Peter the Venerable
Peter the Venerable
Peter the Venerable, with other monks, 13th century illuminated manuscript
|Benedictine Monk, Abbot of Cluny|
|Died||25 December 1156|
Cluny Abbey, France
|Venerated in||Roman Catholic Church, Folk Catholicism|
Peter the Venerable (c. 1092 – 25 December 1156), also known as Peter of Montboissier, was the abbot of the Benedictine abbey of Cluny. He has been honored as a saint but has never been formally canonized. The Catholic Church's Martyrologium Romanum, issued by the Holy See in 2004 regards him as a Blessed.
Born to Blessed Raingarde in Auvergne, Peter was "Dedicated to God" at birth and given to the monastery at Sauxillanges of the Congregation of Cluny where he took his vows at age seventeen. By the age of twenty he gained a professorship and was appointed prior of the monastery of Vézelay, before he moved to the monastery at Domène. Success at Vézelay and Domène led to his election as general of the order, aged thirty. After his predecessor, the abbot Pontius, had been deposed by the pope, Peter became a tireless reformer of the Cluniac order, in the face of criticism from other orders and prominent monks and theologians, including St. Bernard of Clairvaux, a Cistercian monk. His defence of his order against critics and his introduction of radical reforms, earned him the appellation of "venerable".
Peter, as an associate of national and religious leaders, attended many of the international religious councils. At the Council of Pisa in 1134 he supported the cause of Pope Innocent II, and the Council of Reims in 1147 and helped avert a Church schism. He defended the rationalistic Trinitarianism of the French theologian Peter Abelard against the sentence of the Council of Sens, granting Abelard hospitality at Cluny and working towards the eventual reconciliation of Abelard and his principal accuser, Bernard of Clairvaux. Peter granted Abelard a posthumous absolution at the request of Heloise.
Peter collected sources on, and writings about, Islam (see below) and spent a long sabbatical in Spain with Islamic scholars of all ranks. His vast correspondence reflects an almost encyclopedic theological knowledge. He produced some of the most important documents of the 12th century, and published the first Latin translation of the Qu'ran which became the standard Benedictine text used by preachers of the Crusades. His Talmudic contributions are tenuous and still under scrutiny. His friendship and corresponce with Bishop Henry of Blois of Winchester and Glastonbury, between 1138-1142, together with his debating skills, brought wider recognition of his scholarship. The internecine truce between Peter and Bernard of Clairvaux must be seen as superficial in light of recent scholarship detailing the repressivness of Bernard's Cistercians toward the Cluniac orders.
Peter the Venerable died at Cluny on 25 December 1156. His works are edited in Patrologia Latina vol. 189.
Contribution to Muslim–Christian relations
Despite his active life and important role in European history, Peter's greatest achievement is his contribution to the reappraisal of the Church’s relations with the religion of Islam. A proponent of studying Islam based upon its own sources, he commissioned a comprehensive translation of Islamic source material, and in 1142 he traveled to Spain where he met his translators. One scholar has described this as a “momentous event in the intellectual history of Europe.”
The Arabic manuscripts which Peter had translated may have been obtained in Toledo, which was an important centre for translation from the Arabic. However, Peter appears to have met his team of translators further north, possibly in La Rioja, where he is known to have visited the Cluniac monastery of Santa María la Real of Nájera. The project translated a number of texts relating to Islam (known collectively as the "corpus toletanum"). They include the Apology of al-Kindi; and most importantly the first-ever translation into Latin of the Arabic Qur'an (the "Lex Mahumet pseudoprophete") for which Robert of Ketton was the main translator. Peter of Toledo is credited for planning and annotating the collection, and Peter of Poitiers (Peter the Venerable's secretary) helped to polish the final Latin version. The team also included Robert of Ketton's friend Herman of Carinthia and a Muslim called Mohammed. The translation was completed in either June or July 1143, in what has been described as “a landmark in Islamic Studies. With this translation, the West had for the first time an instrument for the serious study of Islam.”
