An Intruder at the Feast? Anxiety and Debate in the Letters of Peter of Blois

  • Neil Cartlidge
Part of the The New Middle Ages book series (TNMA)


Of all the writers associated with Henry II’s court, Peter of Blois could perhaps be seen as the most representative, the one who defines with the greatest clarity the intellectual coordinates of the Angevin world.1 His letters repeatedly suggest a particular willingness to occupy the common ground of literary discourse in this period2—to make use of apparently conventional themes, images, citations, and arguments, in a way that, on the face of it, clearly provides a basis for Sir Richard Southern’s allegation that the “attractive exterior of his work” covers nothing more than “a deep emptiness, a lack of thought, of originality, of anything but conventional feelings.” 3 Yet Peter is rarely as simple, as unintelligent or as predictable as such an assessment might imply. Indeed, his dedication to convention is in many ways the most perplexing aspect of his literary persona, for the certainty and self-complacency that usually accompany most kinds of conventionality are, in his work, conspicuously lacking. As I hope to be able to show in this essay, it is precisely by recognizing and reworking conventions, adapting and juxtaposing particular routines of argument and association—sometimes in ways that are surprising and/or self-contradictory—that Peter makes his letters a vehicle both for a provocative description of the cultural landscape in which he lived and for a teasingly evasive display of his own personality.


National Identity Literary Discourse Medieval Literature Literary Debate Medieval Culture 
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  1. 12.
    R. W. Southern, Scholastic Humanism and the Unification of Europe, vol. 2, The Heroic Age (Oxford: Blackwell, 2001), p. 218. This is also the position from which Ethel Cardwell Higonnet begins her assessment of Peter’s work, in “Spiritual Ideas in the Letters of Peter of Blois,” Speculum 59 (1975): 218–44, at 218.Google Scholar
  2. 15.
    Derek Pearsall, John Lydgate (London: Routledge & Kegan Paul, 1970), pp. 298–99.Google Scholar
  3. 17.
    See, for example, James Simpson, “The Energies of John Lydgate,” in his The Oxford English Literary History, vol. 2, 1350-1547: Reform and Cultural Revolution (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2002), pp. 34–67Google Scholar
  4. and Lee Patterson, “Making Identities in Fifteenth-Century England: Henry V and John Lydgate,” in New Literary Historical Study, ed. Jeffrey N. Cox and L. J. Reynolds (Princeton, N.J.: University of Princeton Press, 1993), pp. 69–107.Google Scholar
  5. 27.
    For the history of this idea, see Charles Dahlberg, The Literature of Unlikeness (Hanover and London: University Press of New England, 1988).Google Scholar
  6. 45.
    Peter Dronke, “Peter of Blois and Poetry at the Court of Henry II,” Mediaeval Studies 28 (1976): 185–235; repr. in The Medieval Poet and his World (Rome: Edizioni di storia e letteratura, 1984), pp. 281–339, at 287, 285.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  7. 46.
    The best survey of this genre is still the one by Hans Walther, Das Streitgedicht in der lateinischen Literatur des Mittelalters (Munich: C. H. Becksche Verlag, 1920)Google Scholar
  8. repr. with supplementary material by P. G. Schmidt (Hildesheim: Olms, 1984); but see also Peter Binkley, “Dialogues and Debates,” in Medieval Latin: An Introduction and Bibliography, é d. F. A. C. Mantello and A. G. Rigg (Washington, D.C.: Catholic University of America Press, 1996), pp. 677–81. For anthologies of debates in the vernacular languages, see Michel-André Bossy, ed. & trans., Medieval Debate-Poetry: Vernacular Works, Garland Library of Medieval Literature, Series A, vol. 52 (New York and London, 1987); and John W. Conlee, ed., Middle English Debate Poetry: A Critical Anthology (East Lansing, Mi.:, Colleagues Press, 1Google Scholar
  9. 56.
    Giles Constable, review of Revell, The Later Letters, in Journal of Medieval Latin, 5 (1995): 246–53, at 249.Google Scholar
  10. 69.
    On English national consciousness in the Middle Ages, see Thorlac Turville-Petre, England the Nation: Language, Literature and National Identity 1290–1340 (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1996)—though this study, unfortunately, only addresses a rather narrow time-frame. For a broader view, see also Paul Meyvaert, “ ‘Rainaldus est malus scriptor Francigenus’ —Voicing National Antipathy in the Middle Ages,” in Speculum 66 (1991): 743–63, and the useful bibliographical survey he provides on page 743. Meyvaert also notes as a problem the use of the expression “largitas incomparabilis Anglicorum” [incomparable generosity of the English] in the context of verses otherwise only hostile to the English. Peter’s Letter 31 may provide the necessary explanatory context—” largitas” may have been claimed often enough by pro-English partisans like Peter’s antagonist, Thomas, for the anti-English to use it with implicit and unqualified irony. The verses in question are edited by Hans Walther, “Scherz und Ernst in der Vö lker-und Stämme-Charakteristik mittellateinischer Verse,” Archiv für Kulturgeschichte 41 (1959): 263–301, at 284.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  11. 79.
    Hans Walther, Initia Carminum at Versuum Medii Aevi Posterions Latinorum (Gö ttingen: Vandenhoeck & Ruprecht, 1959), no. 14787; Proverbia Sententiaeque Latinitatis Medii Aevi (Gö ttingen: Vandenhoeck & Ruprecht, 1965), no. 22570.Google Scholar
  12. 85.
    See Neil Cartlidge, “The Battle of Shrovetide: Carnival against Lent as a Leitmotif in Late Medieval Culture,” Viator 35 (2004): 517–41.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  13. 88.
    See E. Braunholtz, “Die Streitgedichte Peters von Blois und Roberts von Beaufeu über den Wert des Weines und Bieres,” Zeitschrift für Romanische Philologie 47 (1927): 30–38; André Wilmart, “Une suite au poème de Robert de Beaufeu pour l’ é loge de la cervoise,” Revue bé né dictine 50 (1938): 136–40.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  14. 92.
    Neil Cartlidge, “The Date of The Owl and the Nightingale,” Medium Ævum 65 (1996): 230–47. Dronke suggests that both Peter’s poetry and The Owl and the Nightingale can be seen as instances of a significant upsurge of literary achievement in the debate-form in the two decades or so after 1200 (” Peter of Blois and Poetry,” pp. 312–13). Even if it is no longer clear that the Middle English poem can be placed so early, I still share with Dronke the sense that medieval writers’ engagement with the debate-form is a significant and revealing intellectual development, even if over a longer period than Dronke suggests.Google Scholar

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© Ruth Kennedy and Simon Meecham-Jones 2006

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  • Neil Cartlidge

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