Peter Lombard, 2 vols.

Peter Lombard, 2 vols. – book reviews

Robert Somerville

By Marcia L. Colish, 2 vols. (Leiden: E.J. Brill, 1994. Pp. xii, 894. $228.75).

Peter Lombard was born in Italy, in the region of Novara, around the year 1100. He was known to Bernard of Clairvaux, studied at Paris, and then achieved fame teaching there in the cathedral school as a master of theology in the 1140s and 1150s. He became bishop of the city in 1159; but his episcopate was brief, for he died the following year. Not all of his writings are extant. A commentary on the Psalms is his earliest surviving work, and it was followed by a commentary on the Pauline epistles, known as the Collectanea. Lombard served 5 as a preacher as well as a teacher in Paris, and thirty of his sermons are preserved. But, his reputation rests on the four books of Sentences, which developed from earlier writings and from activity as a teacher of theology. During the first half of the twelfth century theologians developed so-called books of “sentences,” that is, compilations of opinion which came to embody both auctoritas and ratio. These works, which in early form were anthologies of citations from the Bible and the Fathers (i.e., “authorities”), evolved into works in which the authorities not only were listed, but also were synthesized and explicated on the basis of the compiler’s reasoning. The developed genre owes much to the “yes and no” methodology for reconciling conflicting opinions traditionally associated with Peter Abelard, but which was being sharpened by legal scholars around the turn of the century, and which was understood by the masters at the cathedral school of Laon before Abelard formulated his rules in the Sic et non.

Peter Lombard did not invent sentence collections, but he grasped the potential of the form to the extent that his four books became the standard textbooks for the study of theology in subsequent centuries. Preparing a commentary on the Sentences was a rite de passage for medieval theologians, and even early in the sixteenth century, at the beginning of his career, Martin Luther delivered a course of lectures on the Sentences. The four books of this work deal with the Trinity, creation, Christology, and the sacraments and last things, i.e., death, judgment, and heaven and hell. Thematically oriented, detailed, juxtaposing texts from the tradition with intelligent exegesis, employing both philosophy and verbal dexterity in presentation, the success of Lombard’s Sentences in the schools, like the work of his counterpart, Gratian, in the study of canon law, was swift and complete. Its virtues were acknowledged by chroniclers in the twelfth and the thirteenth century, and while later scholastics could dismiss some of his views, his high reputation is exemplified by the fact that Dante placed him in the heaven of the Sun along with other men of wisdom.

Yet despite this past acclaim, the Lombard, as he often is known, has been in need of a good modern press agent. Scholars since the sixteenth century have found him wanting for various reasons. Many Protestants faulted him as the founder of scholasticism, while early-modern Catholics rallied to St. Thomas Aquina’s Summa theologiae as a school text because Lombard was not scholastic enough. More recent evaluations usually serve him no better. Perhaps because these days the Sentences are more referred to than read, their author is characterized as uninspired, unimaginative–a kind of twelfth-century filing clerk, one might say–out of touch with what have been perceived to be the important debates of his time, e.g., between Platonists and Aristotelians, or between rationalists and traditionalists. Despite occasional efforts to see Lombard as more than a hack or a nay-sayer to the important intellectual currents of the twelfth century, Colish shows that modern historians have failed to probe Lombard’s theological views with the thoroughness they merit, or to explain the success of the Sentences. The only general monographs on his thought were published a century ago and are seriously out of date.

Colish’s task, in two volumes comprising nearly 800 pages of exposition, is to remedy this deficiency. Her procedure is to read Lombard–no trivial feat when one considers the bulk of his extant work–and in so doing to situate his work within the context of the writings of other theologians and the theological debates of the first part of the twelfth century. Following a section devoted to Lombard’s biography and works, the heart of this study is, first, a set of chapters which essentially treat the question of how theology was done in the twelfth century, illustrating why Lombard’s contribution came to be a dominant one. This is followed by a series of chapters which present in detail the substance of his theology according to a scheme which closely adheres to the format of the subjects dealt with in the Sentences. Attention also is devoted to Peter’s sources and how he used them.

It would be virtually impossible in a short space to summarize the author’s conclusions–her own chapter titled “Conclusion” runs to sixty pages–nor is it necessary to do so. Those concerned with intellectual life in the twelfth century must see for themselves how Colish treats the Master of the Sentences, and why he, rather than some other early schoolman, created the “wealth of problems and opportunities” for later theologians that accounted for the Sentences’ preeminence as a textbook. As such, her accomplishment must be applauded, and this reviewer will not detract by quibbles from the importance of having now at hand a modern, comprehensive study of Peter Lombard (one noteworthy by-product of which is a bibliography on twelfth-century intellectual history that stretches to nearly forty pages).

Two issues seem worth voicing, nonetheless, both of which concern the texts of Lombard’s writings. First, it is unfortunate in a work whose audience overwhelmingly will be graduate students and scholars in different fields of medieval studies, that the footnote references to the twelfth-century sources on which descriptions and analyses are based contain virtually none of the Latin texts. Short lines of Latin often are inserted directly into the discussion, and this is valuable, but those wishing to follow an argument closely needs more, and will have to find it themselves by looking up the editions. Of course, adding enough Latin in the notes to make a difference in this regard would expand the size of the work, and this study already comprises two volumes. Yet, having come so far, the additional effort would have been worthwhile.

The second point is more complex. Colish’s analysis of Lombard’s thought relies predominantly on the Sentences, using the critical edition by Ignatius C. Brady. The sermons and the Biblical commentaries are unavailable in modern editions, and they are cited, when used, according to the nineteenth-century printings in Migne’s Patrologia Latina. No references are given (at least none which this reviewer could find), either to the early-modern printings of these writings which underlie Migne–whose reprints are notoriously faulty–or to the transmission in manuscript of those works. The fact that the Collectanea went through two editions at Lombard’s hands is pointed out, and a note states that its text as printed by Migne “is based on the second redaction,” but this reviewer has not found other indications of a source-critical appraisal of the texts which are cited according to the Latin Patrology (24, n. 28). All medievalists, of course, rely on Migne, and however dicey that might be, using those tomes is a professional risk which everyone takes to some degree or other. It should be reiterated that the Sentences predominate in Colish’s discussion. Yet in a work which will stand for decades as the place where generations of scholars learn about Peter Lombard, some attention to the reliability of the texts of his works which are available only in pre-modern editions would not have been out of place.

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