Peter used the newly translated material in his own writings on Islam, of which the most important are the Summa totius heresis Saracenorum (The Summary of the Entire Heresy of the Saracens) and the Liber contra sectam sive heresim Saracenorum (The Refutation of the Sect or Heresy of the Saracens). In these works Peter portrays Islam as a Christian heresy that approaches paganism, and he explains to St. Bernard that his goal is "ut morem illum patrum sequerer, quo nullam unquam suorum temporum vel levissimam (ut sic dicam) haeresim silendo praeterirent, quin ei totis fidei viribus resisterent et scriptis ac disputationibus esse detestandam ac damnabilem demonstrarent." That is, "that I may follow the custom of those Fathers, who passed over no heresy in silence ever, even the lightest (as I will thus call it), but rather resisted it with all the strength of their faith, and showed it, through writings and arguments, to be detestable and damnable."
While his interpretation of Islam was basically negative, it did manage in “setting out a more reasoned approach to Islam…through using its own sources rather than those produced by the hyperactive imagination of some earlier Western Christian writers.” Although this alternative approach was not widely accepted or emulated by other Christian scholars of the Middle Ages, it did achieve some influence among a limited number of Church figures, including Roger Bacon.
At his weekly general audience in Saint Peter's Square on 14 October 2009, Pope Benedict XVI used Peter as an example of compassion and understanding, citing Peter's governance of Cluny, diplomacy, and study of Islam.
Notes and references
- Fournet, Pierre Auguste. "Blessed Peter of Montboissier." The Catholic Encyclopedia. Vol. 10. New York: Robert Appleton Company, 1911. 9 Sept. 2014
- For Pierre's attack on the Talmud as black magic, see the essay by Alain Boureau, “Un episode central dans la construction de la magie noire du livre: de la rivalité des exégèses à la crémation du Talmud (1144-1242)” in Peter Ganz, ed, Das Buch als magisches und als Repräsentationsobjekt. Wiesbaden: Harrassowitz, 1992
- Pernoud, Régine (2000). Those terrible Middle Ages: debunking the myths. San Francisco: Ignatius Press. p. 135. ISBN 978-0-89870-781-6.
- J. Kritzeck (1964). Peter the Venerable and Islam. Princeton: Princeton University Press. p. 14.
- R.W. Southern (1962). Western Views of Islam in the Middle Ages. Cambridge: Harvard University Press. p. 37.
- Letter of Peter the Venerable to St. Bernard of Clairvaux, from Giles Constable, Letters of Peter the Venerable, 2 vols. (Cambridge, Massachusetts: Harvard University Press, 1967), Letter 111.
- Hugh Goddard (2000). A History of Muslim-Christian Relations. Chicago: New Amsterdam Books. p. 95.
- Delaney, Sarah. Medieval abbot an example of love for God and neighbor, pope says 14 October 2009. Catholic News Service,
- Constable, Giles. Letters of Peter the Venerable, 2 vols. Cambridge, Massachusetts: Harvard University Press, 1967.
- Goddard, Hugh. A History of Muslim-Christian Relations. Chicago: New Amsterdam Books, 2000.
- Peter the Venerable Against the Inveterate Obstinacy of the Jews, translated by Irven M. Resnick. Washington D.C.: The Catholic University of America Press, 2013.
- Peter the Venerable Writings Against the Saracens, translated by Irven M. Resnick. Washington D.C.:The Catholic University of America Press, 2016.
- Kritzeck, J. Peter the Venerable and Islam. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1964.
- Microsoft Encarta. 2005 ed., s.v. "Peter the Venerable."
- Southern, R.W. Western Views of Islam in the Middle Ages. Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1962.
- Kenneth Stevenson, "The Transfiguration Sermon of Peter the Venerable, Abbot of Cluny," in Melanie Ross and Simon Jones (eds), The Serious Business of Worship (London, Continuum, 2010), 78-87.
|Catholic Church titles|
| Abbot of Cluny