A French Augustinian during the birth of humanism wrote a book that made his name known throughout the Christian world of the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries.
The life of Jacques Legrand O.S.A. coincided with the years in which the humanistic current began to emerge among the cultured and aristocratic classes of France. He was such an eloquent preacher that John of Montreuil, "the first French humanist", confessed that he was dazzled by Legrand while listening to him "for six hours" in a sermon on Good Friday.
Jacques Legrand was probably born in Toulouse between 1360 and 1370. He entered the Augustinian monastery there, and attended its studium generale (international house of studies). He then completed his education at the reknowned Augustinian studium generale in Paris. The date that he obtained his magisterium (“doctorate”) there is uncertain. It may have been as early as 1400, and was certainly before the year 1412. French writers of his day praised his learning and his tireless reading of all materials he could obtain. He copied freely from previous collected quotations, and thus was not, strictly speaking, an advicate of humanism in the usual understanding of that term. Whereas a humanist delightfully read the Classics as an end in itself, Legrand simply searched Classical quotations largely to elicit material that would be seen as morally uplifting in his own era. His was a humanist with a moralistic purpose, and all of his writing was completed before he finished his studies in Paris.
For his writing, he found a patron in Michael Creney, who was the Bishop of Auxerre in 1390-1409. Legrand’s major work, the Sophilogium, his "collection on wisdom," was completed in 1400. It was proposed as an encyclopaedic guide to the virtuous life of wisdom for all levels in society. There still remain 105 manuscripts of Sophilogium, and copies of twenty different printed editions. For the next two hundred years it was one of the most widely distributed ascetical tracts in the Christian world, and undoubtedly exerted a great influence on the minds of many people. The Sophilogium was a storehouse of quotations by both ancient Classical authors and Christian writers. As already stated, he copied many of the quotes from previous books of this type. Given the nature and the contents of the Sophilogium, Legrand was definitely an editor rather than an author. What he had compiled were obviously the quotations that appealed to him personally, and he would have used them in his preaching. Indeed, one purpose of such a book was to provide preachers with a ready reference source to quotations they could include in their sermons.
It was research work he did while studying, hence it is not completely surprising that he produced no known writing after his studies had ended. The Sophilogium is sectioned into ten books ("chapters"). The first two give a short introduction to classical knowledge. Books 3-6 develop the Christian teaching on virtue and vice, and contain a treatise on the seven deadly sins. Book 7 is a contemplation of death and judgment. Books 8-10 develop the special duties of each state in life - the clergy, the temporal rulers, and the "common people." The number of manuscript copies is very large, and it was printed as a book at least twenty times before the year 1500. By way of summary, it can be said that Legrand’s writings, especially his principal work, Sophilogium, demonstrated his ability to harmonize an appreciation of the values of cultural antiquity with the postulates of the Christian faith.
His rapport with antiquity was far from merely utilitarian. He did not propose the simple subordination of classical culture to the service of the Church. Instead, persuaded that the aspirations of humanism extended to all sectors of contemporary life, he integrated what was truly great and beautiful in classical antiquity with traditional Christian thought. Legrand himself translated the Sophilogium into the French language. It is not completely identical with the earlier Latin edition, and is a better work. Parts of it were printed in Lyon in 1513 and in Paris in 1513. William Caxton translated it into English, and re-titled it the Boke of Good Manners ("Book of Good Manners"). Caxton printed it in 1487 and again in 1500. Other publishers did likewise in English in 1494 (seven editions), 1500, 1507 and 1515.
While Legrand was studying in Paris when probably aged about thirty years, he became one of the outstanding preachers of the day. The Order of Saint Augustine recognised this gift, and in 1396 appointed him to preach in Paris at the election of a new Prior General. By the year 1400 he had been appointed as the official Court Preacher by King Charles VI of France. In that role on Ascension Day 1405 when preaching before the queen and her retinue, he publicly took the queen to task about her extravagance in a time of great poverty. He also excoriated her retinue for their scandalous immorality. The Queen and her retinue were furious. When the King was informed, he was more pleased than upset, and asked that Legrand preach before him soon afterwards at Pentecost. Legrand did not hold back from preaching to the king that the outpouring of the Holy Spirit was shamefully disregarded in the kingdom of France.
As an example, he said that two additional heavy taxes had been levied within a twelve-month period, yet the king had used none of it to improve national defence – this was during the Hundred Years’ War (1337 to 1453) between England and France. Legrand’s preaching established him as an influential figure in ecclesiastical and state matters. Sometime around 1409, he changed from being simply a moral crusader into a party politician during the thirty years of civil war that had then begun. In January 1412 he was part of a group sent to London in an attempt to have support from France’s arch rival, King Henry IV of England in their struggle for possession of the French monarchy. A second mission involving Legrand in April 1412 did not succeed in leaving France, but a third mission a month later reached London once again. The mission proved fruitless. To call Legrand unpatriotic for being part of an overture to the King of England would be to take sides in a complex struggle in France for possession of the French Crown.
Indeed, had those negotiations with King Henry V in England succeeded, the terrible slaughter of the French nobility and military by Henry at the Battle of Agincourt only three years later may never have happened. Nothing is known of the life of Legrand after 1413. He is generally reported to have died in 1422 or 1425. Because of his fame he received the honour of being buried in front of the high altar of the Augustinian church in Paris; other manuscripts say Poitiers. By the time of Legrand’s death, another Augustinian was about to emerge in public life and in the French history of the Hundred Years’ War. He was Jean Pasquerel O.S.A., one of the chaplains of Joan of Arc.
For further reading
Jacques Legrand O.S.A. By Francis Roth O.S.A. In the scholarly historical periodical, Augustiniana, of the Augustinian Historical Institute of Louvain, in August 1957. Pp. 311-326. AN4335