The Medieval Review

TMR 03.02.15

Reviewed: Knight, Gillian R.
The Correspondence Between Peter the Venreable and Bernard of Clairvaux: A Semantic and Structural Analysis
Series: Church, Faith and Culture in the Medieval West

Aldershot, UK
Pp. xii, 303
$79.95 0-7546-0067-X, ISBN:
Reviewer: Brian Patrick McGuire, University of Roskilde,
TMR ID: 03.02.15

Gillian Knight's volume belongs to Brenda Bolton's series "Church, Faith and Culture in the Medieval West," which so far has published studies of twelfth- and thirteenth-century monasticism, crusading, papal and conciliar subjects. I can recommend the book for anyone interested in medieval letterwriting, friendship, and monastic life. But as a cultural historian, I have strong reservations. Some of these I will indicate in the course of an attempt to give the reader a sense of the book's contents. Later I will make some general points. For the moment it is sufficient to say that Gillian Knight's approach to medieval culture is that of a classical philologist dealing with texts, revealing underlayers of texts and betraying an element of politics. And much nastiness.

The Introduction promises "a detailed study" of the correspondence between Peter the Venerable and Bernard of Clairvaux, "approached essentially from the perspective of literature, but set within their historical context." Knight asks whether it is valid to use these letters "as historical documentation" (ix). The final sentence of the Conclusion (282) accepts this approach, if it is made "with considerable caution, respecting the parameters of epistolary dialogue within which it is set, and maintaining a critical scepticism with regard to its interpretation." In between, Chapter 1 reconsiders the epistolary genre as a vehicle for the expression of friendship, while the remaining chapters (2-11) follow the course of the correspondence from the mid-1120s to the early 1150s.

In the first chapter, Knight refers to the view of W. Doty that the letter is "a literary product, intended for a private or public reader/s" (4). Knight claims that Doty's "redefinition clears the air for a much broader approach to the whole question of letter-writing." I find the references to Doty (and also on p. 23 to Altman) too cryptic to give me an understanding of how their specific approach helps understand medieval letter-writing "with its concomitant recognition of a self-conscious and artificially constructed epistolary relationship" (23). In general the first chapter's discussion of friendship is equivocal: it is there and it is not, a construct and perhaps an historical fact, but more likely a literary statement with possible political overtones.

Chapter 2, "Sanctity and Rebuke: the Relationship between Bernard's Apologia and Peter's Letter 28" argues convincingly that Peter's letter is an indirect response to Bernard's polemical work. Knight considers in detail "rhetorical strategies" and relates the debate to a polemic between Augustine and Jerome. Here as in later chapters there are excellent English translations in the text and Latin in the footnotes, so the conscientious reader can follow closely Knight's argument. At the same time, however, I soon found myself obliged to place next to Knight's volume Giles Constable's edition of Peter and Jean Leclercq's and Henri Rochais's Bernard, for Knight's method is to accentuate certain parts of the letters, and as reader I wanted to look at them in their entirety. Chapter 3, "The Proof of Caritas: Peter, Letter 65; Bernard, Ep. 147," argues for a "sub-text, which harks back to the Apologia and letter 28, and which serves to reintroduce the question of Cluniac-Cistercian relations" (64). The problem is that this sub-text "is, perhaps intentionally, difficult to pin down." Not only for Knight, but also for this reader: her analysis slips constantly between the text at hand and all the sub-texts to be found. Practically every statement that seems positive on the surface is converted into a many-layered cake where the sweet coating covers something much more ambiguous and unpleasant. At times I as reader began to ask whether Bernard could have intended all the layers of meaning ascribed to him, as on pp. 67-69, especially because Knight uses the terms 'personal' and 'public' but puts them within inverted commas, so one is not certain if the personal is personal or the public really public, or if this distinction is helpful.

