Johannes Versoris (probably died after 1482) was a Master of Arts active at the University of Paris in the fifteenth century. He wrote a number of influential commentaries on the corpus Aristotelicum, Peter of Spain’s Summulae logicales, and Thomas Aquinas’s De ente et essentia which were frequently reprinted between 1480 and 1500, especially in Cologne. Since Versoris’s commentary work bears traces of both Thomist and Albertist thought, the question of his relation to the contemporary schools of thought is highly controversial and as yet unresolved.
KeywordsFifteenth Century Parisian Scholar Realist Philosopher Metaphysical Notion Corporeal Substance
Little is known about the life of Johannes Versoris, a realist philosopher and celebrated commentator on Aristotle who taught at the University of Paris during the fifteenth century. Although generally called “Versor” in the scholarly literature, there is some evidence that his actual name might have been “Versoris” (that is, “son of Versor” or Le Tourneur) – at least that is how he is referred to in Parisian documents of the time, and this spelling also appears on his (undated) epitaph. The name Versoris first crops up in 1435, when he is mentioned as a Master of Arts in a document pertaining to the Norman nation (natio Normannorum) of the University of Paris. Since at Paris students were supposed to have reached the age of twenty before the title of magister artium could be conferred, it is reasonable to conjecture that Versoris was born around 1410. In 1449 the Arts Faculty proposed him as rector of the Paris studium, but he refused the post; when in 1458 his name was put forward again, this time he accepted. Information on the activities and whereabouts of Versoris after his rectorate is scarce: it is only in 1478 that the Paris documents again mention a certain Johannes Versoris, who, however, is referred to as a Master of Arts not in the natio Normannorum but in the natio Picardorum, the Picardian nation. It is not impossible, nevertheless, that these notices concern one and the same person – and scholars generally assume that they do – although this cannot be proven. If this identification is correct, Versoris probably spent his entire career teaching at the Paris Arts Faculty and may have died after 1482, as the last reference to the Picardian Versoris occurs in this year.
As part of his teaching activity at Paris, Versoris composed commentaries on nearly the entire Aristotelian corpus (although the attribution of some commentaries is problematic, pace Flüeler 1994: 80–84), the Summulae logicales by the thirteenth-century logician Peter of Spain (Versoris 1981) and Thomas Aquinas’s De ente et essentia (Versoris 1486) – in total, his writings are preserved in some 180 manuscripts (Seńko 1958/1959). Versoris is also said to have been the author of a commentary on the Ars minor by the ancient grammarian Donatus, although this attribution is probably spurious (Kneepkens 2004; Versoris 1489). His expositions of Aristotle enjoyed a certain popularity at the University in Paris, from where they spread to Cologne, Prague, and Cracow during the second half of the fifteenth century (Markowski 1968; Kuksewicz 1973; Šmahel 1980). All of his commentaries were printed multiple times before the turn of the century, mostly in Cologne (Rhodes 1970; Lohr 1971: 290–299). Risse (1965: 282) counted 23 editions of his commentary on Peter of Spain between 1473 and 1639, which makes Versoris “the most popular commentator” on Peter’s Summulae of the era (Ashworth 2008: 621). His questions on Aristotle’s physical works and Thomas’s De ente et essentia were even translated into Hebrew by the Spanish Jewish scholastic Eli Habillo in the course of the 1470s (Rothschild 1994).
It is unclear whether Versoris ever held a position at the University of Cologne. Despite lack of proof, older studies generally assume that he did (De Wulf 1925; Meersseman 1935; Weiler 1962). Yet his name does not appear in the acts or matriculation lists of the university (Weijers 2003), and contemporaries consistently refer to Versoris as a Parisian scholar (Parisiensis). It seems unlikely, therefore, that he was ever actively engaged in teaching at one of the Cologne bursae, although it has been suggested that he was on good terms with the Cologne Masters of Arts, especially those affiliated to the Thomist Bursa Corneliana and Bursa Montana (Meuthen 1988: 185; Tewes 1993: 189–190). This could account for the fact that Versoris’s commentaries on Aristotle and Peter of Spain were printed no fewer than thirty times in Cologne during the 1480s and 1490s (Corsten 1981). It has also been suggested, moreover, that sometime during the heydays of his academic career, Versoris stayed in the Iberian peninsula. This hypothesis, though controversial, could account for the fact that the aforementioned Spaniard ‘Eli Habilio in the preface to his translation of Versoris’s commentary on the Physics refers to the Parisian scholar’s name in such a familiar wording that it suggests a personal acquaintance. Moreover, in the Hebrew chronic Shebet Yehudah (c. 1510), one finds the curious reference to a certain king Alfonso (possibly Alfonso V, King of Portugal between 1438 and 1481, or Alfonso V, King of Aragon between 1416 and 1458) who addressed a series of questions on the trustworthiness of Jews to a savant called Weyrśōrīś. Given the present state of our knowledge on Versoris’s life, it is impossible to determine whether this reference actually concerns our Parisian philosopher or not. Whatever the case, Versoris’s commentaries were well known in this part of Europe, and the numerous manuscripts of Versoris’s works that are still preserved in Spanish libraries today testify to this popularity (Rothschild 2013: 309–314).
