The Medieval Review 10.04.11

Cotts, John D. The Clerical Dilema: Peter of Blois & Literate Culture in the Twelfth Century. Washington, D.C.: Catholic University of America, 2009. Pp. xi, 320. $74.95 ISBN 978-0-8132-1676-8. .

Reviewed by:

Susan R. Kramer
Ph.D. Columbia University (2002)

One of the first things to strike the reader of this solidly researched work is Cotts' apologetic tone. Like Marcia Colish in her two-volume study of Peter Lombard, Cotts finds it necessary to defend the decision to focus on a figure slighted by generations of scholars. [1] As Cotts notes, Peter of Blois (d. 1211) has been disparaged for "scor[ing] low marks as a humanist," [2] castigated for plagiarism [3] and derided for promulgating a spirituality libeled as derivative. Thus, a motivating factor to Cotts' work is rehabilitation of Peter's literary and spiritual reputation. As the full title suggests, however, Cotts' primary aim is to use Peter of Blois' life and works as a means to understanding the culture of the secular clergy in the long twelfth-century--a group for which, Cotts remarks, we still lack a "working model that explains their activities and ideals"(12). Cotts sees Peter as an apt choice for such an endeavor given his long life, his location at the centers of Western Europe's intellectual and political life, and his production of a vastly popular letter collection. It is this collection which serves as Cotts' chief source for conjuring the nature of secular, clerical culture. As for the dilemma of the title, a principle argument of Cotts' book is that the letter collection attests in form as well as content to the tensions faced by clerics such as Peter as they struggled to reconcile professional ambitions with sacred ones.

The first chapter, "A Clerical Life," culls the letters for the major events of Peter's early life, his education and his various employments. Cotts notes when incidents are simply too parallel to events described in other historical documents to be believable, such as Peter's dramatic prison rescue by basket (recalling that of St. Paul in Acts 9.25) (24). But, while Cotts emphasizes the difficulties of using the letters to construct an accurate record of events, he also shows how a reader can benefit from Peter's exaggerations and polemic to learn about his "needs and interests," and so, by extrapolation, of others of Peter's status. Overall, the portrait which emerges is of a peripatetic life as marked by jostling, competition and envy as that portrayed by Abelard in his "Letter of Consolation."

Chapter Two, "The Archdeacon and his letters," focuses on the epistolary genre, building on the work of Charles Haskins and Giles Constable. The most compelling questions Cotts raises here are why Peter, "a middling archdeacon," would have revised and collected his letters only to revise them again and "distribute different versions of the resulting collection" (55). Saving for an appendix an analysis of the complex manuscript tradition posed by the letters, Cotts seeks the impetus behind Peter's efforts by comparing his collection to those of several near-contemporaries on the basis of purpose, range and status of the various addressees and the percentage of letters in each collection which were written in the author's own name rather than as representative for another. The third chapter, "The Formation of a Clerical Mind," uses the letters to assess the depth of antipathy among those in the twelfth century who praised (or denigrated) competing educational ideals and methods. This is a question much mooted in current discussions of twelfth-century literate culture and Cotts here demonstrates his earlier claim that Peter is a fitting subject for such an analysis: Peter studied not only at the schools at Tours, Chartres and Paris but also did a brief stint studying law at Bologna.

Chapter Four, "Courts, Administration, and Pastoral Duty," moves Peter out of the schools and into the harsher reality of the "'curial militia,"' that is, "the courts of bishops and kings" (131). Cotts sees Peter as arming himself with a "practical theology" which he constructed for the secular clergy--a theology in which secular learning was put to sacred employment. Like others in his position, Peter had to defend himself against the charge that his choice of occupation had been driven primarily by greed. Another thread in this discussion is just what "courtly culture" really was, given its association both with Norbert Elias' "civilizing process" and with the more prosaic bureaucratic renaissance of the Angevin kings. The varying characteristics presented by the courtly milieu are noted not only by modern categorizations. As Cotts points out, "clerical service in secular government" was at odds with the ecclesiastical reform ideal of the clergy as a pure sacerdotium (136). Cotts' method of addressing these apparent conflicts is to dive into Peter's experience, first at the Sicilian court and later at Canterbury in the court of the archbishops who served in the wake of Thomas Becket's murder. As Cotts says, Becket's own service "posed a peculiar paradox" while his "death...presented a new ideal." Although Becket had attained his rank as archbishop via his familiarity with the king and with secular affairs, "upon assuming pastoral duties he renounced his secular title and fought for ecclesiastical liberty" (145). While Becket was a lightning rod, Peter appears a conciliator, at least in his aim to find "a clear, spiritually acceptable ideal that could account for his participation in twelfth-century clerical culture" (175).

Peter's view of the right relationship between regnum and sacerdotium as manifest in Episcopal duties is treated in Chapter Five, "In Search of the Ideal Bishop." Here again Cotts uses Peter's role in the Becket controversy as the entry point. The popularity of Becket's cult in the wake of his martyrdom made criticism of those who opposed his views difficult, but Cotts' analysis of Peter's correspondence shows him equal to the challenge. Cotts uses the correspondence to demonstrate the evolution of Peter's views and his ultimate attitude that the ideal bishop must reconcile conflicts between "the traditional role of the literate cleric" who employs his wisdom to "attack unjust laws and restrain violent monarchs" with the "quest for an apostolic life of hardship and suffering" (113). To Cotts, Peter's attempt to develop such a synthesis foreshadows the Mendicants.

The aim of Chapter Six, "The Piety of a Secular Cleric," is to situate secular clerics within current scholarly debates on how affiliation with a recognizable religious group shaped spirituality and self- perception in the twelfth century. Cotts' approach here is to use Peter's "crusader treatises, moral commentaries, sermons and later letters" in order to "outline the stages through which Peter developed and expressed his piety" (217).

Cotts ties the strands of his analysis together in the Epilogue, reviewing the factors that make Peter a valuable witness of twelfth- century culture and in turn what about his life and attitude are representative of secular, clerical culture. Cotts' is a detailed, firmly grounded study which will prove useful not only to scholars seeking to know more about Peter of Blois but also to those readers who want to understand more fully the complex intellectual and spiritual currents of twelfth-century Europe.



1. See Marcia Colish, Peter Lombard, 2 vols., Leiden, New York, and Cologne: E.J. Brill, 1994.

2. Southern, "A Twelfth Century Humanist," p. 125; quoted at Cotts, p. 7.

3. Ibid, p. 107 quoted at Cotts, p. 8