Chapter 4, "Fraudulent Alms and Monstrous Election: Peter, Letter 29" again uses the inverted comma to enable the author to distance herself from what is being said: "The material considered in this chapter offers ample evidence that between 1130 and 1140 there were 'real' causes of dispute between Cluniacs and Cistercians, centering primarily on issues of tithes and episcopal election" (99). Were they 'real' or real? Chapter 5, "Reproach, Iocus and Debate: Bernard Ep. 228; Peter, Letter 111," reverts to the Jerome-Augustine debate. Their discussions about joking could explain the allusions to iocus in the twelfth-century correspondence. Peter is seen as borrowing his technique from Augustine and also possibly taking from Jerome (121). Through the latter we also reach back to "the classical satirist Persius." Layer on layer of meaning and references are apparently exposed, whether in "Augustinian voice" or "Jeromian tactics" (122), and this reader began to wonder if there were any Petrine voice or Bernardine tactics involved at all, except in the replication of late antique rhetorical strategies.

Chapter 6 continues with Peter's Letter 111 in terms of "The Salt of Caritas", and here Knight draws heavily on W. E. Goodrich's important article, "The limits of friendship", just as the author earlier was dependent on some of A. H. Bredero's interpretations of political and economic disputes between Clairvaux and Cluny. This time Knight seems to accept what a letter apparently says on the surface, its "stated purpose of doing away with mutual detraction" (143). As a plea for charity and flexibility in interpreting the Rule of Saint Benedict, there is apparently sufficient motivation for writing the letter, and this understanding helps provide a context for its last section, dealing with Islam. At the end of the chapter, however, Knight to my mind overinterprets and sees the letter as a "double indictment of Bernard," and "to these may be added a third indictment"(153). Knight thus undermines her own initial use of Goodrich and turns the salt of charity into something Peter was rubbing into Bernard's wounds. Here as almost everywhere else, the subtext is one of polemical disagreement and distance from the person who is addressed on the surface of the letter in friendly terms.

This approach, which collapses the words as written and turns them into ambiguity or implied hostility, is even more apparent in Chapter 7, "Bitterness and Sweetness: Bernard, Ep. 387; Peter, Letter 149." The letters' expressions of love are seen in terms of tensions, conflicts and ambiguities, as on p. 164: "...a closer reading reveals a potential for ambiguity which may be seen as working against its overtly positive message." The love of linked minds is thus not related to that of Jonathan for David but to the much more problematic 'love' described in Genesis 34.3. We are asked to assume that behind a facade of friendship, Peter actually was dealing with "lust and rape" and with "betrayal and revenge" (166). Peter's passionate reference in Letter 149 to the old love that he and Bernard had shared (Adhuc iuuenes amare in Christo nos coepimus, Constable, p. 365) here disappears in a gaping maw of controversy, verbal suppression and concealed hostility.

Chapter 8, "Salvation, Damnation and Cohabitatio: Peter, Letter 150" provides a much more convincing reading of Peter's text, this time in terms of coexistence between Cistercians and Cluniacs and mutual accommodation when monks visit each other's houses (190-93). Knight makes ample use of the Rule of Saint Benedict and New Testament language that were behind Peter's text. Chapter 9, "A New Crusade: Bernard, Ep. 364; Peter, Letter 164" strengthens an earlier argument that Peter was not interested in going on a new crusade. But with this issue as others, Knight warns that "the warnings and ambiguities diagnosed here must be treated with circumspection" (224).

