The Catholic University of America Press

The Clerical Dilemma

Peter of Blois and Literate Culture in the Twelfth Century

John D. Cotts

Cloth 978-0-8132-1676-8 $74.95
August 2009 In Print Add to Cart
E-Book 978-0-8132-1782-6 $74.95
August 2012 In Print Add to Cart

Peter of Blois pursued the life of a twelfth-century intellectual with vigor and passion tinged with anxiety. After a thorough education in the arts, theology, and law at some of medieval Europe's finest schools--including those at Chartres, Paris, and Bologna--he served in the courts of royalty and archbishops alike. He attended diplomatic embassies, advised princes, argued legal cases at the papal court in Rome, and may well have gone on crusade to the Holy Land. All the while, along with several treatises, he wrote, compiled, issued, and re-issued a collection of letters to the intellectual elite of Europe. These letters detail the spiritual and professional anxieties of an educated professional always looking for employment and in considerable despair over the fate of his soul. Peter's dilemma, essentially insoluble, was how to carve out a place in a rapidly changing intellectual and political landscape.

The Clerical Dilemma is the first book-length study of Peter of Blois's life, thought, and writings in any language. John D. Cotts uses Peter's letters and treatises to recreate the thought of the twelfth-century literati, illuminating the ambiguities, contradictions, and fundamental dynamism of that world. Paying careful attention to the difficult manuscript tradition of the letter collection, Cotts explores how Peter brought classical, patristic, monastic, and scholastic traditions into an uneasy synthesis, and deployed them in letters whose recipients represent a cross-section of contemporary intellectuals--from cathedral canons, to prominent scholars, to cardinals and popes. The book will be of interest to all those interested in the religious, political, and intellectual history of the twelfth century, providing new avenues for studying the ways in which medieval writers composed and revised their texts.


John D. Cotts is associate professor of history at Whitman College and serves as the vice-president for North America of the Charles Homer Haskins Society.


"This is one of those rare studies that not only revolutionizes the way in which we understand an important historical figure but changes our perspective on the perils and possibilities of an entire world. Charting the cultural and institutional fault lines and force-fields molding clerical life and spirituality in the twelfth-century, John Cotts's study is essential reading for anyone interested in the cultural and institutional history of the long twelfth century and for students of the evolving forms and functions of Latinity in the Middle Ages."--William L. North, associate professor of history, Carleton College

"Not only a richly textured presentation of Peter of Blois, one of the Middle Ages' most familiar yet poorly understood figures, The Clerical Dilemma also casts new light on the central players in the twelfth-century renaissance: the secular clerics who drove intellectual and institutional change. Eschewing easy caricatures, Cotts instead depicts in intimate detail the difficult and painful choices faced by men like Peter. This is truly essential reading."--Jay Rubenstein, associate professor of history, University of Tennessee-Knoxville

"This work will thoroughly revise the way scholars view Peter of Blois and thereby provide important contributions to our understanding of the twelfth-century Renaissance. By studying Peter in his proper context as a secular cleric, Cotts helps to shift our understanding of twelfth-century intellectual and spiritual life."--Hugh Thomas, professor of history, University of Miami

"The Clerical Dilemma is a thoughtful and thought-provoking study of Peter of Blois's letters and some of his treatises. There is nothing quite like it in recent years among the existing literature on Peter. It represents a major step towards reinstating the study of those secular clergy into the mainstream of our understanding of the twelfth-century ecclesiastical culture."--Nicholas Vincent, professor of medieval history, University of East Anglia

"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."--Susan Kramer, Medieval Review

"[A]n impressive monograph. . . . Cotts succeeds admirably in tracing the complexities and uncertainties that confronted Peter of Blois throughout his career."--Constant J. Mews, American Historical Review

"The twelfth century was an era of humanism, conservatism, progressive thinking and religious intolerance, of crusade and monastic piety. This is the world captured by John D. Cotts in his excellent new work that re-examines this period through the eyes of a seemingly insignificant secular cleric, Peter of Blois. . . . Cotts's careful and meticulous study lifts Peter of Blois's work out of the morass of scholarly derision and elevates it as an important historical source for the complexities of the twelfth century. The method and approach are clear and accessible. . . . The Clerical Dilemma is an important work that fills a void in studies of twelfth-century theology and in both religious and secular culture. It rehabilitates the often ignored, overlooked, or dismissed Peter of Blois whose works have been regarded as derivative and unoriginal. Its author examines and illustrates the rich depth of Peter's spiritual and moral concerns and excavates the wealth of historical and cultural examples from his letters within the context of his longer, more formal works and of those [who] admired or reviled him. Cotts is an objective observer who sees his subject's shortcomings but recognizes the worth and merit of his output and the light it can shed on twelfth-century history. He elevates Peter of Blois from mere witness to his rightful place as an influential actor on a stage populated by kings, popes, bishops, and martyrs. The Clerical Dilemma provides a tantalizing snapshots into the life of a man whose life intersected with some of the most intriguing and powerful figures of the twelfth century, and places him among them."--Larissa Tracy, Oenach: FMRSI Reviews

"[An] excellent study of Peter of Blois, an aspiring cleric who never reached past the middling ranks of the clergy (he spent most of his life as an archdeacon), and yet whose letter collection was soon being read alongside authorities such as Ambrose, Gregory, and Bernard."--Daniel Hobbins, H-France Review

Product Details

Pages:xiv, 322 pages

Dimensions:6x9 inches


CIP Information: 2009006909/ BX4705.P43475C68 200/ 282'.409022--dc22


1. Peter, of Blois, ca. 1135-ca. 1212

2. Catholic Church--Europe--Clergy--History

3. Europe--Intellectual life

4. Twelfth century