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John Parvus

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Called in his day, JEHAN PETIT or LE PETIT.

A French theologian and professor in the University of Paris; b. most likely at Brachy, Caux, in Normandy, and certainly in the Diocese of Rouen, about 1360; d. 15 July, 1411. Some historians (Duboulay, Wadding) say he was a Friar Minor, others that he was a Dominican: as a matter of fact, he never was a member of any religious order. He owed his education to the generosity of the Duke of Burgundy, who granted him a pension. In the first extant document that records his name, he is called master of arts (16 August, 1385). Two years later his name occurs in the list sent by the University of Paris (31 July, 1387) to Pope Clement VII, recommending its masters for vacant benefices.

The Church at that time was torn by the great Western Schism. France sided with Clement VII, but every one was anxious for reunion. John Parvus gave expression to this desire in his "Complainte de l'Église," a poem, which has been recently discovered in the National Library at Paris. This poem of 322 verses was composed in 1394. He had already written four others, the "Disputation des pastourelles" (1388), wherein he defends the Immaculate Conception of the Blessed Virgin; the "Livre du champ d'or"; the "Livre du miracle de Basqueville" (1389); and the "Vie de Monsieur saint Léonard," about the same time. The last three works have recently been published. They do not display much literary talent, but their sentiment is dignified and delicate; they offer an unflattering picture of the society of the day, and they form a useful contribution to the study of contemporary manners. He became a licentiate in theology in May, 1400, and received the degree of Doctor before 1403, since he is mentioned in that year on the roll of the university as an active member of the theological faculty of Paris. In April, 1407, he formed part of the imposing embassy sent by Charles VI to urge Benedict XIII and Gregory XII to abdicate and thus reunite Christendom. This embassy had just returned to Paris, after a fruitless journey, when an event took place that gave John Parvus a great notoriety in history.

On 23 November, 1407, the Duke of Orléans, brother of King Charles VI, was murdered by assassins in the pay of John the Fearless, Duke of Burgundy. The Duke of Orléans was unpopular with the people and was held responsible for the disorders and the taxations under which the kingdom groaned, during the madness of the king, his brother. The University of Paris was bitterly opposed to him for having renewed obedience to Benedict XIII. The Duke of Burgundy, on the contrary, was very popular; he was regarded as a friend of the commoners and an opponent of taxation and abuses, while the university was grateful to him for his lack of sympathy with the Avignon pope. Being excluded from the royal council after the assassination, he withdrew to his estates in Flanders, raised an army, and called around him several of the university professors, including John Parvus, who for three years had been attached to his suite and was receiving a pension from him. Reassured, doubtless, by the talents of his defender, he declared that he would go to Paris and justify himself. In vain the royal council forbade him to enter the capital; he came, and was received with acclamations by the populace. He demanded an audience with the king. It was granted him on 8 March, 1408, in the Hôtel de St-Paul, where the court habitually resided.

There, in presence of the Dauphin, of the Duke of Anjou, King of Sicily, of Cardinal de Bar, of the Dukes of Berry, Brittany, Bar, and Lorraine, of the rector of the University of Paris, and of many counts, barons, knights, and citizens, John Parvus delivered on behalf of his client a pedantic address, bristling with propositions, syllogisms, Scriptural texts, and examples from Holy Writ. His argument may be expressed in the following syllogism: Whosoever is guilty of high treason and becomes a tyrant, deserves to be punished with death, all the more so when he is a near relative of the king; and in that case the natural, moral, and Divine laws allow any subject whatever, without any command or public authorization, to kill him or to have him killed openly, or by stealth; and the more closely the author of the slaying is related to the king the more meritorious the act. Now, the Duke of Orléans — so ran the minor proposition — a slave to the passion of greed, the source of all evil, was guilty of high treason, and was a tyrant; which was proved by holding him guilty of all the pretended crimes which popular imagination and the partisans of the Duke of Burgundy laid to his charge. The conclusion was therefore that the Duke of Burgundy not only should not be punished or blamed for what had been done to the Duke of Orléans, but rather should be rewarded. This thesis seemed preposterous to the more rational members of the assembly; but the Duke of Burgundy was present with his troops, ready to suppress any attempt at reply, and further he was in the good graces of the university; so he had no difficulty in obtaining letters of pardon from the king. As for John Parvus, who in his address was not ashamed to admit that he was receiving, and expected still to receive, a pension from the Duke of Burgundy, he found it more prudent to withdraw from Paris and retire to the estate of the Duke of Burgundy at Hesdin, Artois, where he died in a house of his protector, regretting, it is said, that he had ever allowed himself to defend such a proposition.

