Matthew Doyle's Peter Lombard and his Students attempts a biographical survey of a historical figure, a scholar about whom we know very little. In spite of the enduring legacy of Lombard's book of Sentences, the work that functioned as the core textbook in theological training throughout the Middle Ages, details of the author's life and presence in the world have been obscure to us. Since Marcia Colish published her field-defining Peter Lombard in 1994, scholars have paid much greater attention to the intellectual content and methodological innovations of the Sentences. And Philipp Rosemann in particular has led the charge in analysing the history of commentaries on the Sentences. We have a much clearer picture, now, of the work's intellectual contours, its theological provocations and its role in shaping generations of scholastic thinkers. And most recently, scholars including myself, Constant Mews, Marcia Colish and, Peter Gemeinhardt have begun to consider the role of Peter Lombard's theology within the statutes of Lateran IV.
Figures such as Peter Abelard, Heloise, Hildegard of Bingen, and, Bernard of Clairvaux, for example, dominate narratives of the twelfth century, in particular those that we produce under the rubric of that century's "renaissance." Each of these luminaries has bequeathed a corpus of letters that reveal what we might call their "personalities". Even though we are well aware of the highly technical and mediated aspects of medieval epistolarity, their extant letters offer a sense of immediacy and authorial intent often absent in other sources from that time. From their correspondence, as well as from their mentions in chronicles, we can match the ideas of these medieval thinkers to their place in the world. In short, they can be situated and personalised. If part of the story of the twelfth-century renaissance is that of the emergence of an individual consciousness, our accounts are bound to privilege the historical actors whose textual legacy lends itself to that story.
Peter Lombard's extant works yield little to our biographical impulses. He leaves behind a selection of commentaries, sermons and his Sentences, none of which can be plumbed for a sense of the person himself, at least in terms of our modern conceptions of selfhood. Yet, these evident limitations notwithstanding, Matthew Doyle has produced a meticulous and erudite reconstruction of Lombard's life, career, and immediate intellectual legacy. This is not biography in the sense of a narration of subjectivity in the world, but it is biographical inasmuch as Doyle insistently situates Lombard in networks of patronage and the institutional politics of the day. Doyle builds the context for Lombard's life and career by taking painstaking notice of the locations within which Lombard seems to have flourished, and attempting to read his success in that context as an indicator of who Lombard might have been. In that sense, what Doyle offers in this book is a type of historical social network analysis. He looks at the worlds in which Lombard made his career, and he tells us about how those worlds operated. The next analytic step is to suggest that we can use this contextualisation to know something about Lombard himself, that if we understand the conditions of his flourishing, we can know something about his person.
So, for example, Doyle considers closely the fact that Bernard of Clairvaux, at the urging of Uberto, the bishop of Lucca, wrote a letter recommending Lombard to the Abbot of St.-Victor in the mid-1130s This text is the first evidence for the existence of Peter Lombard. At its core, the revelations of the letter are minimal. We ascertain that Lombard knew Uberto, and that Uberto knew Bernard and recommended Lombard to him. The other information the letter provides is that Bernard had been subsidising Lombard to study at Rheims, but now thought he ought to move to Paris for studies in theology. Bernard uses one adjective to describe Lombard in this letter, calling him venerable, indicating that he was of mature age (Doyle suggests around 35). Doyle takes this letter as a starting point to build a picture of Lombard's early career. He analyses the role played by Uberto and Bernard in the politics of papal schism during this period, and reads the political sympathies that the two eminent men seem to have shared. He places their relationship firmly on the via Francigena, and makes sense of the physical locations that made possible the travels of the letter. He analyses Bernard and Uberto as elites, as players in what we would now call international politics. After mapping this world, Doyle argues that we can assume that Lombard was ambitious and strategic, with a capacity to identify likely patrons and ingratiate himself with them. He was surely not an iconoclast or an intellectual outrider, both Uberto and Bernard must have assumed that he was intellectually deft, but adequately orthodox to recommend him in the way that they did, to risk their own reputation.
This is one example of the type of assumptions that Doyle seeks to make in this book, to read the social, intellectual and patronal fields of twelfth-century elite educational culture to make sense of Peter Lombard. This method means that the overall claims of the author, as they pertain to the figure of Peter Lombard, remain fairly speculative. The author makes no bones about this: he is upfront about the contingency of his conclusions, given that they are based on highly erudite supposition. Given this, it is reasonable to ask whether the author might have been better served devoting his considerable research skills to a figure who has left a more obvious archival trail, to produce a less shadowy account of a medieval figure. I, for one, am grateful that Dr. Doyle did not go down that path. The reason that I commend this book so highly is that it helps us to answer the question as to why the Sentences of Peter Lombard became the canonical text that it did. Given the work's tumultuous reception in the twelfth century, it was not a sure thing that it would become the textbook. Doyle's forensic work in this book makes the fertile suggestion that the success of the Sentences can be partially explained by recognising a) that Lombard must have been a savvy institutional actor, and, b) that he engendered great loyalty among his students who were responsible for disseminating his work after his death.
If we want to understand how ideas work in context, and why some intellectual systems prosper over others, we usually need to do more than examine the ideas themselves. We also need to contextualise ideas within the structures of patronage, authority and contestation within which thought was, and is, produced. This book does not contend with a splashy swashbuckling figure, about whom colourful stories were told. It tells the story, instead, of an unflashy figure who seems to have built networks, engendered loyalties and become an elite magister, all from relatively humble origins. In many ways, Peter Lombard's Sentences defined the theological project of the Middle Ages, or at least built its foundations. Doyle's book does not tell the story of an individual in our conventional understanding, but it helps us to understand the how constitutive relationships of patronage and loyalty were in the making of scholastic culture.