This approach, seeing ambiguity everywhere, becomes even more pronounced in Chapter 10, "Duplicity or Simplicity: Peter, Letters 175 and 181; Bernard, Ep. 265." Here we have a third party, Nicholas of Clairvaux, Bernard's sometime secretary, who cultivated a strong bond with Cluny and especially with its abbot. Peter's role as a go-between for the two abbots remains an enigma that Knight does not solve. Chapter 11, "An Epistolary Closure: Peter, Letter 192" turns a description of his travels into figurative language with many biblical and classical echoes (258-60). Here and in the following pages I again find an extreme emphasis on all the possible levels of semantic meaning that could be found in the text. Perhaps Peter merely wanted to tell Bernard what he had endured on his trip? At the same time the language of friendship and love on the letter's surface is reduced to the usual ambiguity and hostility: "The seeming transparency of the first half of letter undermined both by irony and by a satirical highlighting of the continuing presence of detraction..." (277). I read the letter's ending as Peter's promise to meet with Bernard wherever and whenever he wants: Occurram, occurram certe ubi uobis vel uestris uisum fuerit (Constable, p. 448). This willingness and openness are hardly present in Knight's interpretation.

The very brief conclusion looks at the two letter collections as integral works, intended by their collectors to represent the two writers, and here Knight presents a dimension missing in the rest of the analysis (272-82). In spite of my many frustrations with this book, I admire its clear style, great learning, and desire to understand the meaning of the texts it analyses. My problem is that the author, by remaining on the level of semantics and historically-established controversies, abandons her subjects to innuendo and ambiguity. As a medieval historian, I constantly ask, "What does it all mean in the context of the monastic ideals and practice of the twelfth century?" The answer in Knight's book is ambiguous: either the question cannot be answered on the basis of the semantic and structural analysis offered, or else the book is implying, behind the analysis, that Peter and Bernard were conflicted, mean, power-hungry, even bitchy personalities out to get each other and to display their literary fireworks. Or to put it in the parlance of today: mine is bigger than yours.

Gillian Knight would almost certainly accuse me as reader and reviewer of adding my own subtext to her careful, systematic study. But the element of philological-historical reductionism is there, not in the cautious conclusion, but in the course of the analyses of the individual letters. The approach is that of the classical philologist willing to borrow information about conflicts between Cluny and Citeaux. The interpretation affects our way of understanding people who really lived and had feelings, and who tried to turn the message of Christ into a way of life. Catholic historians have for centuries been accused of idealizing the Middle Ages, while secular historians have been charged with reducing it to materialistic motives that use Christian language as a foil for greed, hate, sexual frustration, etc. The truth is somewhere in between idealization and reductionism, and I am afraid that this study, in spite of all its learning and many insights, does not bring us much closer to the understanding that I seek of who these people were.

Bernard and Peter, in spite of their literary genius, did not have the CETEDOC data base to check all their allusions. It is not acceptable to assume that every conceivable literary reference is relevant for interpreting what they said or intended to imply. Sometimes they could have written what they did without referring indirectly or secondarily to one classical or biblical text or other. We have the same problem of referentiality with pictures: one school of interpreters relates elements in a picture to a host of predecessors, and this methodology when taken to extremes means that no picture represents anything other than the repetition of earlier motifs. With Knight's approach we are heading for the same type of formalistic analysis, something that has been the bane of classical studies. If we continue in this direction in our field, then we can look forward to a scholasticization of medieval studies, where we use formal criteria alone for understanding texts and pictures. It will be impossible to allow ourselves to speak to students or colleagues about real people and their feelings. And yet, in another part of medieval studies, the existence of emotions and their impact is being studied as never before. Does this mean that our field has lost any possibility of synthesis, that the kind of work as done by R. W. Southern in his Making of the Middle Ages, published fifty years ago this April, is no longer possible? Have we become so learned that we can no longer say anything general about medieval culture, except that it is full of ambiguities, ironies, and double meanings?

It is perhaps unfair to use a single book to describe a trend in our field. Gillian Knight's study deserves to be read and used. Some readers will gain more from it than I have done, and perhaps this review only convinces its readers of my lack of intelligence and insight. I commend the book at the same time as I find it deeply disturbing and problematic in its view of how we make use of sources and try to understand medieval history and culture.

The Medieval Review
The Medieval Institute, Western Michigan University
Distributor: Humanities Text Initiative