The interest it excited was not to die with him. As long as the Duke of Burgundy was all-powerful in Paris, the argument could not be attacked publicly, but when he was expelled, Gerson, in a sermon delivered before the king, strongly denounced seven propositions of John Parvus as heretical and scandalous (1413). Shortly afterwards the king asked the Bishop of Paris, Gerard de Montaigu, and the inquisitor of France to examine them and to take whatever action they judged proper — without however mentioning the name of John Parvus. The bishop and the inquisitor with sixty doctors went into what was called a "Council of the Faith." After several sittings the speech of John Parvus and nine propositions, said to have been extracted from it, were condemned (23 February, 1414) by decree of the Bishop of Paris and of the inquisitor, and the book containing them was publicly burnt three days later. In the month of March following, the Duke of Burgundy appealed from the decision of the Bishop of Paris to Pope John XXIII. The pontiff entrusted the investigation to three cardinals. On the other hand, Gerson and the ambassadors of the King of France brought the affair before the council. At this juncture, Pope John XXIII left Constance (20 March, 1415) and withdrew from the council, while the King of France and the Duke of Burgundy made peace by the Treaty of Arras (22 February, 1415). Thereupon Charles VI ordered his representatives to take no action at the council against John Parvus, provided the Duke of Burgundy would also let the matter rest. Gerson broke the agreement by trying to obtain from the council a declaration that the writings of John Parvus contained numerous errors in matters of faith. The Duke of Burgundy replied by a letter in which, while disavowing the general principles that formed the major proposition of the argument of John Parvus, he maintained that the propositions condemned by the Bishop of Paris were not contained in the discourse. Thereupon the three cardinals, entrusted with the duke's appeal, cited the Bishop of Paris to appear before them, and as he failed to do so, they reversed his decision, declaring at the same time that they did not intend thereby to approve of the propositions condemned by him, but only wished to do justice to the Duke of Burgundy, who had not been heard at the trial. From that moment the trial of John Parvus became the battleground of the ambassadors of France and of the Duke of Burgundy, and even of the Emperor Sigismund. The council had no intention of lending its authority to any political party, and in its fifteenth session, 6 July, 1415, contented itself with a general condemnation of tyrannicide as upheld in the following proposition: "A tyrant may be licitly and meritoriously, and rightly put to death by any vassal or subject, even by resorting to secret plots, adulation, and feigned friendship, notwithstanding any oath of fealty to him or treaty concluded with him, without any judicial decree or order." But John Parvus was not mentioned and the council avoided saying that any such proposition was contained in his address, and no further decision was pronounced by the council on the particular case of John Parvus. After securing the condemnation of John Parvus in August, 1416, King Charles VI two years later disavowed Gerson and his supporters (6 October, 1418), and on 3 November, 1418, he rehabilitated John Parvus and annulled the sentences pronounced against him. This perhaps was the fairest settlement of the case against him. His venal and odious defence of the assassination is worthy of all censure, but in justice it must be admitted that the propositions attributed to him by his adversaries are not contained in his discourse, at least in the form in which it has reached us.


BULAEUS, Historia Universitatis Parisiensis (Paris, 1770); GERSON, Opera, ed. DUPIN, V (Antwerp, 1706); HELLOT, Nobles et vilains, le miracle de Basqueviue, d'apres les poesies inedites de Jean Petit (Paris, 1895); LE VERDIER, Le livre du champ d'or et autres poemes inedits de Me Jean Le Petit (Paris, 1896); BESS, Zur Geschichte des Constanzer Konzils, Studien I, Frankreichs Kirchenpolitik und der Prozess des Jean Petit (Marburg, 1894); VALOIS, La France et le grand schisms d'Occident, III and IV (Paris, 1902): DENIFLE, Chartularium Universitatis Parisiensis, III and IV (Paris, 1893, 1897); MANSI, Sac. conciliorum collectio, XXVII (Venice, 1784).

About this page

APA citation. Dégert, A. (1910). John Parvus. In The Catholic Encyclopedia. New York: Robert Appleton Company.

MLA citation. Dégert, Antoine. "John Parvus." The Catholic Encyclopedia. Vol. 8. New York: Robert Appleton Company, 1910. <>.

Transcription. This article was transcribed for New Advent by John Fobian. In memory of John Henry Johnson.

Ecclesiastical approbation. Nihil Obstat. October 1, 1910. Remy Lafort, S.T.D., Censor. Imprimatur. +John Cardinal Farley, Archbishop of New York.

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