Richard of Saint Victor

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Richard of Saint Victor (died 1173) is known today as one of the most influential religious thinkers of his time. He was a prominent mystical theologian, and was prior of the famous Augustinian Abbey of Saint Victor in Paris from 1162 until his death in 1173.



Very little is known about the origins and upbringing of Richard of Saint Victor. He was born in Scotland probably during the first twenty-five years of the twelfth century. Like many before him, Richard travelled to Paris in search of a good education and became a canon of the Augustinian abbey of Saint Victor on account of its reputation for piety and learning.[1] It is likely that he came to Saint Victor at a very young age. Here he studied under the theologian Hugo of Saint Victor, the most influential of all Victorine teachers. However, it has been debated that Richard entered the abbey after Hugh’s death in 1141 or slightly before. Richard’s chief biographer, Jean de Toulouse, writes that when Richard died in 1173 he was still young and so it therefore must be assumed that he entered the Order well into its second period of development, near the end of Hugh’s life.[2] Nevertheless, over time, Richard adopted and developed many of Hugh's ideas and principles. A document found at the abbey states that Richard became subprior in 1159.[3] At this time, under the abbot Gilduin, Saint Victor was a thriving community and upon Gilduin’s death, the abbey had 44 dependant houses of canons.[4] In 1162 Richard became prior of the abbey and remained in this position until his death in 1173. He served as prior under Achard of St. Victor’s elected successor Ernisius, who was unworthy of the position.[5] Richard’s life was then burdened by the frustrations of working under a man who was ill-suited for his responsibilities. Ernisius wasted the abbeys resources on overly-ambitious building projects and persecuted those who attempted to resist him. Richard was allowed to keep his office but his influence was restricted. Things became so unbearable that an appeal was made to the Pope, who then visited Saint Victor in 1162.[6] Through a multitude of transactions, Ernisius was eventually removed from his position and the Pope commended Richard for his continued involvement in the matter. Letters from England written to Richard show that he was in constant touch with English affairs and give evidence of the international character of intellectual life at this time. Richard died on March 10, 1173.[7]


There are some problems with establishing the chronology of Richard’s works. The earliest ones come before 1153, and the latest were written one or two years before his death.[8] His earlier works are similar to the general teaching and writing of the period. His writing develops from basic exegesis, theology and philosophy to more of a study of purely spiritual questions. In his early writings he relies on the moral interpretations of previous theologians such as Augustine of Hippo, Bede, Pope Gregory I and Hugh. He later became more independent and strayed from Hugh’s influence.[9] There is some debate between historians about which of Richard’s texts are the most influential and important. Due to the fact that Richard’s work covers many spheres of thought it is somewhat difficult to categorize his work.

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