August 31, 2009
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v2.1 Reference

The Clerical Dilemma

Peter of Blois and Literate Culture in the Twelfth Century

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 Catholic University of America Press

9780813216768 : the-clerical-dilemma-cotts
$79.95 USD

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