The Letters of Peter of Celle

Born into a noble Champenois family in about 1115, Peter of Celle was an influental figure in the literary and spiritual culture of mid-twelfth-century France. Holding in succession the abbacies of Montier-la-Celle near Troyes (c.1145–1161×62) and of Saint-Rémi at Rheims (1161×62–81) and later the bishopric of Chartres (1181–83), he could count among the circle of his friends such leading intellectuals and churchmen as John of Salisbury (himself a prolific author, 325 of whose letters still survive), Thomas Becket, Bernard of Clairvaux, Heloise, Eskil of Lund, Pope Eugenius III and Pope Alexander III. He was a supporter of the emergent religious movements of the twelfth century, mostly notably the eremitic movement as represented by the Carthusian community at Mont-Dieu in the Ardennes. He was, more to the point, a prolific letter-writer: 184 of his letters have survived.

Peter was involved in the high politics of northern France—in the Capetian sphere of influence, in the archdiocese of Rheims and in the County of Champagne. But the letters which were collected and circulated for wider reading shed little light on this side of his career. Their central theme is the cultivation of amicitia. As the most recent editor of his letters, Julian Haseldine, explains the cultivation of friendship was the basis of his success and letters were the means by which friendships were established and maintained:

The bonds of friendship which he cultivated and maintained with members of the different monastic orders are the foundation of his influence. His success as a mediator in disputes between monastic orders, ...the influence which he brought to bear to promote Carthusian expansion, even his ability to motivate active support for Thomas Becket in France, were all based on a network of friendships embracing both the new orders and traditional monasteries. Over his career he built up a circle of friends in northern France and southern England which included Cistercians, Carthusians, Grandmontines, and Augustinian canons, as well as members of many great Benedictine houses such as Cluny, Molesme and Fontevrault (Letters, p. xxi).

But, as Haseldine also points out, the style of Peter’s letters presents a considerable challenge for modern tastes. Peter is a leisurely writer. He strings together images, allusions and quotations from the Bible and a wide range of classical authors. His prose is allusive and repetitive, circulating around the point at great length rather than striking home with the force found in the letters of Bernard of Clairvaux.

Like Arnulf of Lisieux but without as much success, Peter seems to have prepared a collection of his earlier letters for wider circulation. This collection seems to have been assembled in the early 1160s, soon after he left Montier-la-Celle for Saint-Rémi. Two medieval manuscripts bear witness to its wider circulation. A second collection comprising his later letters seems to have been compiled at Saint-Rémi in the early 1180s. This one is much less organised than the first, and there is no evidence for its wider circulation. One possibility is that it was compiled by Peter’s secretaries after his departure, another is that it represents a half-finished collection, assembled by Peter but left in a disordered and unedited state. In any case, the two collections were combined and they were printed in 1613 from a medieval copy which was lost in 1774 when the library of Saint-Rémi was destroyed by fire. In all, 177 of the letters now extant owe their preservation to the compilation of these collections. Another seven letters survive thanks to their inclusion in the collections assembled at centres to which Peter had sent letters.


Edition and Translation: Peter of Celle, The Letters of Peter of Celle, ed. and trs. J. P. Haseldine, Oxford Medieval Texts (Oxford, 2001). PN.DP.P4.

Item for Discussion: Letter 70 (pp. 322–7). This letter from Peter to John of Salisbury has been chosen because it speaks about both letter writing and perhaps also, if as seems likely Christopher Brooke’s suggestion that it was written in response to having received a copy of the first volume of John’s letters is right, about the role that the circulation of letter-collections played in medieval literary culture. This letter celebrates the receipt of John’s ‘little vase of letters’ (uasculum litterarum tuarum). Peter has re-read its contents several times, draining it right to the bottom. Notice in particular how Peter praises John for his realisation to the literary values associated with the genre: ‘the content, by the graciousness of a beloved soul and the pleasant charm of the style, manifests the perfect arrangement of the narrative’; ‘in that which pertains to friends, [they are] sweetened most fittingly with the flavour of honey’; and so on. His letters comprise a seaworthy ship, a garden of delights, a wellspread table set for feasting, an inviting bed, and a school for philosophy.
    The dating of the letter depends on the reference to the imminent translation of the relics of St Ayoul and on the dating of the first collection of John’s early letters. Comprising 135 items written between c.1154 and early 1161, Peter cannot have seen this collection until late 1161. The translation is not likely have taken place before the church of St Ayoul was re-dedicated on 30 August 1159; and since St Ayoul lay in Provins, a region which was subject to the lordship of Montier-La-Celles, Peter’s attendance at the ceremony will probably have taken place before he moved on to become abbot of St Rémi in 1161×62 (see Haseldine, Letters, p. xxxi).
    There is, alas, no facsimile of the manuscript which preserves this letter: that is, Oxford, St John’s College, MS 126. This is an early thirteenth-century collection of letter-collections from the Augustinian Priory of Southwick (Hampshire). Besides Peter’s letters (fols. 92r–144v), the book also includes, among other items, a collection of the letters of Arnulf of Lisieux (fols. 1r–70v) and a selection of the best letters of John of Salisbury and Thomas Becket (fols. 79r–91v). The latter component was compiled by Prior Guy of Southwick (c.1177×82–after 1206).

Commentary

  • Barlow, F., Thomas Becket (London, 1986). MVG.K.
  • Benton, J. F., Culture, Power and Personality in Medieval France, ed. Thomas N. Bisson (London and Rio Grande, Ohio, 1991). MSE.I.
  • Duggan, A. J., Thomas Becket, Reputations (London, 2004). MVG.K.
  • Haseldine, J. P., ‘Friendship and Rivalry: The Role of Amicitia in Twelfth-Century Monastic Relations’, Journal of Ecclesiastical History, 44 (1993), 390–414. Journals P6.
  • John of Salisbury, The Letters of John of Salisbury, ed. W. J. Millor and H. E. Butler, rev. by C. N. L. Brooke, Oxford Medieval Texts, 2 vols. (Oxford, 1955–79). PR4.J7.
  • Peter of Celle, Selected Works, trs. H. Feiss, Cistercian Studies 100 (Kalamazoo, MN, 1987).
  • Van Engen, J., ‘Letters, Schools, and Written Culture in the Eleventh and Twelfth Centuries’, in J. Fried (ed.), Dialektik und Rhetorik im früheren und hohen Mittelalter: Rezeption, Überlieferung und gesellschaftliche Wirkung antiker Gelehrsamkeit vornehmlich im 9. und 12. Jahrhundert, Schriften des Historischen Kollegs, Kolloquien 27 (Munich, 1997), pp. 97–132.

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