John Scottus Erigena

(fl. 845-879)
   The most original and perhaps greatest of all Carolingian Renaissance scholars, John Scotus Erigena was a highly controversial thinker whose influence lasted long after his death and whose thought aroused opposition into the twelfth century. John Scottus was actively involved in a theological controversy during his stay in the Carolingian Empire, but remained a close friend and advisor of the West Frankish king Charles the Bald. He was also the only Carolingian scholar with more than superficial knowledge of Greek, and this knowledge contributed to his production of a number of highly original works.
   Little is known of his life, including the dates of his birth and death, although there is some indication that he was born around 810 and lived into the 870s. It is certain, though, that he was from Ireland, as his name implies, and left his homeland for the Carolingian realm at some point in the 830s. At some point after his arrival in the Frankish kingdoms, John Scottus came to the attention of the western Carolingian king Charles the Bald. He is mentioned as being at the court of Charles, who came to appreciate the Irishman's genius, in the year 843, but may have been known before that. John was recognized by contemporaries in the Carolingian kingdom as a holy man even though he was never consecrated as a priest or monk. He was also noted for his knowledge of Greek, which he most surely acquired before his arrival in the kingdom of Charles the Bald. His learning attracted the attention, not only of the king, but also the archbishop of Rheims, Hincmar.
   It was Hincmar who invited John to participate in the controversy that had recently erupted over the teaching of Gottschalk of Orbais concerning predestination, which had already attracted the attention of Carolingian bishops like Hincmar and Rabanus Maurus. John's response, however, De divina praedestinatione (On Divine Predestination) was as controversial as the original teachings of Gottschalk. The Irish scholar rejected Gottschalk's double predestination and argued that souls were predestined to salvation, suggesting that evil, sin, and Hell were not real. His position was judged heretical by his contemporaries and condemned, but John Scottus survived because Charles the Bald remained his loyal supporter. He remained at the royal court until his death and while there wrote a great deal of poetry, in Greek and Latin, that celebrated the victories of the king and honored religious holy days. He also was commissioned by Charles to translate the works of Pseudo-Dionysius the Areopagite, an unknown author who wrote influential works of mystical theology around the year 500, from Greek into Latin; he was working on a commentary on the Gospel of John at the time of his death.
   The most important and influential of John Scottus's works was the Periphyseon, or De divisione naturae (On the Division of Nature).
   Drawing on his knowledge of the Latin and Greek fathers of the church and Christian Neoplatonic thought, John Scottus created a highly sophisticated theology, which developed some of the ideas of his earlier works. In his discussion of the nature of God and his creation, John divided and classified all of creation but argued that God was incomprehensible and could not be put into any category. His work posed a serious challenge to his contemporaries, who had difficulty understanding it and thought it heretical. But the work survives in numerous manuscripts, attesting to its popularity, and exercised great influence on theologians in the tenth century and beyond.
   See also
   Bibliography
 ♦ Laistner, Max L. W. Thought and Letters in Western Europe, a.d. 500 to 900. 2d ed. Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 1976.
 ♦ Marenbon, John. "Carolingian Thought." In Carolingian Culture: Emulation and Innovation, edited by Rosamond McKitterick. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1994, pp. 171-192.
 ♦ Nelson, Janet. Charles the Bald. London: Longman, 1992.
 ♦ Van Riel, Gerd, Carlos Steel, and James McEvoy, eds. Iohannes Scottus Eriugena: The Bible and Hermeneutics. Leuven: Leuven University Press, 1996.

Encyclopedia of Barbarian Europe. 2014.

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