Hugh of Saint Victor

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Hugh of Saint Victor

Hugh of Saint Victor (c. 1096 – 11 February 1141) was born perhaps in France, or more probably in Saxony. His origins and early life are rather obscure. He studied and taught at the Augustinian Abbey of Saint Victor in Paris after which he is named. His writings include works of theology, mysticism, philosophy and the arts. Appointed a canon of the Victorines around the turn of the twelfth century.

Philosophy and theology

The early Didascalion 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.

Influences and legacy

Hugh was influenced by many people, but chiefly by Saint Augustine, especially in holding that the arts and philosophy can serve theology.

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.


Hugh’s works have survived in hundreds of libraries all across Europe. The very survival of these works—-and their commonness—-show how influential Hugh’s writing was. Hugh wrote several influential works from the 1120s on. Among these are his masterworks On the Sacraments of the Christian Faith and The Didascalicon of Hugh of St Victor. The work Sacraments of the Christian Faith 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. The Didascalicon of Hugh of St Victor is written as an introductory guide to Christianity, reflecting Hugh’s desire to be an elementary teacher of Christianity. The Didascalicon reflects a very philosophical side of Hugh, in which he reflects on what basic elements of learning a Christian should focus on. (Didascalicon), De arca Noe morali (On the Moral Interpretation of the Ark of Noah), De arca Noe mystica (On the Mystic Interpretation of the Ark of Noah) reflect Hugh’s fascination with both mysticism and his interest in Genesis.

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.[1]

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.

cross refer


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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.
  • Hugh of Saint-Victor: selected spiritual writings, translated by a religious of C.S.M.V.; with an introduction by Aelred Squire. Eugene, Oregon: Wipf & Stock Publishers, 2009.
  • Illich, Ivan (1993) In the Vineyard of the Text: a Commentary to Hugh's Didascalion. Chicago: University of Chicago Press
  • 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.
  • Taylor, Jerome, trans. (1961) The Didascalicon of Hugh of St. Victor. New York and London: Columbia U. P.
  • 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


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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