: Didascalion on the study of reading, introduced and translated by Franklin T Harkins; On Sacred Scripture and its authors and The diligent examiner, introduced and translated by Frans van Liere; On the sacraments of the Christian faith, prologues, introduced and translated by Christopher P Evans]

Further reading

  • "Hugh of St. Victor" in: New Advent [1]
  • Acton Institute (1992) "In the Liberal Tradition: Hugh of St Victor (1096–1141)". Religion and Liberty, 2:1 (Jan.–Feb., 1992)
  • Coolman, Boyd Taylor. (2010) The Theology of Hugh of St. Victor: An Interpretation. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press
  • Evans, G. R. (2002) Fifty Key Medieval Thinkers. London: Routledge.
  • Harkins, Franklin T, Reading and the Work of Restoration: History and Scripture in the Theology of Hugh of St Victor, (Brepols, 2009)
  • Illich, Ivan (1993) In the Vineyard of the Text: a Commentary to Hugh's Didascalicon. Chicago: University of Chicago Press
  • Luscombe, David, “The Commentary of Hugh of Saint-Victor on the Celestial Hierarchy”, in T. Boiadjiev, G. Kapriev and A. Speer (eds), Die Dionysius-Rezeption im Mittelalter (Turnholt: Brepols, 2000).
  • McGinn, Bernard, The Growth of Mysticism, (1994), pp 370–395
  • Moore, R. (1998) Jews and Christians in the Life and Thought of Hugh of St. Victor. USF
  • Rorem, Paul (2009). Hugh of Saint Victor. Oxford; New York: Oxford University Press.
  • Wilson, R. M., ed. (1938) Sawles Warde: an early Middle English homily; edited from the Bodley, Royal and Cotton MSS. Leeds: University of Leeds, School of English Language

External links

Latin texts of Hugh of St. Victor are available in the Migne edition at Documenta Catholica Omnia,,_Migne,_Patrologia_Latina_03_Rerum_Conspectus_Pro_Auctoribus_Ordinatus,_MLT_H.html

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