A fifteenth-century Master of Arts, Versoris taught during a period which was marked by the formation of the so-called schools of thought. In Versoris’s Parisian setting, Thomism flourished and Albertism was gaining influence under the impulse of Johannes de Nova Domo (†1418), while nominalism was in decline (eventually to be banned by a royal decree in 1474). Given this predominantly realist milieu, it is hardly surprising that Versoris set himself up as a proponent of the via antiqua, the realist school of thought associated with followers of Thomas and Albert. Yet the question of which type of realist philosophy Versoris adhered to (and especially his predilection for Thomism or Albertism) is a controversial one. Ever since Prantl (1870: 220–221), Versoris has generally been regarded as a Thomist philosopher and logician, although it seems closer to the truth and more in accordance with contemporary testimonies to characterize him as an eclectic thinker – indeed, his pupil Dominique of Flanders may have listed him among the adherents of Thomism, but he added that Versoris occasionally embraced the teachings of Albert the Great (sed Albertizabat - see Mahieu 1942: 22; Lohr 1971: 290). Matters are further complicated by the fact that Versoris himself, unlike many of his contemporaries (such as Heymeric de Campo or Arnold of Tongeren, two convinced Albertists), never explicitly expressed his loyalty to either Thomas or Albert. As regards his ideas on physics and moral philosophy (see Versoris 1484, 1967a), there is consensus that Versoris was heavily indebted to Thomas (Birkenmajer 1925; Sère 2007; Saarinen 2011; Müller 2016). This also holds true for his interpretation of the Metaphysics (Versoris 1967b; Bakker 2014). The situation is less clear, however, in his commentaries on the Organon (Versoris 1967c, 1967d). Bos (2002) emphasized Versoris’s Albertism in his questions on the Categories; Rutten (2005: 323), mainly on the basis of Versoris’s explanations of the logica vetus, described his doctrinal profile as “indistinct and at best a blurred form of Thomism” and insisted that in his own time he was seen as an authority in his own right rather than a representative of either movement. This is in line with the interpretation by Krause (1991: 520), who suggested the possibility of “Versorism” as a distinctive subcurrent of Thomism.
It can easily be seen why the question of Versoris’s relation to Albert and Thomas causes so many difficulties, since Versoris’s balancing of the interpretations of both realist philosophers may be considered a guiding thread leading through his oeuvre, and at different occasions he appears to align himself quite randomly with either of them. The following examples may suffice to demonstrate this point. In his commentary on the Isagoge, Versoris (1967d: f. 21r-v) briefly touches upon the problem of incipient forms (inchoatio formae), a question related to Aristotle’s discussion of the principles of form, matter, and privation (see Physics I.9, 192a16-34). Briefly put, the problem of inchoatio formae concerns the question of whether or not matter contains some innate aptitude for receiving a particular form. Albert answered this question in the positive, Thomas in the negative. Versoris himself closely paraphrases Albert’s text and merely points out that Thomas held a different opinion. However, when discussing the same issue in his commentary on the Physics, Versoris rejects Albert’s view in favor of the opinion held by Thomas (see Rutten 2005: 304–312 for discussion). The same pattern can be discerned in Versoris’s account of substance and being, as expressed mainly in his commentaries on the logica vetus and Thomas’s De ente et essentia. As regards the notion of substance, discussed in his commentary on the Categories (Versoris 1967d: f. 30r), Versoris embraces the explanation of Albert that this term entails a threefold meaning: (a) the metaphysical notion of essence, (b) the logical notion of the first thing predicable, and (c) individual substance (Bos 2002: 71–73). Furthermore, in his commentary on the Isagoge, he equally agrees with Albert when he claims that a universal should be understood in terms of the forma totius and has, moreover, a threefold mode of being: ante rem, in re, and post rem (Versoris 1967d: ff. 7v-14r; Rutten 2007: 129–132). However, when Versoris, in his commentary on De ente et essentia (Versoris 1486: sig. D5v), discusses the notion of being (esse) as composed of essence (esse essentiae) and existence (esse existentiae), he aligns himself with the interpretation of St. Thomas that actual existence really (realiter) differs from essence and merely notes that Albert holds the opposite opinion (Riesco Terrero 1960; Krause 1991: 510). As regards the principle of individuation, which is also discussed in the commentary on De ente et essentia (Versoris 1486: sig. D1v), Versoris agrees with Thomas that signate matter accounts for the numerical distinction of corporeal substances; he rejects the opinions held by Giles of Rome and Albert, who explained individuation in terms of quantity and matter respectively (Krause 1991: 514–515; Rutten 2005: 316–319).
As a possible solution to the problem of Versoris’s doctrinal inclination, Rutten (2005: 319–324) suggested that Versoris’s predilection for either Albert or Thomas is related to the specific work he was commenting on. In the case of the Isagoge or Categories, for example, he had no choice but to follow Albert, since Thomas never composed a commentary on these works. When he did have a choice, however, it appears that he decidedly embraced the interpretations of the doctor angelicus (see the examples from the Physics or De ente et essentia explained above). This could also account for the fact that, when Versoris paraphrases the explanations of Albert and notes a difference of opinion between Albert and Thomas, he never proves Thomas wrong – in some instances he even he even refers to the opinion held by the Albertistae, which implies that he did not consider himself as one of them (Rutten 2005: 314).
Since Versoris was a university teacher whose entire oeuvre consists of questions, paraphrases and summaries of school authors, the question of the originality of his thought is perhaps not the correct one to ask. Medieval or early modern school teachers were not supposed to be original. Rather, they were supposed to explain the texts prescribed by the university statutes and render these texts intelligible by making use of a fixed set of commentators who were considered authoritative. Versoris’s popularity, therefore, was not based on the fact that his commentaries contained some original insights into, or elaborations on, the matter he explained (although in some cases they do, see Bakker 2014: 611–612), but instead on his ability to present interpretations excerpted from the great philosophers of previous ages in a synoptic, lucid, and accessible way. As a compiler and interpreter, Versoris was, together with the Scotist Petrus Tartaretus and the nominalist George of Brussels, one of the most successful of his time.
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