The Clerical Dilemma: Peter of Blois and Literate Culture in the Twelfth Century

By Freeburn, Ryan | The Catholic Historical Review, January 2011 | Go to article overview

The Clerical Dilemma: Peter of Blois and Literate Culture in the Twelfth Century


Freeburn, Ryan, The Catholic Historical Review


The Clerical Dilemma: Peter of Blois and Literate Culture in the Twelfth Century. By John D. Cotts. (Washington, DC: The Catholic University of America Press. 2009. Pp. xiv, 322. $74.95. ISBN 978-0-813-21676-8.)

In this book, John Cotts offers a reassessment of Peter of Blois, who has been neglected and even derided by scholars as an uninspired compiler. Cotts rightly notes that despite his recent unpopularity, his letter collection was widely read for centuries after his death. The author embarks on a reassessment that hinges on interpreting Peter as a borderland figure, who "bridged gaps between symbol and system, between monastic and scholastic" (p. 15). A major theme throughout the book is anxiety, in this case the anxiety of a secular cleric who ultimately rose to the office of archdeacon, an office disdained by many of the reforming circles throughout the medieval Church (and considering some of its holders, not entirely unjustly).

In chapters 1 and 2, Cotts gives a biography of Peter, tracing his life from the schools of France and Italy to his service in episcopal and royal courts. He then introduces Peter's letter collection, which provides the evidence throughout the book for Peter's character and concerns. Looking at the letters he wrote for others and those he wrote in his own name, and comparing them to the collections of other contemporaries, Cotts provides a picture of Peter's world through a look at his "epistolary community" (p. 63). An appendix gives more details about theories regarding Peter's successive compilations.

Chapter 3 takes a closer look at Peter's formation in the schools, uses of legal and scholastic language, and shifting views on the value of secular learning. Chapters 4 and 5 then get to the heart of Peter's interests, underlining his attempts to define and defend the value of the secular cleric against the criticisms of his day. Cotts details his development of a theology, however incoherent, of service in the world and, in particular, of the need for clerics to use their learning to advise kings and defend the Church. …

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